For 30 years, he works 100 hours a week and, in the last 8 years, he has been selling chicken noodle for less US$2 a plate. Today, Mr Chan Hon Meng's small and modest soya sauce chicken stall made dining history as it became
the first street food stall in the world to be awarded a Michelin star.
From Ipoh Malaysia, Mr Chan came to Singapore to learn how to cook soya sauce chicken from Hong Kong masters in the 1980s. In 2009, he decided to open in a hawker stall in Chinatown Singapore. I believe he has 8 qualities which attributed to his winning of the Michelin star.
Behind the hot stuffy stall, Mr Chan turns himself into an ultrasonic chopping machine churning out plate after plate of savoury soya sauce chicken noodle. It is his super high efficiency that allows him to sell 150 chicken a day. The not-very-tall chef customised his workspace to ensure the chopping board is at the optimal height for him. Most of us would have dislocated our shoulder or wrist within a day of working there.
"I see no daylight!" said Mr Chan who goes to work early morning when the sky is still pitch-dark and ends each day well after dinner time. For 5 hours, he prepares the chicken, roasts the pork and cooks the rice before opening for business at around 10am. Once he starts serving his first customer, it is non-stop till last chicken is sold. Describing Mr Chan who works 100 hours a week as a hardworking man is an understatement.
Most street food vendors wear t-shirt to work given the hot and oily working environment but not Mr Chan who puts on white uniform everyday. He has 6 of these uniforms and one with logo for special occasion. He takes pride in his trade and this is being professional.
Despite a tiring routine, customers trying to cut queue and occasional confusion with customers' orders, he maintains a friendly attitude towards his customers and breaks into a smile every now and now.
It would take the friendly chef a full day of earnings to afford a meal at any Joël Robuchon 3-star restaurants but he said he is happy and contented with his current situation. He would like to dine at a Joël Robuchon restaurant one day but the restaurant that really catches his fancy is Yung Kee in Hong Kong for its infamous roast goose.
Talked about his food, Mr Chan eyes lit up. Mr Chan: "My chickens are from Malaysia and they are leaner compared to chickens from colder countries. If I use chicken from other countries, the taste will be not be as good.". He also shared with me his recipe which I promised not to reveal in this article.
Asked him why he is selling his food so cheap, he said that is the fair price for the location of the hawker centre where he operates. He is not even thinking of taking advantage of his recent fame to charge more. Maximising short-term profit is not his top agenda but treating customers well is. He puts many people, including myself, in the banking industry to shame.
Media and customers congratulated him on award but Mr Chan didn't talk about how good his food is. Instead, he expressed his appreciation for the recognition and publicity that Michelin has given him. To him, this award is not just for him but for the hawkers in Singapore. Until he was invited to attend the award ceremony, the humble chef had not heard about Michelin but today, he is in the Guide!
(Mr Chan squeezed between the armpit of Mr Michael Ellis, International Director of Michelin Guides, in black and French celebrity chef Mr Joël Robuchon)
Photo credits: Special thanks to photojournalist Yong Teck Lim for allowing me to use his brilliant photos, other credits: Malcolm Lee (cover photo), Getty Image/AFP/R Raman (award ceremony photo), Straits Times/Seah Kwang Peng (last photo)