Feature: Leaving glitzy fine-dining world behind for hawker stall selling Singapore-style ramen

Source: Xinhua| 2019-03-14 20:47:05|Editor: xuxin
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by Toh Ee Ming

SINGAPORE, March 14 (Xinhua) -- It takes around one and a half minutes for A Noodle Story's chef Gwern Khoo to prepare a bowl of his Singapore-style ramen.

It's a combination of Hong-Kong style springy wonton noodles, accompanied by generous slices of fresh pork flown in from Spain that has been slow-cooked sous vide for 36 hours. To add the finishing touch, the dish is topped off with a Japanese style ramen egg, a deliciously crunchy, deep-fried potato prawn and garnished with a dollop of homemade sambal chili sauce.

This is not a meal served up at a high-end ramen restaurant, but at a tiny, unassuming stall within Amoy Street Food Center in Tanjong Pagar, in central Singapore.

But A Noodle Story's humble exterior belies its star-studded resume and its chefs have been trained in kitchens.

Noticing that there was an uptrend in Japanese ramen chain restaurants sprouting up in Singapore in recent years, Khoo, 38, thought it was "now or never" to start his own business with fellow chef Ben Tham in 2013. Starting out, he battled the grit, heat and fatigue of clocking in 44-hour work weeks.

Only 200 bowls are served a day, mostly to the well-heeled office crowd in the area. If it does not meet their standards of quality, consistency and presentation, it is rejected. For instance, if the noodles are cooked "one second longer, we can't use it", said Khoo. About 25 percent of each batch of ingredients is discarded, even though it eats into their profit margins.

Khoo said, "We're no magicians, we can't transform lousy ingredients into something really good ... so we learn to take care of each ingredient, the process and technique involved."

This pursuit for perfection has earned them the coveted spot of being on the Bib Gourmand list of Singapore's Michelin Guide in 2016 and 2017.

"It was an acknowledgement to our struggle for excellence in every bowl that we send out, and we were very excited, surprised and happy that our hard work paid off," recalled Khoo.

"We aim to serve each bowl the best we can and make people happy through our food," he added.

Already, the business has opened three franchise outlets in Hong Kong under multi-concept restaurant Tian Tian Plus, and is due to open its fourth and fifth outlet in Hong Kong's Sha Tin area and Shenzhen city in the Chinese mainland.

But Khoo "doesn't believe in expanding too fast."

He said, "I'd rather build the foundation and the roots strong, and once you get the roots right, maybe it will expand like mushrooms."

Noting many young hawkers enter the trade "full of vigor and big dreams" but end up closing their stalls quickly, Khoo said that the hawker trade may not be what they expect, especially after they "come in and get their hands dirty."

"You need to put in the hard work and listen to feedback. It takes years to build up a customer base of loyal fans ... You can't expect to open and immediately see a long queue right in front of you," he suggested.