Ming Tan Chef Lolla Singapore

On the afternoon we wrapped up this interview, we were on such a high that we were almost knocked down. We daresay that Ming's words were worth our near brush with death, though - this guy has foresight, gives credit where it's due, is a team player through and through (he radiated such joy when talking about his team), and works hard - and smart. This self-taught chef who now heads Lolla tells us why passion can kill a career, what's broken in the F&B industry, and how he thinks the young kids can fix it.

Q: Okay Ming, we have to get this out of the way. What’s your story?
It started off in the army. I was playing rugby for the army and I had two teammates that were interested in food, like me, and more teammates who weren’t interested in cooking but in eating. When you’re at that age and playing rugby there’s always a need for food, so we were always going to people’s houses and destroying their pantries.

I live near some of the training pitches in Bukit Timah so I would try to cook for these guys. It was a real washout – I would cook and half of it would be edible by chance and the rest would be completely inedible. I would melt spatulas into pots and destroy pots. After my parents saw that I was enjoying cooking, they challenged me to get my act together by learning to cook properly and to stop ruining things. Of course I was at the age where I’d never back down from a challenge, so I gave myself a rough plan of what I wanted to learn and do. I bought tools and it all started from there.

So after NS, my two friends and I decided it was time to formalize things. We incorporated ourselves and ran a private dining group called JAM. We were working two weekends a month throughout uni and made a decent salary for undergrads. It went from throwing meat on the barbecue for hungry chaps to planning 6-course dinners. We were also highly involved in our universities’ gourmet societies. I ran the NUS Gourmet Society and Jeremy, one of the partners of JAM, ran the NTU one.

JAM hard at work

JAM hard at work

Around that time I realized that food was my calling. I freelanced as a private chef for about 6 months after graduation before being offered a job as a cooking instructor. Not because I could cook very well, but because I could convey what I was doing well. A lot of people can cook, but not everyone can do it when there are 60 people asking them questions and waiting on their concise instructions on what to do.  So I worked at ToTT and then went on to join Cookyn Inc. During this time I continued to do private events as well as larger corporate events of around 60-70 people.

One of the events I cooked for was Lolla’s Secret Suppers, which was when I met the current directors here. I did a young person’s re-imagination of olden Chinese dishes, which was fun. I met Hian Tee, the main director here, proper at that event, and he told me to stay in touch. At that time I was thinking, yeah, whatever – everyone says that. But he actually did stay in touch; he would message me every two weeks asking how things were.

But he turned out to be very nice. He called me 6 weeks later to ask if I was interested in “collaborating” and working together with him. Basically he offered me a job, which I turned down a couple of times because I didn’t think I had the experience to run a restaurant.

Q: So what changed your mind about working at Lolla?
The promise of a support group here. Hian Tee made it clear that there would always be a channel open to talk to someone if ever I didn’t know what I was doing. Which was a fair amount of the time, especially when I first started. I’ll make no bones about it – in this industry, you fake it till you make it. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Everyone is promoted and moves into another position not being ready for that role, but that’s how you grow. The idea is you move into a new position and you expand into it. The traditional way of doing things in this industry is to start off as a commis or even a potwasher before slowly working your way up. You move through each station and take on more roles and responsibilities. At each step you need a support group.

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A lot of the job is independent – I had to figure out what worked for me, but the bosses always provided me with a safety net. In a sense, it’s how we’ve dealt with some of the younger interns that we’ve brought in. We give them space to move into a new position and we tell them that we’ll be right here watching them the whole time, but it’s okay if they screw up. You can’t just tell someone to grow a pair and do it; you need them to know that there is a support system for them.

Q: How big is your team right now?
Right now we have five full-timers. We have Kyle, our resident chef model; Ron is a permanent part timer who is about to open his own restaurant in the near future. We have another full-timer, Jingfung, from Mainland China who’s in school taking English lessons, which we’re very happy to help him with. He’s a solid cook and a great worker, but the only thing he doesn’t have is a command of English. If he could speak English fluently he’d be running kitchens in Singapore already. We have Gerard, who’s 24 and our chief grill cook, a constant source of pride. We also have Naung Naung, from Myanmar, who is off today but in my opinion the hardest worker on the street.

(L-R): Gerard, Kyle, and Ming in the Lolla kitchen

(L-R): Gerard, Kyle, and Ming in the Lolla kitchen

Q: Where do you see yourself in 5 years and what steps are you taking to get there?
I’ll be a little bit vague about where I see myself in terms of an occupational role – I don’t know yet. But I will be very specific about what I hope to be doing in terms of connecting people.

What I am extremely proud to note about the food industry recently is the connections that younger chefs are making. It makes me excessively proud to be a part of this wave of younger Singaporeans who have taken it upon themselves to be more entrepreneurial. It’s a competitive industry, so the people who stick it out with good ideas and good work ethics – these are people anyone young should meet and surround themselves with because, whatever the industry, you are always stronger as a community. You can leverage on each other’s brands; you can find ways to work with each other; you can pick up recipes and tips. Sometimes someone has had an experience that you haven’t had and they save you the time of making the mistake yourself.

So what do I want to do in 5 years? Occupation aside, I still want to be in the food industry. I’m happy to explore various roles for the rest of my life, but I will probably not be far from the kitchen. But what I really want to do is to be at the centre of a community or a movement of people. I want to give back to the people who have given a lot to the industry, like the younger workers and the interns. I want to give them opportunities and the space to grow. I mean, do you really expect a 50 year old chef to connect with a 17 year old commis at the start? Yes the 17 year old will understand and follow, just because the guy’s a 50 year old fella. But if he has to take instructions from a teammate and mentor who’s 25, then they’re able to connect and bond in a different way. That’s how you can build a team.

For example, in places like New York you find illegal immigrants working in kitchens. Their superiors or their chefs help them apply for green cards so they can legally stay, work, and receive things like benefits and housing. And that’s all because these workers have given so much to them and their kitchens.

The F&B industry in Singapore is one of the last bastions of full-on foreign worker presence. I won’t say these workers are disenfranchised; they have been plucked from their homelands but they earn ten times what they would have earned at home.

Ming Tan Lolla Singapore 5

Q: Do you feel like you’ve moved from the one who needed a support group to the one who’s leading that support group?
Not at all, I sometimes disagree with that. I feel that the limelight given to a chef has to be shared with the team; I’m just the face of it. The real work is done back there in the kitchen. True, things like ideas, recipes, and final tasting are all approved by me, and it’s my flavour profile that permeates the restaurant, but at the same time, it’s important to recognize how essential the role of a team is in restaurants. It’s an amazing thing to see young people forgo Friday nights and weekends, miss birthday parties, miss weddings etc. because they are in an industry that requires sacrifice like that. It’s humbling.

Q: Apart from industry support group, how about your family?
They were initially tolerant and supportive after. It’s always easier to support someone who is doing well, so I figured if I wanted my parents’ support, then I had to make a good show of it. I can’t be screwing about and complaining that they aren’t being supportive.

Even when I was struggling a little bit, my parents were supportive. I guess I showed a little bit of drive, and since I already had my degree, they decided that if this was what I wanted to do then they would let me. They would still ask me about my friends who had gone on to be lawyers and bankers and refer to my job as a “food thing”, but after a while these comments stopped.

It’s a gratifying thing to see my parents come in to the restaurant with their friends and tell them that their son is a good cook. We’ve really come full circle.

In terms of a proper support group, I’m very close to my cousins and a few other friends. I bounce opinions and questions off them. Some of them are older, but none of them are in the food industry. There’s this one cousin I’m very close to – he married my cousin – called Tycen, who’s a consultant by trade. I talk to him a lot because he gives me very clear, concise advice on career. He asks questions like:

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Sometimes asking these questions when you’re young can seem irrelevant, but it’s never too early to start thinking about these things. And nobody’s going to tell you to do that; you’re going to have to make sure you’re on track. You don’t necessarily have to have a specific end point where you know exactly what you want to do. But know the direction you want to move in, and know that you are learning something from any experience that is in line with your overall direction. Once you do that, I think you can be quite comfortable in the knowledge that you will never be too badly off in terms of personal development. You might be in a dead-end job, but if you’re there to learn a particular skill, then learn it and move on. But you have to be learning all the time.

A friend of mine, Ei Liang, who’s a hotel developer by day and also runs Truffs, a chocolate atelier and café, once told me to stay at a job as long as you’re learning. Once you stop learning, leave. It’s that black and white. That’s his template for what he does, and I think it’s great advice for a young person. You should leave only when you stop learning, or when your pace of learning decreases.

The Lolla team cleaning the basement, which had been flooded by rain

The Lolla team cleaning the basement, which had been flooded by rain

Q: Let’s talk about the untold side of being a chef.
I’ll go with what is told first: when people work, you will play a bit. But when people play, you will work. That’s something people don’t consider. You will have one day of the week that is yours. You will not have a dinner to spare for people. You will miss birthday celebrations, gatherings, reunions, weddings etc. Everyone in this industry will end past 10, 11pm. Do not take that lightly. If you’ve not already tasted as a young person working in the industry and this is a change of industry for you, you will be disappointed. You will lose relationships with people; your social circle will become smaller. You can’t just take a holiday whenever you like. You have to make sure someone’s covering your station and when the people you work with are planning to go on holiday. That’s a sacrifice of the job that people talk about all the time, and I want to emphasize that.

What I’ve learnt is that you have to treasure the people who still make time for you. Because if they prioritize you, then you have to do the same for them. Look out for loved ones that know you have constraints in your schedule, and plan their schedules around that. The ones who are always asking you out on a Friday or Saturday night- these are just your hi-bye friends.

You will come to learn a lot of things about yourself because there are periods when you’re alone just doing your work or figuring out how hard you need to push yourself to achieve something. I think it’s different from other jobs because it’s not just a mental thing; it’s a physical thing. How far can you push yourself without cutting your finger and spraying blood everywhere? How much can you stretch yourself to be accurate with your numbers? 

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Q: What kind of mistakes have you made and how have you learnt from them?

I have two main lessons to share:
1.     Everything in balance.
2. Never compound a bad decision.

Ming's younger brother, an Imperial College engineering masters student, worked at Lolla for a few weeks because he wanted to cook better

Ming's younger brother, an Imperial College engineering masters student, worked at Lolla for a few weeks because he wanted to cook better

When you’re passionate and energetic and doing something you like in the kitchen, chances are – you’re not completely objective. And that’s always going to be the case. Everyone likes to think that oh I can step back and I can see – no, you can’t. Unless maybe you have twenty years of experience. So sometimes when you have someone next to you saying you’re doing something wrong, you must change it. You must know when to drop something if it isn’t working out. Never compound a bad decision. If the dish isn’t great, don’t keep preparing it or adding things to it.

Of course the key to that is identifying what the bad decision is, right? Once you do that it’s easy to fix. But it can be very difficult to see the wrong decision. One of the bad decisions I made was that I was obsessed with weird, interesting, rare, and complex flavours. All this weird stuff is fun but it has to serve a purpose.

Gooseneck barnacles have been my biggest failure here so far. Someone had told me that we should bring in gooseneck barnacles from Spain, so I made some calls and found someone who could bring it in for us. I ordered 7kg. Now here’s the thing about most mollusks: they require some strip of rock or rope to anchor themselves to. Sometimes it’s a pole, or concrete. Gooseneck barnacles prefer gravel. So I ordered 7kg right? 6kg of what arrived was gravel, because each barnacle was stuck to a grape-sized piece of gravel. So we cleaned it up and peeled the barnacles off, and we were left with maybe 700g of useable product. Each kilo cost me $70. So I’m sitting there thinking of selling each plate for $100, but here’s the best part: they weren’t even of great quality! In the end we decided not to serve it, so we got the team together to eat them and turns out – they were sandy. That was $500 of cost (about $1000 in sales) down the drain.

Q: What’s the highlight of your career?
My career highlight isn’t an accolade. It would be my staff saying things like, I want to stay at Lolla for a while. Or Jingfung, my Mainland Chinese chef telling me he wants to follow me to the next restaurant that I go to. That’s a career highlight for me.

I’m sure if you ask enough chefs out there, they would tell you similar things. The highlight is the development of people under them and the growth that they see.

Ming and Wolfgang Puck

Ming and Wolfgang Puck

Q: Do you need to go to culinary school to be a chef? Obviously you didn’t go down that route, but looking back would it say it’s something you would advise people to do, or do you think it’s completely unnecessary?
From an occupational point of view i.e. an employer’s point of view, if I don’t hire someone out of school, they have a lot of basics that they need to be taught, unless they’ve already internalized the basics. I would say that someone fresh out of school would have the same amount of theoretical knowledge as someone who’s been working 5, 6 years. But what the person working for 5, 6 years has is a wealth of productive, actual hands-on knowledge. Little tips and tricks like how to store something so it doesn’t go bad so fast, how to cut corners efficiently, how to do something quicker etc. These are all beautiful things in the restaurant. What a lot of schools do these days is that they send their students out for work, and that is an accelerated learning process because you’re applying your skills as you learn about them. But like it or not you have to spend at least two years working to fully get a couple of things.

Just watch the next time you go to a restaurant. There are some people who have the “spins”. Basically it’s someone who’s always spinning around on the spot. Compare them to someone who knows exactly what they’re doing in the kitchen – they know the motion of every action, move this, take that, go. That difference cannot be taught. It takes time to develop that physical intelligence, coordination, and comfort in the kitchen. You can be naturally gifted, but you’ll always need experience.

I don’t have restaurant training and I didn’t go to culinary school. I applied and almost went, but I came to Lolla instead. 

Ming Tan Lolla Singapore 4

For Singapore, what culinary school presents is an opportunity to accelerate your learning process, especially for students who come out of the formal learning system in their twenties. People overseas start much younger at 16 or 17. I think if we started younger here, school would not be necessary

Q: What is success to you and do you think you have achieved it?
Success isn’t an endpoint. It’s an ever-changing thing, like food. You can measure and quantify success in business and financial terms. You can talk about things like reputation even. But in no way do I think we have achieved success. There are successful aspects to what we do, but success cannot be holistically quantified.

If I had to, I would quantify success as having everyone of the staff members here move on and leave to greater restaurants. That is a form of success to me, because it means the internal processes here are working. Or it could also mean someone from a high calibre restaurant come to us and join us because they like what we’re doing. That is success to me.