For 30 years, he worked 100 hours a week and, in the last eight years, he has been selling chicken noodles for less than US$2 ($2.60) a plate. Today, Mr Chan Hon Meng’s small and modest soya sauce chicken noodle stall has made dining history as it became
the first street food stall in the world to be awarded a Michelin Star.
From Ipoh Malaysia, Mr Chan came to Singapore to learn how to cook soya sauce chicken from Hong Kong masters in the 1980s. In 2009, he decided to open in a hawker stall in Singapore Chinatown. I believe he has eight qualities which contributed to his winning of the coveted award.
Behind the hot and stuffy stall, Mr Chan turns himself into an ultrasonic chopping machine, churning out plate after plate of savoury soya sauce chicken noodle. The not-very-tall chef customised his workspace to ensure the chopping board and cooking table top are at the optimal height for him. It is his super high efficiency that allows him to sell 150 chickens a day. If we are to do his job, most of us would have dislocated our shoulder or wrist in less than a day.
“I see no daylight!” said Mr Chan, who goes to work early morning when the sky is still pitch-dark and ends each day well after dinner time. For five hours, he prepares the chicken, roasts the pork and cooks the rice before opening for business at around 10am. Once he starts serving his first customer, it is non-stop till the last chicken is sold. Describing Mr Chan, who works 100 hours a week, as a hardworking man is an understatement.
Most street food vendors wear a T-shirt to work given the hot and oily working environment but not Mr Chan, who puts on white uniform everyday. He has six of these uniforms and one with a logo for special occasions. He takes pride in his trade and this is being professional.
Despite a tiring routine and occasional confusion with customers’ orders, he maintains a friendly attitude and breaks into a smile every now and then.
It would take the friendly chef a full day of earnings to afford a meal at any of Joël Robuchon’s three-star restaurants but Mr Chan said he is happy and contented with his current situation. He would like to dine at a Joël Robuchon restaurant one day but what really catches his fancy is Hong Kong’s Yung Kee Restaurant, which is famous for its roast goose.
Talking about his food, Mr Chan eyes lit up. “My chickens are from Malaysia and are leaner compared to chickens from colder countries. If I use chicken from other countries, the taste will be not be as good.” He also shared with me his recipe which I promised not to reveal in this article.
Asked why he sells his food so cheap, Mr Chan says that is the fair price for the location of the hawker centre where he operates. He hesitates to take advantage of his recent fame to charge more. Maximising short-term profit is not his top agenda but treating customers well is. He puts many people, including myself, in the banking industry to shame.
When media and customers congratulated him on the award, Mr Chan didn’t talk about how good his food is. Instead, he expressed his appreciation for the recognition and publicity that Michelin has given him. To him, this award is not just for him but for the hawkers in Singapore. I am not sure if he had heard of the Michelin Guide before the award announcement but today, he is in the Guide!
Eric Sim is an adjunct associate professor of finance at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology; an investment banker at UBS; and a blogger on LinkedIn. This article was first published on LinkedIn.