Two hours after he shared the stage with culinary luminaries including Waku Ghin’s Tetsuya Wakuda to receive one Michelin star, Chan Hon Meng is alone, waiting patiently with his elbow propped against a pillar, two rows deep in the blustery warmth of Resorts World Sentosa’s underground taxi stand. He is dwarfed by fellow queuers who have yet to recognise the wizened face and buzz cut of the diminutive figure in chef’s whites standing ahead of them in the queue. In fact, Chan helms Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle – and his life is about to be transformed.
Does he know the significance of the Michelin star, we ask him, knowing full well how the recognition thrust Hong Kong-based Tim Ho Wan into the region. Chan isn’t thinking so far ahead. The more pressing issue at hand is how he is going to cope with the crowds that are bound to come tomorrow morning. And how many more chickens he should braise in preparation.
“It’s recognition for hard work,” he demurs in Mandarin, letting on that he had heard of the prestigious Michelin guide before but never really paid attention to which restaurants got stars. When he received the call to attend the awards ceremony, his first reaction was: “Are you asking me to advertise or to go and have dinner at Resorts World? 我就觉得莫名其妙 (I just felt it was very strange).”
In between obliging us with selfies and sharing a laugh over “the gamble (he took) closing the stall for a day to see what the gala was about”, the good-natured Malaysia-born chef says something that sticks:
“Getting this Michelin star is also a guiding light for young people. Maybe now they will want to be hawkers, whereas in the past, they wouldn’t want to do it.”
His parting chirrup to us before he hops into a cab is a warm invitation to visit him soon, while we hold him to the promise of letting us cut the queue if we wave the picture we took together at him.
To be sure, the Chan we meet two weeks later has polished up. When he spots us, he waves and shakes hands formally. Chan has even engaged Hersing Corporation (the same group that manages the Tim Ho Wan brand in Singapore) to help out with media relations. His answers to our questions are now more rehearsed – he has added 30 more chickens to the 150 birds he braises daily; he will not compromise on quality just to cater to the crowds, and he plans to keep prices the same for an authentic experience.
Amid the blur of change that has certainly transformed his life, Chan’s eager optimism and endearing worry about “how to get that second Michelin star” still warms our heart. Though his wife and 10-year-old daughter were very happy for him, Chan shares they didn’t do anything special to celebrate his triumph. “We know that it is only going to be more difficult from here,” says Chan seriously.
“With this star, it will require us to keep taking it to the next level. Even if we don’t get another star, we have to maintain the one we have. That’s why our road is even more difficult.”
Getting a Michelin star is also an experience he is using to teach his daughter, whom Chan clearly adores. His Wednesdays, the only off day he has, are kept aside specially to spend time with her and his wife.
“I used this to teach my daughter that even after graduating from university, she must never think life stops there. She still needs to face other challenges society will send her way; to keep seeking improvement and adapting with the tides.”
On his part, Chan is looking to add new items to complement the soy braised chicken in the near future. Since his daughter is too young to take over the business, Chan is also looking for a successor. His requirements: Someone who can surpass him in skills and thinking, because “if he or she can do that, then that’s the future I want for my stall.”