These next-generation Singapore hawkers gave up cushy jobs to pursue their dreams
Grandma’s 20-hour lorbak and shrimp rolls: Just some of the dishes served up by young hawkerpreneurs at this year's DBS Marina Regatta.
Much has been said about stellar hawkers becoming an endangered species, but it’s also heartening to know that there are young people who choose to put their heart and soul into traditional street food at the expense of personal sacrifice.
At this year’s DBS Marina Regatta – which isn’t just an opportunity to watch boat races and try your hand at activities but also a chance to pig out – several of these next-generation hawkerpreneurs will be showcasing their food under one roof.
They’ll be happy to feed you their delectable dishes of fried carrot cake, stewed pork belly and crayfish rolls – but they’re also happy just to be able to do what they do out of love.
CARROT CAKE FROM DAD, WITH LOVE
Claire Huang, who is 31, runs carrot cake stall Carrot Cubes (Food Park, 339 Ang Mo Kio Ave 1). Each plate of her carrot cake, which comes not just in traditional black and white flavours but also jazzed up with bacon bits, is an expression of love for her father.
For the last 20 years, her 57-year-old father has been making carrot cake by hand to supply to stalls and coffeeshops. He works a 12-hour day and takes only one day off each year, on Chinese New Year.
Huang, who originally had a job in corporate sales, wanted him to have a better life. “I asked him what he really wants. I don’t want to see him work his life away just like that,” she said. “He told me he wished to travel. Up until now, he’s only managed to go to Malaysia.”
Deciding to leave her job to help her father wasn’t a natural path to take. “I never thought I would be in F&B… I didn’t use to cook at all,” she shared, and moreover, “at the start, he didn’t want me to do it because he thought it was a very tough job for a lady”.
True enough, the equipment proved too heavy, so she decided to showcase his quality carrot cake by cooking and selling it instead. She learnt the art of frying it up by doing a month-long stint at her uncle’s carrot cake stall, and before long, she was serving it up at her own pop-up stall at events. And in January this year, Carrot Cubes found a physical home at a coffeeshop.
Not content to rely on tradition, Huang says she loves to innovate and hopes that her creative, interesting flavours such as carrot cake with bacon bits and carrot cake made with “super spicy” Thai chilli will draw young customers in.
“I can tell that my father is quite happy and proud, because whenever customers tell us it’s one of the best carrot cakes they’ve ever eaten, I can see from his face that he’s happy,” she said.
Her father supports her by giving her rides to and from work every day. If all goes according to her plan of semi-automating the business in a few years’ time, she said, she hopes he’ll be able to fufill his dream of travelling to China.
MR LORBAK, GRANNY LORBAK AND MAMA LORBAK
For William Liou of Mr Lorbak fame, family also had much to do with deciding to leave his job in restaurant management to set up a stall selling affordable food.
At his two Mr Lorbak outlets (350 Ubi Ave 1 and 120 Neil Road), he serves up lovingly stewed pork, and at House Of Happiness (294 Bedok Road), innovative claypot rice dishes. At the DBS Marina Regatta, he’ll be serving pork belly over rice with black fungus and stewed eggs, as well as a pork trotter dish and various side dishes such as beancurd and peanuts.
“It is a very homely meal. This is what I cook for myself at home; what my mum cooked for me at home. It’s a family recipe,” he said of his lorbak. In fact, the recipe is his late grandmother’s, to whom Liou was very close. “She taught me how to cook when I was a kid. To me, this is a way to remember her by,” the 32-year-old said.
His love for food was also cultivated from a young age through helping his mother out at her rojak stall. “I had to peel the cucumbers and stuff. It was fun,” he said. “I remember watching all the uncles cooking. They looked damn cool, with the fire everywhere – so badass – and their rolled-up aprons that exposed their bellies! When you grow up, you forget about what you wanted when you were young.”
Leaving a comfortable job in restaurant management for the life of a hawker – and taking a “massive pay cut” – was a “nerve-wracking decision,” he recalled. But “the hawker culture is dying and not many people are doing anything about it.” So, “I put all the money I had into the business. If I’d failed, I’d have had to go back to work.”
The business has certainly proved its worth now, with many loyal customers. “There’s this guy – before he enlisted into the army, he came and said, ‘Today’s my last day as a civilian. I want to eat (your food) one more time.’ And the moment he booked out, he came to look for me again,” Liou chuckled.
What makes the pork so extraordinary? The meat is allowed to stew from 9am to 5pm the next day. And the mother stock has been cultivated for the last two years. “We leave 30 per cent of the stock behind for every batch, add in new herbs and cook it again. The flavours get more and more complex. And it’s just going to get better and better,” he said.
HE WANTED TO GO TO CULINARY SCHOOL; HIS PARENTS SAID NO
Shrimp rolls and crayfish rolls topped with mayonnaise, lemon zest and herbs; fried fish skin with mentaiko sauce; and a seafood chowder made with fresh seafood stock, clams, fish, shrimp and potatoes – these are the dishes Darren Teo of Seafood Pirates (51 Yishun Ave 11, #01-35) will be serving up.
Seafood Pirates’ signature dish is actually flavoursome seafood soup – Teo was inspired by a similar dish he tasted in Taiwan of light, uplifting seafood broth – but these plates have been designed for the outdoor event. At the same time, “I want to share something that’s a take on local seafood,” he said.
To create his dishes, the 29-year-old relies on his access to fresh seafood through a supplier who is a family friend. It’s a recipe that has stood him in good stead for the past one and a half years he’s been in business after leaving a stable job as a landscape designer.
Food has always been where his heart lies, but it’s only now that he’s been able to pursue his dream.
“Since I was young, I’ve had a passion for food. I love cooking for people,” he said. However, “My parents said, ‘What? You want to go to culinary school? No, no, no.'”
He respected their wishes, but after six years in the landscape industry, the self-taught cook had saved enough money to go out on a limb and open a hawker stall, using social media as a marketing tool.
“If you’re going to fail – or succeed – it’s got to be before you’re 35,” he said. “It was something I really wanted to try out while I was still young.”
At the time, he had just gotten married and moved into his own place. Sacrifices of time and money had to be made. “My previous job had fixed timings… On a good day, I’d be leaving the office around 5pm. In the hawker industry, you have to be there three hours before lunch to prepare your food. Then, you prepare food for dinner. After dinner, you prep for the next day and clean the stall. It’s easily a 12-hour day,” he said.
But “if you take the easy way, when hardship comes, you won’t be able to take it.”
His message for those in search of good food? “Don’t queue up at A&W for three hours. Just come here,” he laughed. “Hawkers are here to serve you guys good food; honest food. Why not come and support us? It doesn’t need to be me – it can be the char kway teow or chicken rice uncle. They’ll be happy to serve you.”
The DBS Marina Regatta runs from May 31 to Jun 2 at The Promontory @ Marina Bay. Find Carrot Cubes, Mr Lorbak and Seafood Pirates at The Grubhouse.