It's 8.30am in the morning and a lone figure is squatting on the floor at Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle, his hands deftly pushing around pieces of raw meat in a grey container filled with a rust-red marinade. The man in question is 52-year-old Mr. Chan Hon Meng, chef-owner of this humble hawker stall that made headlines for garnering a Michelin star in Singapore's first-ever Michelin Guide. His stall opens at 1030am, but eager diners start falling in line from 9am. His signature dish, soya sauce chicken rice, goes for $2 a plate, a seemingly inflation-proof price point that has remained the same for the past eight years. You'll be hard-pressed to find hawker food in Singapore for $2, much less a dish from a Michelin-starred establishment. Below, we sat down with Chan, who took time off his punishing schedule to speak with us.
Where are you from?
I'm from Ipoh, Malaysia.
When did you come to Singapore?
I came to Singapore to work in 1987.
Have you always been a chef?
Yes, but not always in siu mei (a culinary discipline in Cantonese cuisine that focuses on the roasting of meats). I started working as a cook in the kitchen when I was around 18 years old. I was an apprentice then and was involved in every part of the cooking process, from prepping of ingredients to cooking and cleaning.
When did you start your business? What drove you to open Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle?
I started the business in 2009. It was difficult to find jobs at that time and I wanted to see if I could make a living from my culinary skills.
Has your stall always been located at Chinatown Complex Food Centre?
Yes, it has always been here for the past eight years.
What makes your soya sauce chicken rice so special?
It is probably because of my secret recipe [smiles]. Everyone has their own style of cooking, which leads to their own recipes. You can never stop learning and improving. It can always be better and more delicious the next time.
Where do you source your ingredients from?
I buy them fresh every morning. I have to pick them from different places, and if they are not good, then I'll have to change them. The ingredients have to meet the standard that I'm looking for and align with my cooking methods.
What time do you wake to open the stall and what time do you go home?
I wake up around 5am in the morning and head home around 10pm at night. It's very exhausting.
I heard that you are off on Wednesdays. What do you usually do on your day off?
I try to spend time with the family. However, I still have to come back here to prepare some of the ingredients as I only have time to do that during my day off.
Do you make all the sauces yourself?
Yes, all by myself. Because it is the secret recipe, no one else knows how to make it. I have to make them on my own.
How many chickens do you sell everyday? What about char siu?
We're looking at around 150 chickens and 25kg of char siu.
What time do you usually sell out?
Around 4pm or 5pm. People ask me if I can prepare more food, but as time and capacity is limited, the most important thing for me is to make sure that the taste and quality of the dish remains the same.
You are the only chef working in the kitchen right now. Have you thought about hiring help?
I'm thinking about it. However, it's not easy to find the right people whom I can teach. I want to take this stall to another level. It can't be a small hawker stall forever.
Have you thought about opening another outlet?
I have thought about it. I have to wait for the right time and location.
Have any restaurants or organisations reached out to you with offers to expand the business?
Yes, there are. I have to consider their ideas and see how they can bring this stall to the next level. We're in discussions but I have not committed to anything yet.
Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle. #02-126, 335 Smith Street, Chinatown Complex Market & Food Centre