INTERVIEW: Chef Jason Chua ‘Beng Who Cooks’ - “If you need food for the day, ask and we will provide”

Jason 'Beng Who Cooks'. (PHOTO: Beng Who Cooks)
Jason 'Beng Who Cooks'. (PHOTO: Beng Who Cooks)

By all accounts, Jason Chua does not fit into the mould of what many would expect of a chef. Jason is the driving force behind Beng Who Cooks—a hawker stall he set up in 2018 as a partnership with Singaporean boxer, Muhamad Ridhwan and gym coach, Fairuz Mohamed. Here, he sells Singapore-style poké bowls in Hong Lim Food centre, with a menu that changes seasonally. He is brash, honest, and if his Instagram stories are to be believed, a straight talker who takes no prisoners when he sets his heart and mind on something.

It is an attitude that serves him particularly well with the formation of Beng Who Cares Foundation, an initiative that aims to provide food for anybody unable to afford meals until the end of the Singapore’s circuit breaker measures. With his friend, Zhen Long, Beng Who Cares Foundation has, thus far, provided close to over S$500 worth of meals to anyone who asks.

Yet, Jason is insistent on not accepting donations for this cause, having received financial backing from a friend who was moved to action when he saw an elderly gentleman begging for loose change. Jason would much rather everyone spread the word of this initiative so that he can reach more people in need and help them at a time when they need assistance the most—no questions asked, no proof of hardship required.

What do you remember of your initial reaction when you received official news that everyone was required to work from home, especially since your stall is in proximity to the CBD area?

I warned the older stallholders not to be arrogant and remind them that Circuit Breaker starts on Wednesday and that it’s already Friday. I tell them that we are in the CBD area, and even before the official announcement, people were already working from home. Monday will be worse. But, you know how older people are like, they are stubborn. So, ignoring my advice, they decided to open for business anyway but was taken aback by the lack of crowd when Circuit Breaker measures commenced. For us, the moment the announcement was made, we closed shop. We pivoted to do islandwide delivery to prevent food wastage and more importantly, to save on cost.

Aside from sales numbers, what worries you the most about the measures being taken this month?

My life revolves around money and my business. So apart from that, what worries me the most is that I won’t be able to see my wife. I miss her a lot, and because we don’t stay together, we can’t meet up. All we can do is video-call whenever we can. It’s also not helping with my mental health because I’ve lost the one person I depended on and used to see frequently. It’s a bit cliche, I know, but it is what it is.

How have April plans in the works been affected by this partial lockdown?

The plan was to launch our Season 9 menu in April—we change the menu every three months. There were also other business plans we wanted to execute outside of this hawker business. But all that had to be put on pause when COVID-19 landed in Singapore.

A variety of meals Jason 'Beng Who Cooks' is offering. (PHOTO: Beng Who Cooks)
A variety of meals Jason 'Beng Who Cooks' is offering. (PHOTO: Beng Who Cooks)

What do you wish the government could do better in absorbing the impact of this situation for FnB businesses such as yours?

Honestly, I used not to be a fan of the present government. But after seeing how they handled this situation with COVID-19, I start to appreciate what they do a lot more. I even argued with someone today who claimed the government wasn’t doing enough. People need to understand that although we may think S$100 is little if you count, that S$100 multiplied by the number of Singaporeans in this country comes up to a lot. Overall, I think the government is doing a good job.

So you feel the government has done its best for the situation given the circumstances?

Yes, they have. Granted, they have never handled a situation like this before. While it’s true that they are still spoon-feeding us, they are actually releasing news that is easy to digest and prevents us from going into full-blown panic mode. Look at what happens when Singaporeans overreact. Just look at the panic-buying situation. I mean, how stupid are we?

Being in the food industry, how do you feel when you see people panic buy?

Those panic buyers severely affected our stocks, especially when some of the things we buy are from NTUC. But with the restrictions on staple goods, it has made it harder for them to stock up. I understand where they’re coming from - they’re just worried. Plus humans are born to be naturally selfish, so, can we really blame them?

Close-up of a meal. (PHOTO: Beng Who Cooks)
Close-up of a meal. (PHOTO: Beng Who Cooks)

What advice would you give to other F&B owners such as yourself in getting through this tough time?

Hang in there and don't ever give up. I know it's tough now, but at least we can serve the community and have meaningful work, rather than just staying at home watching Netflix. As much as possible, help those who are in need. Give them food or lend a helping hand. We have a valuable skill where we can cook and feed others in need. So we should help where we can.

When you look at the current state of dining in Singapore now arising from the COVID-19 situation, what is the one thing that gives you hope?

That actually, Singaporeans are very helpful. I set up Beng Who Cares Foundation on 6 April, and the reception was crazy with so many people willing to help fellow Singaporeans to make sure nobody goes hungry. Beng Who Cares Foundation was something I founded to help everyone and anyone—no questions asked. If you think you need food for the day, ask, and we will provide.

Tiding over Circuit Breaker and WFH: