SINGAPORE – I remember meeting Chef Alvin Tan at Tipsy Penguin in Tampines after lunch in 2019, feeling like it was a face I had seen before. It took a while for me to remember trying his food at the now closed contemporary Chinese cuisine restaurant, Xin Divine in Duxton Hill. The disparity in the cuisine served at Tipsy Penguin and Xin Divine was wide, to say the least. While I noticed Alvin’s penchant for flavorful plates, he served it particularly well at Tipsy Penguin, where a full kaleidoscope of flavor scrolls through the day.
He is now a Fancy Food and Beverage Director for the Tipsy Collective, responsible for ensuring impeccable menu consistency across all of Tipsy Collective’s outfits, including his most recent, Drunken flamingo. In this interview, I asked Alvin to ruminate on what it means to be a chef and how he envisions the future of F&B, given the unpredictable climate of a pandemic we find ourselves in right now.
What does it mean to you to be a chef?
I would describe myself as a lean but hungry chef – I am constantly on the lookout for the latest culinary trends and find great pleasure in creating new recipes. I often tell people how lucky I am to be able to do what I am passionate about. Most of the time, work is not like work. Most importantly, I can feed the budding chefs who are in my kitchen day in and day out. They give me real fulfillment as a chef when I see them improving their skills.
As a child, what did you want to be growing up and why?
I have always wanted to be a farmer from a young age. I have always been curious and loved to watch how things grow and also enjoy the fruits of my labor, eating them. Because of this, I have learned to love progress and enjoy the journey of my life even though I have encountered challenges and obstacles.
My advice to younger people is not to be afraid to try new things. It’s okay not to know what you want, but it definitely helps to know what you don’t want. Start from there and making decisions would be much easier.
What is the most important change that your culinary philosophy has made in your career as a chef?
I have always believed that only fresh produce can provide the best kind of food, but having the opportunity to explore different types of ingredients made me realize that it is crucial to go deeper and understand the products that I already have in my hands.
Ultimately, knowing the right cooking techniques is still the best way to deliver good quality food. I’m glad I had the opportunity to explore different types of unpretentious ingredients that mix well to create magic. Having seen how they come together so well through my experiences has helped me gain confidence gradually but significantly in my cooking skills. My take on food has changed over the years and I’m happy to constantly step out of my comfort zone as it challenges me to grow both professionally and personally.
What has been the hardest thing about being a chef that a lot of people don’t know?
Being a leader can sometimes be frustrating due to very short downtime, stress, anxiety, and even unpredictable circumstances. These are all factors that we cannot control in our rapidly changing industry. Take this pandemic, for example, we have to learn how to pivot quickly to survive and thrive.
As much as chefs like me love such an adrenaline rush and it keeps us on our toes, there are times when we feel lethargic both mentally and physically. Such a roller coaster causes disillusionment, or more commonly referred to as a misalignment of our true passion and motivation. By snowballing, chefs will move away from the real reason they really love cooking in the first place.
What is the most underrated cooking technique that chefs should use the most often and why?
Fermentation of food. They are incredibly beneficial for our health and contain so many nutrients. The unpredictability of the flavors produced from this technique inspires modern kitchens and brings us back to home-cooked dishes such as belachan.
Belachan brings a unique set of flavor profiles to any dish as a whole, and I’m so happy I found my own recipe for it.
What do you think the future of F&B looks like in Singapore?
I think in the future it will become even more difficult for the F&B industry. This is because there are so many marketing strategies, expectations, and channels for chefs to consider. We can no longer just be skilled in the kitchen. Chefs will also need to keep up with the latest trends and eventually be a trailblazer. It is something that has taken on the identity of a leader.
Additionally, to be at the forefront of the F&B industry, we need to recognize and be ahead of the various digital platforms to inform our customers of our latest offerings and more. We can no longer rely solely on word of mouth.
When you look at the state of catering in Singapore today, what’s the one thing that gives you hope?
One thing that gives me hope in the current state of Singapore’s food scene is knowing that there are many talents hidden among us. Thanks to this pandemic we’ve seen a huge increase in home-based businesses / I think this will inspire our next generation to have the courage to take a step towards cultivating their skills and maybe even starting their own businesses one day of brick and mortar. I can’t wait to see the creations they bring to the table.