Photography by Jeremy Nguee
In my school years, I was a religious reader of the Chubby Hubby blog – that’s how I first learnt about Jeremy Nguee. Chef and owner of catering company Preparazzi, Jeremy’s work focuses on how he can create fun and interesting events where customers can discover, learn and appreciate the unique and diverse food culture we have better. In recent years, he has started a few other food concepts – Batu Lesung Spice Company selling spice pastes, MRS KUEH which he runs with his mother, and Dream Shop which offers gourmet versions of hawker favourites.
Below, Jeremy shares about why he believes that the notion of “authenticity” is holding people back from cooking local food, the joys of starting a brand with his mum, and what cooking hawker food has taught him.
My passion for food and cooking was… impressed on me at a young age and I love hosting parties! I’m blessed to have a foodie family – my mum is an avid cook and so are her sisters. Family gatherings at festive periods were a big affair and there would be both heritage dishes as well as more European ones. There were not many heritage cookbooks accessible when I was learning how to cook in my teens, so my foray into cooking began with a lot of Italian and French cookbooks.
A mindset shift happened for me in… 2012, when I went to St Petersburg to help set up a modern Asian bistro. Instead of developing contemporary versions of heritage dishes, my Russian client just wanted the recipes in the traditional home-style version. What I thought of as home cooking and common was cutting edge cuisine in other parts of the world! That was when I realized that I was sitting on a culinary treasure.
Cooking hawker food at home is… truly humbling. After graduating from making burgers and grilling steaks, my family started taking on more ambitious challenges like making hokkien mee and beef noodles at home. Our early versions were hardly close at all to what we get at hawker centres, and it took many tries to get it right! It made me realize that the tremendous amount of effort and skill to replicate even the most ubiquitous dishes like Hainanese chicken rice – it deepened my appreciation for the hawker masters whose dishes I hanker after.
My advice to Singaporeans who would like to cook more local food at home is… to just try. The Internet boasts a lot more resources these days and, while not all recipes may work well, it provides an easy starting point. Go easy on yourself and have fun!
The perceived hurdle to cook heritage food… is really just laziness lah. If you can spend $3 buying your favourite mee soto, there are few motivations to try grinding your own rempah, boiling your own 3-hour chicken stock and mashing potatoes for begedil. And beyond that, you have the preparation of the numerous condiments that go with and the subsequent wash up after… just take my money!
There’s also the myth of wanting something to be authentic – there is the constant fear of eye ball rolling from a critic to say “oh, grandma adds kaffir lime leaves to ayam oppor” or because my mother ‘agak-agak’ so there’s no clear recipe to follow. When in reality, the only authentic recipe is the one you make often for your family. So just try a variety of recipes and feel free to tweak it to suit your own style – after all, a dish only becomes tradition when it’s a taste memory that you leave for your children.
I started a kueh brand called MRS KUEH with my mother because… I know that she always had a strong desire to start something for herself, but that ambition has always taken a back seat to looking after people. Through the years, my mum has been cooking for the church, various charities and of course for the family.
Looking around, it is easy to see the many women (and some men) who have done the same – putting aside their own personal goals to care for the family. You can spot them easily – this is the woman who is in charge of all the meals at Ramadan or the one who feeds her entire clan at her house during Deepavali. MRS KUEH hopes to represent all these women. And I hope that as people discover our little brand, they will also find a new appreciation for the MRS KUEH in their lives.
Working with my mum is… enjoyable! My mum loves trying different recipes and testing out different methods to get the results she wants. I really enjoy brainstorming with her. She can get quite obsessive and is very rigorous in her testing and that is something I am working on. I started a kueh brand with her called MRS KUEH and through the brand we have helped make kueh kueh more relevant and cool for a new generation. I’m really proud of what she has done.
Being a gourmand or foodie… should mean that your hunger for food should extend beyond consuming vast amounts of it. You should be innately curious about the processes and where the food comes from and why a specific specimen is unique or different.
As a father, I… bring my son to different places and cook a variety of foods at home. It is good to encourage your youngsters to be curious. Learning different sports, being exposed to different languages, acquiring different skills are all part of the fun of living. Eating lots of delicious food is also the same. We talk about nasi lemak with the same enthusiasm as burgers and sushi too.
He’s an old soul though and already prefers his Asian food since young – chok and ngao lam min at Mui Kee are firm favourites as is the fish hor fun and pork rib king at HK Street Tze Char. A recent discovery for him is the soto betawi from Chef Eugenia from Table at 7, he can eat it multiple meals in a row, tendon, tripe and all.
Thinking about the future of Singaporean food, I feel… hopeful! We have chefs and authors like yourself who put out seminal works like from Wet Market to Table. There is renewed interest from both young and older home cooks who are discovering our national flavours in different ways.
We have many young families who buy kueh kueh and spice pastes from MRS KUEH and Batu Lesung Spice Company and sharing their own taste memories from their childhood. I love hearing their stories of how their toddlers love the kueh kosui or their children starting to love spicy food after their first taste of curry chicken.
The future of Singaporean food is only just being discovered both locally and globally, so there’s certainly potential. But the most important place for it to grow is in your home, and in your heart.