MU/SE Dialogue: Violet Oon X Tay Yiming
Eating has become such a usual way of life that we sometimes forget that our food traces our origins as well. Violet Oon and Tay Yiming talk about their relationship with the family business and its revival, and how they have discovered more about going back to the centre of their heritage while enjoying and working with food.
Hi Violet and Yiming. Thanks for taking time to chat with MU/SE today! We would like for the both of you to introduce each other to our readers – Yiming, tell us about your mother Violet, not just as the cooking doyenne that we know but the woman who raised you, and Violet, tell us a bit more about your son Yiming.
YM: The lady sitting on my right is my mom. She is Violet Oon, Singapore's culinary food ambassador. She's been doing this in her career for the last five decades. It's been a long time, and I kind of want to say that I learnt more about her since I started working with her. That is something which really surprised me because maybe you think you know your mom really well, but when you work together with someone you are related to, you learn even more about that person.
Violet: Yiming is my son and, it is true that you don't get to know them till you've worked with them. A normal parent and child relationship has a certain path that it follows - it's social, you have dinners, half the time your children don't tell you what's happening, your mother has to bug you... It's a close relationship but it's a familial one. I never knew Yiming's talent and capacity for management, that he was a very focused and driven person. Not only that, when he manages, it's very clear-cut. My daughter Su Lin says that actually this anal part of him comes from me!
Interviewer: What was your impression of her growing up?
YM: Ooh, great food every day! We definitely didn't see that there was a lot that goes behind it. There's a lot of blood, sweat and tears. You don't fully appreciate that until you are in the thick of it yourself. When we first started going into the business as a family, there was a lot of getting used to each other's style of working. She's probably still not used to my style! (Violet laughs) There's a lot of understanding where somebody else is coming from.
Violet: I have to forget that I can talk to him as his mother. It should be a more professional relationship, it irritates him a lot when I talk to him like a mother.
YM: Definitely, I continue to forget that every time too. A lot of things we can plan for, but when you're dealing with family a lot of these plans can go out the window. At the same time, what happens as a result of that is like when we apply a lot of pressure to a piece of coal: it becomes a diamond.
Violet, your relationship with food started out with you in the role as a writer. Yiming, you then jumped into the family business. Can you tell me how these different worlds merge?
YM: From my mother's perspective, because she has experience with owning restaurants and all that before, when my sister and I wanted to start our thing with her, she's probably looking at us and thinking, oh yeah sure. Internally, she's having a little snigger to herself, like let's see what happens to these two when they try!
Violet: First of all, I'm 68. I grew up in a very liberated household - my parents decided to have only one child in 1949 which was very unusual at the time, nobody did that. I was encouraged to be anything I wanted to be. Cooking was my own hobby - my mother didn't cook at all. As a career woman, you didn't cook or do any housework in those days. I thought my father's sisters were great cooks and my mother's aunt was a fantastic chef. I wanted to learn this because I asked myself, what happens if my aunts pass away right? In my generation, it was the height of women's liberation and the women who went to University did not want to learn to cook because they felt that it was bondage to male dominance. I was the only one who thought it was fun. When I then became a journalist, even as a music and arts critic, I continued to cook a lot for my colleagues. When the food column became available, I wrote about food as a way of life, also because I had studied Sociology.
YM: It's a situation where we call it a perfect storm. She's a journalist, but she also has this creative approach to cooking and learning it from people way before her who are skilled at their craft, then that becomes Violet Oon. Nowadays, we have TV chefs, everyone is well-travelled and the world is getting smaller. Fifty years ago, there wasn't any such resources available, so my mother is really a trailblazer in that sense.
I think the both of you have infused the thought of authenticity and heritage behind all the food you prepare. What does the term heritage mean to the both of you, coming from different generations?
Violet: We don't infuse. It IS authenticity and heritage. It comes from the time that Yiming mentioned, that everything I learned would have been from my aunts so it is really pure and precise.
YM: That's a great question because we ask ourselves that all the time while running the business. My sister and I only started doing this with my mother since 2012. People who knew my mom's brand and were her fans belong to the older generation. How do you bridge that gap and appeal to people from all generations, right? We feel, the answer to that question is standing for those qualities of being authentic and genuine. Anybody can appreciate that level of excellence, whether you are 20 or 70 years old.
Violet: I've travelled around the world, and if I go to France I would want to learn from their cooks there so I can say to myself, wow, now I know why the French have that kind of taste in their styles of cooking. So when I teach cooking, I tell people, everyone has their kind of "genuine". Don't try to put your "genuine" into somebody else's. I have been a judge is several cooking contests, and every dish has the same things because people are so set in their ways. When you learn someone else's cooking, you ought to forget everything that you know and really absorb. I come with that mentality. But it also has to be fun, otherwise you become like a factory. Going backwards as a chef is amazingly great fun.
YM: It's cool how my mother is 68 and still talking about fun. That is something I would wish for myself at 68 too.
You’ve both seen many foods come and go. If you had the chance, what is a dish you would like to see being revived again, and likewise, what is a dish you would do away with?
YM: I could go on with the rest of my life without eating any more truffle oil. I'm done with that.
Violet: That is true. I can do away with trends. The moment something is being put in everything, it is a trend.
YM: What do you want to see back again then?
Violet: I want to see back.... people making their own fish balls and everything. What I'm happy to see now are young chefs starting restaurants and going back to cooking properly. If you want to charge cheaply, it's difficult because you have to get everything from a factory. But young chefs now are charging slightly higher and doing it properly.
YM: One example is that in our restaurant we wanted to serve chendol, but we couldn't do it at first because if we did it, we wanted to do it correctly. There was no space for the proper equipment. Finally, when we had a new space, we said, we must include this. We shifted everything around so that everything is really made from scratch.
Violet: I think it's sad because people think these skill sets are magical, but actually, we can all be doing it. I want to see more people knowing they can make their own stuff and that not everything needs to be store bought or ready-made. It's nothing new, things are supposed to be like that. We make things properly and we charge accordingly. Singaporeans have a certain resistance in a sense that, no hawker's son now wants to be a hawker.
Interviewer: Do you agree with your Mom?
YM: I don't know if that is really the case, but I'm sure my mother too had her doubts when my sister and I wanted to join the business with her. (To Violet) You probably did not want us to suffer. That is the same struggle that any parent faces with their children, if their kids want to continue their trade. If it's tough to make ends meet, then any parent would be questioning their children, if their children want to take over. It's stemming more from that. But we should also feel some other reward because we want to do it, not just to make ends meet. This is what should be celebrated more, and that is not celebrated enough. You cannot measure these things with money. The public then, should also give people who are brave enough to do these things, more love.
Violet: I'm happy with the younger generation because they also seem to be more altruistic in their career choices. A lot of them go into things knowing they might not make money, I'm so amazed and proud of them. When there's self-actualization and personal satisfaction involved... we want to see that in food too.
What do you think is the current attitude towards the consumption of Singaporean food? What sort of changes do you wish to see in that regard, if not, what do you hope can remain intact?
YM: We're a young country. In the past, everyone would be craving for something that is foreign. People still do that but at the same time, they miss something they know.
Violet: Or that they may have lost. What's been gratifying is that while doing our food, we get a lot of sentimental responses. The best response is when someone says, my grandma gives it her approval. That's really it for me!
YM: The thing that is worrying though, is that, see I have a son. And he's going to grow up eating a lot of local food, but he's not going to know what I think in my mind was the original taste of a dish like char kway teow or Hokkien mee. This could happen! There are going to be versions of dishes with huge disconnects between what it actually was in the beginning and what it is now. In Singapore, we need some standardization with our cuisine. Like in France, they have a lot of documentation on what the standard is. You might have very modern French cooking, but there are also different eras you can find, even the classical ways.
Violet: Still, it's good to have a business that contains the voices of many generations. Like my daughter said, she wants a restaurant concept that is vintage. Maybe if I were to have done that without her input, it would look old-fashioned. Any person is a prison of their own generation. When my children first told me they wanted to serve our food on chopping boards, I screamed, what?! That's so bloody low-class! And they told me, just keep quiet, we know what we're doing. I was imprisoned by what I'm so used to being served. They helped me breathe new life into the food.
YM: There are also many components to making food. And maybe we can switch things up and say we choose to do away with five out of ten of these components, but the important thing is that before you do that, you have to know what those ten are in the first place. You have to know what you're giving up, and why you're giving that up. Then it's an informed decision.
Violet: There's no future without a past. This is not just in food, but in everything. In pop culture. How can we be cutting edge if we don't know who has done it before us? If you are a creative person, then you get too proud of what you've done when actually other people have been there and done that. Singapore, in being so forward, has forgotten how to draw reference.
We all know that food is a necessity. We need food to survive. How about good food? What determines good food to each of you and do you think this should be a necessity, or is it still an indulgence or a luxury?
YM: It's all of that and more. It's also somebody's obsession, somebody's guilty pleasure... the best thing about it is that it can be whatever you want it to be. My mother is obsessed about creating and playing with food, not about eating. She has a unique relationship with it, something that I also want to have with food. I just used to eat it, or if I go to a restaurant, I eat it. Now, it's something that I think about. I do this for work, and I dream about it.
Violet: I feel that the enjoyment of food is not a matter of life and death. For millions of people, it really is a matter of life and death. We shouldn't be picky about that. I don't have to have wonderful food all the time.
YM: Somebody asked us what our last meal in this lifetime would be. My answer was just Teochew porridge.
Violet: It's comfort.
Finally, who, or what, are your Muse(s)?
YM: My muse is the Peranakan cuisine.
Violet: My muse is the next adventure. What's around the corner? Stay hungry, stay foolish. That's really important! If you're not foolish, you won't try new things.
Words: Euginia Tan, Contributing Section Editor