As someone who has gone through a mid-career switch quite late in my life, I can attest to the initial helplessness and questioning of my worth in thinking that I can do better than what I already have. When I meet other people like me, it’s like an instant connection of knowing and understanding all their insecurities and fears in embarking on something completely unrelated to their previous career—a life that no longer sparks joy.
It’s a philosophy that mimics Chef Renée Tang’s journey from the depths of corporate bureaucracy to the free-spirited and fast-paced world of gastronomy. She had traded power dresses and air-conditioned offices for an apron and kitchen where the stove burns bright, but perhaps not as brilliantly as her spirit and drive for the fine art of food. Tang was formerly part of the kitchen team at Le Binchotan, and today, she is the chef-owner of home-based business, Jelebu Dry Laksa.
What was your childhood like growing up, and how has this affected your relationship with food today?
I have always been the chubby kid growing up in Singapore! I lived with my Mom, sister, Godpa, Godma, their sons and Grandma growing up. A large family of nine to ten members, including the helpers, meant that dinner every day was always a feast. We essentially had a bowl of soup and five to six other dishes on the table every evening. Hence, I looked forward to every day’s meal and fell in love with food and eating so much.
My favourites were when my late Godpa cooked Paella, Ji Bao Gai (paper-wrapped chicken) and his famous, classic Otah—which is now on my menu. The family also loved hotpot, and it was always a thing for annual CNY celebrations and get-togethers. Until today, we still carry on this tradition, preserving some of my late Grandma’s classics as well.
Your path to food came from a background of events management to a corporate stint before jumping into the world of gastronomy. How did you get to where you are now, and, in hindsight, what would you have done differently if you could do it all over again?
Since graduating from school, I’ve worked for about five years in the corporate sector before embarking on my journey with food. From Events Management to Venture Capital to Culinary, it has indeed been a considerable leap. Honestly, when I decided to explore my passion, I did not worry much, knowing I would give it my all going forward. I wouldn’t change a single thing!
All the past experiences and people I’ve met have helped me in one way or another and shaped me into who I am today. The type of rigour and fearlessness that I possess have stemmed from what I’ve been through in life and different careers.
What about food and cooking excites you?
The list would be endless, but if I have to choose - it would be flavour and cooking methods. Like I always say, “You learn something new every day.”
I am always intrigued by how different combinations of ingredients can lead to a completely different flavour profile or the way a particular element is presented on a plate via different cooking methods. The adrenaline and multitasking during service to churn out food really makes you feel alive, and before you know it, hours have gone by!
Your food speciality is in dry laksa, admittedly, not a dish everyone is familiar with. How would you convince a staunch lover of a Penang or Singapore Laksa to take a chance on its close cousin, the dry laksa?
I feel consumers these days are more open to trying different variations of a traditional dish. My Dry Laksa may not be the same as what is being sold outside as “Dry” Laksa—my version is a little more of Hokkien Mee type of wetness. I don’t stir-fry the noodles with the rempah paste, nor do I blanch the noodles and make it into a soup like the comforting Penang or Singapore Laksa.
I guess that’s where my Jelebu Dry Laksa meets both versions halfway. I simmer the noodles in my own heavier, saucier type broth, and wait for the noodles to soak up the essence of laksa. The reason why I chose to work with premium seafood such as lobsters was due to the lack of offerings in the market when it comes to traditional food. I personally love seafood and laksa and wanted to create something unique out of it.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about home cooks?
I think people think we have it easier than restaurants as there are no overheads like rent and staff costs. However, a lot of other factors come into play when working with a non-commercial kitchen, limited storage space, for example, which restricts the quantity of food we can deliver given a period of time. More importantly, the admin work and arranging (and paying) for deliveries take up a considerable chunk.
What has been the hardest thing about being a home-based business that most people are unaware?
Running a home-based business made me realise the luxury of having a team working in a commercial kitchen. People have the same level of customer service expectations regardless of operation size, and it’s tough to juggle between cooking and managing the operations alone.
When you look at the state of dining in Singapore today, what is the one thing that gives you hope?
It is sad to see many F&B establishments we know closing down due to COVID-19. It has indeed been a challenging 2020 for everyone. However, during such tough times, many bonds have been created within the F&B committee; with operators collaborating to assure the survival of the dining scene in Singapore. The fact that everyone spurs on one another with moral support itself is deeply encouraging, and I believe we will get through this critical period together.
For more information, go to http://instagram.com/jelebudrylaksa
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