Singapore Tatler - - STYLE JEWELLERY -

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.

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