The best chicken rice to be had on this island – at least according to revered Hong Kong lifestyle publication Eat and Travel Weekly – is from a cafe that also sells spaghetti bolognaise and wagyu burgers. Yet the person behind it hardly eats meat. Such is the curiousness that surrounds Yuan Oeij.
As chairman of The Prive Group, the 49-year-old is the man behind establishments spanning sunny, family-friendly Prive cafes, contemporary Chinese restaurant Empress, and high-end night club Bang Bang, where some of the city’s wildest parties are held. Judging by the group’s portfolio, one might expect Oeij to be the man about town; a charming devil who cuts cigars and pours cognacs for business kingpins during their off-hour soirees. If that’s your impression of a restaurateur, Oeij is the antithesis of it. If he is up and about in the wee hours, it is not to party, but to meditate at Fort Canning Park.
In fact, for somebody who works in the F&B sector, Oeij might be considered something of an anti-foodie (he dislikes the term “foodie” anyway). While the social media platforms of other chefs and restaurateurs are plastered with food images of either decadence or excess – think exclusive shipments of caviar or big sloppy bowls of lard-laden bak chor mee for supper – his Instagram account is filled with pictures of salads.
And, while others are cramming their holidays with meals at coveted establishments in the name of market research, he – as this story is being written – is sitting at a park in Santorini, dining on a medley of caper leaves, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, sorrel, artichokes, and onions that he pickled in his hotel room.
Oeij’s personal journey into clean eating started when his father passed away from cancer in 2007. It led him to explore ways of cancer prevention, and to books such as Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.
“Around 2009, I decided to lead a healthier life and experimented with detoxing programmes and a substantially organic and plant-based diet,” he recalls.
But it was his wife, Tracy Goh – who works alongside him as marketing manager of the group – who prompted him to further embrace vegetables. An exercise buff and vegan who goes by the Instagram handle of @tracygreengoddess, Goh not only prepares vegan meals at home for herself and Oeij, but also for their five-year-old son, Tyler. While other kids scarf down chocolate cupcakes, Tyler’s treats are banana oatmeal cookies topped with okra, corn and snow peas. His birthday cake was carved out of assorted fruit.
Oeij did not start out with an inclination towards vegetarianism. Before transitioning to a vegetable-heavy diet some six months ago, he was the guy ordering the two and a half inch-thick Diamond Jim Brady steak at Lawry’s. He has always been very much the bon vivant, wining and dining at Parisian bistros and upmarket establishments in London even as a university student. His Asian palate was titillated by the flavours and textures of fine European cuisine (“Prior to that, Western food was Jack’s Place or Fosters”), and that intrigue would later lead him to take up professional culinary courses and even undergo a month-long stint at Saint Pierre restaurant, where he was a regular.
He struck out as a private chef for hire, before opening Brown Sugar in 2006. The bistro’s simple yet well-executed menu quickly caught the media’s attention – and attracted many diners. By 2007, he was growing an empire of outlets with ex-schoolmate and business partner Michel Lu, beginning with Prive at Marina at Keppel Bay. The entities under the group were sophisticated yet non-intimidating, appealing to both locals and expats. But in 2009, the business started to struggle. “We grew too quickly and went into the nightlife industry with Stereolab. That was a huge investment with heavy overheads. Within the first two years, the club drained my resources and the rest of The Prive Group wasn’t making money. We reached a crisis point,” he recalls. “I had to start thinking about what would happen if we went bankrupt and how that would impact the company’s reputation.”
In 2011, Oeij shuttered Stereolab and had one shot to make things work with a new nightlife concept – Mink, which opened on his wedding day. Thankfully, it turned out to be a success. Around the same time, Lu and Oeij parted ways over the direction of the company. When asked about the lessons he learnt from the dissolution of the partnership, he replies, after an extended pause: “Business relationships work well when both partners have complementary skills so you don’t end up stepping on each others’ toes too much. In addition, if you both possess the same skills, some parts of the business will be neglected.”
PAPA DON’T PREACH
Today, he has 12 outlets under his belt, perhaps due to his ability to seize a good business opportunity, even if it doesn’t align with his lifestyle preferences. Embracing a predominantly vegetable-based diet certainly hasn’t stopped him from putting steak on the menu. “I mean, there are men who design bras, right?” he says in jest candidly. “I still run a food business and I need to run it well. I need to deliver what diners like to eat.”
The shrewd businessman also recognises that there’s an increasing number of health-conscious diners who seek greener options. At Empress, a vegetarian version of the signature menu is offered. At Prive, vegan Thai green curry, superfood bowls, and a Mexican salad are listed alongside burgers and fries. “I also just made a vegan chocolate cake (for Prive)!” he proudly announces. He includes these options so diners have a chance to try out healthier alternatives, if they wish. He has also made a commitment to Humane Society International and is in the midst of identifying more ethical food sources, from cage-free eggs to pork that is humanely raised.
“Diners, especially the younger generation, who pay more attention to the provenance of products appreciate the effort. But to convince diners to pay a premium for better ingredients, you can win them over only with flavour. I do my part to offer healthier alternatives, but I don’t preach. You can’t convert adults – they have to convert themselves.”
CHICKEN RICE FOR THE SOUL
His next venture, however, is not focused on vegetables. It is one that goes back to the dish closest to his heart: chicken rice. As a student studying at the London School of Economics, the cooking enthusiast who grew up in a family where meals were abundant would prepare Hainanese-style chicken rice for his friends. It wasn’t perfect to him, but the dish was a hit with everybody else. Today, chicken rice remains his favourite food. “I’ve been thinking about the concept since five years back,” shares Oeij. “There’s a part of me who wants to promote something that is Singaporean, and be part of the evolution of our hawker cuisine.”
He envisions the concept to take the form of a quick service stall or kiosk. Instead of competing in the heartland, the outlet – intended to cater to tourists and the younger generation – will be sited in a mall or on the streets of the central business district. And, while he will launch the concept in Singapore some time at the end of the year, he has broader plans to “make chicken rice accessible to a worldwide audience”.
“There’s a part of me who wants to promote something that is Singaporean, and be part of the evolution of our hawker cuisine.”
– Oeij, on his plans to open a new F&B concept selling chicken rice
Recipe testing for the dish has already begun. After extensive trial and error, he introduced his rendition of Hainanese chicken rice – made with free-roaming French breeds reared in Malaysia – on the menu of Prive at Asian Civilisations Museum a year ago. Apart from the recognition by Eat and Travel Weekly, it was also named as one of the 12 best chicken rice in the country by The Straits Times.
“I was proud of that,” he says with a beam. “Especially since we are not a chicken rice expert! But I have devoted a disproportionate amount of effort into developing the dish. I chose the chicken because it has full flavours that remind me of what I had as a child. And I like the rice to have a somewhat sushi-like quality, so that each grain is distinct. But most of all, all the elements – from the soup to the chilli dip – has to be balanced and in harmony. ”
Indeed, when we sampled the dish at Prive Keppel Bay, the chicken was tender and silky, while the fragrant jasmine rice had just the right amount of bite. The accompanying bowl of soup was also richer and more full-bodied than that served with the usual hawker fare.
While internationalising chicken rice ranks high on his agenda, his new-found vegetable-rich lifestyle has changed the way he travels with his wife. “We want to explore vegan options in different cities and are planning to revisit London, Sydney and New York to check out farm sanctuaries,” says Oeij.
For Oeij, his green diet is an evolution of his journey as a food lover. “It was difficult at the start, especially considering what I identify with: being a chicken rice lover and restaurateur. But, really, it is about perspective: You’re not being deprived of certain foods. Rather, you’re gaining a whole rainbow of delicious vegetables. You also gain health and vitality, and, as an F&B dreamer, I gain whole new avenues of ideas.”
“While I’m aware of not imposing my view on others, I have realised the impact an individual can have. By living a different lifestyle and being positive, I might be able to influence somebody. Every single person can make a difference: Be the change you want to see.”
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MIND OVER MATTER
Yuan Oeij shares his tips for maintaining mental well-being.
STATE OF ZEN
I have been meditating more consistently for the last six months. When I wake up, I lie in bed for a while just to meditate, or ”watch my mind”. Most days, it’s 15 minutes, but once a week, I commit to an hour.
I look for pockets of space within the day to clear my mind. It could even just be driving without the radio on.
I’ve become better at accepting things. For example, if I forget my bag, rather than get frustrated, I would simply enjoy the drive home to retrieve it.