VIOLET OON & TAY YIMING
Violet Oon may be 68 years old, but age has done nothing to strip her of her sharp wit and enthusiasm for her craft. The local culinary icon’s long-standing relationship with food has been a tumultuous one, especially since it didn’t initially brew from passion. Recalling her reluctance to eat when she was young, much to the chagrin of her mother, Violet said food was nothing more than sustenance then. “I was a very skinny child, which you obviously can’t tell now!” But her interest piqued when her family moved to London, where her mother took cooking lessons. Violet returned to Singapore at age 16, and stayed with an Indonesian Chinese grand-aunt, who inducted her into the world of Peranakan cuisine. Fast forward to 2018, the former food journalist and her two children, Tay Su-lyn and Tay Yiming, run three thriving establishments in Bukit Timah, National Gallery Singapore and Clarke Quay. With investor Manoj Murjani, who co-founded TWG Tea, the family has big plans up their sleeves with hopes of global expansion. With these goals in mind, Violet and Yiming exchange thoughts about women in the restaurant business.
What was the culinary scene like when you first started out?
When I was in university in the 1960s, there was the women’s liberation movement going on. It didn’t really affect me because my mum was a liberated woman and my father was also ahead of his time; he didn’t believe in the traditional gender roles. With the movement, women of my generation didn’t want to learn to cook because they saw it as a bondage. I saw it differently—i went into cooking because it was my hobby. Besides your mum and grand-aunt, were there other women you looked up to? Yes, in the ’70s, there were a lot of female chefs coming to the forefront of society. There was Alice Waters, who pioneered the organic food movement, as well as Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer, who brought home-cooking and traditional family recipes to the next level. What was the biggest challenge when you started your business? I was actually foolish when I first started my business because at that time, I didn’t even think to have a business plan. I basically went in blind and things didn’t work out after a few years. However, I suppose that the whole fear of entrepreneurship wasn’t there for me. What do you think are the harshest realities for women in our field? Chefs have a physically demanding job, especially those in Chinese restaurants, where you have to throw the wok, which I can’t do, and lift 20 to 30kg loads of stock. That’s why a lot of women are pastry chefs; it’s an air-conditioned kitchen and they tend to do more elegant fingerwork than men. What about you? Do you think there are barriers for women to enter this industry? There surely are, but things are changing. I recently heard that a female chef friend from Morsels at Dempsey will be competing at the World Gourmet Summit this year, and all the other competitors are men. I was also pleasantly surprised to learn about five recently opened steakhouses, of which two are helmed by female chefs. So it’s obvious that women are stepping up and taking on the challenge. Being a chef may be physically demanding, but they don’t see it as a barrier to entry as much anymore. You’re right. In your generation, chefs no longer seem to divide themselves as men and women. They simply see
each other as chefs. Do you think the media plays a role in perpetuating these gender inequalities and discrimination? I think so. Whenever a female chef achieves something, there’s a lot of hype, but when a man does so, it’s not spoken about. I don’t like it. I’m equally tough on men and women, which is important if you say you want to see them as equals. Do you deal with the men and women working with you the same way? In my case, I have the advantage of working with women. You’re my mother and my boss, and I also work with my elder sister, Su-lyn. This has given me an insight into how a strong woman can hold her own in the workplace. So I don’t think I look at it as difficult to handle; I just learn from example on how to treat people —man or woman—with respect.