SINGAPORE – Unlike most of my profile pieces, this one started 350 km away at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, sitting amongst other prolific food writers in Singapore—Wani, Gary, Si Han, Jessica, Nicholas. We were en route to Singapore after a media trip that had fed us very well over the past three days. I was due to meet Andrew Yap, owner and co-founder of The Old Man Singapore, and I had zero questions prepared. I asked for sage advice from these wizards of words about the kind of person Andrew is, especially when I've seen some of them wax lyrical about his cocktail concoction on their social media pages. But that's the problem, really. Not much is known about the man apart from his libations. Yet, it is a fool's errand to deny that the drinks are very much shaped and informed by the person from whom these spirits burst forth. His is a blank canvas ready to be explored.
I reach The Old Man on a bright and humid Wednesday afternoon —the kind of weather where there's a literal sear of heat on the skin. Wani tells me to look out for a hanging pineapple—an indication of the bar entrance amongst a row of pristine white shophouse units. Upon stepping in, I am greeted by the man himself, Andrew Yap, today wearing a plain white tee and dark blue denim—classic with a touch of casual nonchalance. We are sitting in a warmly lit bar that, like its owner, is handsome with a hint of contemporaneity. It's not a place one would expect to see rowdy rows over broken hearts and invaded space. After all, this is a tribute to Nobel prize winner, Ernest Hemingway, and respect must be paid.
Zat Astha: How do you describe what you do to someone you're meeting for the first time?
Andrew Yap: "Hi, my name is Andrew." Andrew, the person, comes first, Andrew, the owner of The Old Man, comes second. I'm just another regular person that you meet on the street. I don't tell them, oh, I own a bar. Why should I? Just be humble. That goes a long way.
Where does this sense of humility come from?
It's my upbringing. There's no need to show off what you have or to tell people what you have. If it's significant and meaningful, people will eventually know. You see all the rich people. They're so down to earth. They do not need to show people their wealth. They walk into a place with sandals or flip flops and the next minute, you find out he owns a mansion.
What was your childhood like growing up?
I grew up in Penang and moved to Singapore in 1997. My mum was a housekeeper at a hotel, and my dad was a gardener. We didn't come from a well-to-do family—I had a very simple childhood. After I finished my O-Levels, I didn't further my studies because my family couldn't afford it. I was working part-time as a security guard, a factory worker, a despatch rider, anything I could find. With no paper qualifications, I did whatever jobs I could, including as a pasar malam vendor.
My uncle was a professional football player in Penang, and for a while, that was something I considered pursuing professionally. But a motorbike accident left my knees injured and unbalanced. The doctor said if I don't stop playing football, I would be using a cane very soon. I still ride, lah, but only casually and very carefully.
Most interviews you've done don't detail how you got from being a security guard to the owner of a bar. What was your working experience before The Old Man?
When my son was born, I decided to move the entire family to join my wife, who was working for Cathay Pacific and was based in Hong Kong. For a whole year, I was a house daddy because I couldn't find a job—a lot of places can't hire me because I don't have a working visa. When my wife finally got me a dependant visa, still I couldn't find work because I don't have working experience in Hong Kong. I ended up working in a small, little restaurant near my house before gradually moving from place to place.
After that, I worked as a manager for Blue Butcher in 2013, but that didn't last long because I love the nightlife more than working the day shift. My bosses eventually entrusted me to open Stockton bar, and that was where I stayed until 2015.
I came back to Singapore in September 2015. Every interview I went I will ask them, "Are you open for lunch?", "Are you open on Sunday?". I rejected all the offers eventually because of this. That was when Rohit, the owner of Neon Pigeon, offered me a job to manage his restaurant.
How did The Old Man Singapore come about?
Two years plus into Neon Pigeon, me and Agung Prabowo (the co-founder of The Old Man Hong Kong) were already talking about opening The Old Man here in Singapore. And this was when the Hong Kong outfit was just about to begin. We wanted to open in Singapore because of her strategic location being in the middle of all the great cosmopolitan cities in this part of the world.
We had conversations late into the morning about the possibility of a Singapore outlet and then a few months later, we decided that this was something that we were going to do. I was juggling working at Neon Pigeon in the evening and overseeing the opening of The Old Man in the morning.
What makes a perfect cocktail?
In all honesty, there's no such thing as a perfect cocktail. Close to perfect, yes, and that would be a cocktail that embodies both male and female taste buds. The difference between a male and female taste bud is due to a different palette. A male one is always on a heftier, stronger boost. But then again, not all male taste buds are the same, and neither are all female taste buds.
I have a regular who is a lady who drinks my Old Fashioned the whole night, and she will drink about 4 or 5 glasses, and she can still walk around and have shots with me. And then I have male customers who tell me that they're here only for the Pandan cocktail and nothing else. So to say what exactly makes a perfect cocktail is hard. If anything, the ideal cocktail must be consistent. Whether I drink it today or a month later, it still tastes the same.
Is consistency not a common trait?
Oh, no. Go and visit three different bars and order an Old Fashioned. They will all be different, but it shouldn't be. A cocktail is a cocktail, especially if you ask for a classic. That is why here, all our cocktails are measured precisely so that it is consistent. We pride ourselves on this.
What fascinates you about bars?
Because I couldn't be a chef. I wanted to work in a kitchen. My initial job application was to work in a kitchen, but I ended up working in room service because they didn't have an open position for a kitchen helper. I have always been fascinated by food. I still am. I love messing around with cooking at home because, in my mind, I know this flavour will work with this other flavour.
When you visit other bars, what annoys you the most?
Trying to get the attention of the server. Even something as simple as getting the customer a glass of water and a menu. That's it. Yes, you don't have time but doing small things like this shows that you have acknowledged the customer and are aware of their presence. They say a hungry man is an angry man. It's the same with a thirsty man. "I want to get a drink. I'm dying for a drink". It's a complacency issue. People will walk out. They can't and won't wait..
What advice do you have for a young person about to embark on a similar journey as yours?
Don't pursue this until you know the fundamentals of your Profit and Loss statements. You must have intrinsic knowledge of your spreadsheet, how much you have, how much money you can spend and then go out and hire the right person who can manage the place for you. And even then, you must make it your duty to know everything that goes on in the restaurant. I believe that's the most important thing.
Don't do this because you see other people being successful. It shouldn't be that way. You must understand the whole, entire bigger picture first before you dive in. Thinking you can succeed without knowing every single element of the business would prove to your detriment.
What's the biggest misconception people have of you?
That I'm arrogant, strict, and not fun. I think if you see me on the street, you won't talk to me. But actually, I open up very quickly, as evident by this interview, right? It's just my face, lah. *laughs*
The Old Man Singapore is located at 55 Keong Saik Rd., #01-04, Singapore 089158