We visited the cheapest starred restaurant in the world, Hawker Chan

In Singapore the "miracle" of chef Chan. In his sultry kiosk, he serves his famous Soya Sauce Chicken for under 2 euros

13-08-2018

Hawker Chan Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodlein Singapore, one Michelin star. You’ll hardly spend over 10 euros

Back from Singapore, where we attended the 25th edition of the local Food Festival, only a few days ago, I have plenty of notes of which I’ll gradually write. The most interesting story is perhaps that of Chan Hong Meng, a tiny man born in 1965, who’s originally from Ipoh, in Malaysia, which comes as no surprise given that Singapore is a melting pot of different ethnicities. The Chinese dominates (73%) followed by Malaysian (13%), Indian (9%) and so on, including quite a few Europeans and the peranakancommunity, that is to say "of Chinese descent", referring to the rich Chinese merchants who settled in Malacca and the Straits separating it from Indonesia between the 16th and 17th century. They married local Malaysian women and kept their traditions, mixing within the same group until our days, so that they have preserved the original culture, even in terms of gastronomy.

Chan Hong Meng

Chan Hong Meng

But back to Chan Hong Meng. A man of few words, he recently said: «I grew up in a village, my parents were farmers. They had pigs, ducks and worked in the fields». At 15, in 1980, he left school and, since his dream was to become a chef, he knocked on the door of a restaurant in Singapore directed by a chef from Hong Kong. He became an apprentice. It was a crucial experience, and inspired the dishes that today have brought him under the spotlights of the culinary universe.

A leap in time, to 2016. During the 36 years after the previous episode, Mr Chan Hong Meng opened his business, Hong Kong Soya Sauce Noodles (the sign was a tribute to his master from Hong Kong), a kiosk like many others in Singapore (they say there are around 6 thousand), and in Asia, to feed guests with simple dishes to eat there and there, for a few dollars. In 2009 he changed location, and moved to booth 126 on the second floor of the Chinatown Food Complex, one of the many buildings scattered with food stalls like his, at the Hawker Centre. He changed name, which became the complicated: Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle. This is where his luck came.

In 2016, in July, Mr Chan got a letter: it was an invitation to participate in the award giving ceremony of the first Michelin Guide of Singapore, whose birth had been announced a few weeks earlier. He thought it was a prank. «I thought: why should the Michelin guide be interested in my kiosk?» he later said. He called a representative from the Red Guide to find out more: he confirmed the invitation was for real. This was the dialogue. Chan: «I’ve never heard of Michelin inspectors tasting street food. Can a street vendor like me be awarded?». The reply: «We only judged the food, not the place». On the 21st July 2016 Chan took the underground and went to luxury hotel Resort World Sentosa, where he got a Michelin star. Unexpected. Very unexpected.

Touched, he also spoke on the stage. He said: «Whether you’re a chef or a street vendor, you must work hard at every moment, as if you always had a Michelin inspector there, eating your food». He also stressed that you should treat each client as if he was the dearest person in your life; he continued comparing chefs and doctors, when they both have the goal of providing wellbeing and health to guests.

The second location of the Hawker Chan Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle. It’s more comfortable, with air conditioning 

The second location of the Hawker Chan Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle. It’s more comfortable, with air conditioning 

There’s always been a queue in front of Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle; as of the day following the prize, it increased further so much so that Chan Hong Meng opened new kiosks and in fact real small restaurants, in Singapore and beyond, as we’ll see. But he didn’t increase the prices: «I don’t think it would be right, just because I won a prize. Yes, my suppliers have quadrupled their prices over the past 7 years. But I will continue to try not to touch them as long as I can». In the meantime, what food can you find?

The house specialty is soya sauce chicken, delicious, served with rice or noodles, lovely. The price? Two Singaporean dollars for the rice version, and 2.5 for the one with noodles: respectively 1.25 and 1.57 euros. He marinates the chicken for at least 5 hours in a secret mix of herbs and spices which the chef prepares each morning; there are limited quantities, 180 portions. The restaurant is open from 10 am to 8 pm but you often won’t find this dish by late afternoon.

Soya sauce chicken with rice

Soya sauce chicken with rice

Excellent noodles

Excellent noodles

Chinese cabbage marinated in soya sauce 

Chinese cabbage marinated in soya sauce 

If you prefer a beautifully glazed pork rib, the bill reaches 3 dollars, 1.88 euros, while you spend 2.5 euros each, for the deliciously crispy roasted pork belly, and the char siew rice, which means "roasted fork" with rice. It’s a dish made in a traditional way: deboned strips of pork, pierced with long forks, placed in the oven, covered, or over the fire. It’s nice to taste all this with the steamed vegetables marinated with soya sauce and covered in peanuts (or crispy garlic) crumbs. It’s mostly Chinese cabbage: it’s 3 or 4 dollars more, depending on the available vegetables. Do you prefer soya beans? 2 more dollars. If you want to overdo it, take a whole soya sauce chicken, it’s 14 dollars, 8.8 euros. In other words, even if you want to leave feeling really full, you’ll hardly spend over 10 euros, including drinks.

This is how it works: you patiently wait in line – avoid peak hours if you don’t want to wait very long – and keep at a little distance from the kiosk, so as not to interfere with the work of the nearby stalls. After all, we are in a Hawker Centre. When your turn arrives, you order from the counter, wait for the food and then take your tray to one of the tables scattered around. There’s an issue: Singapore has a hot and humid climate throughout most of the year, plus the Chinatown Food Complex – a covered place with rather low ceilings – has a series of food stalls from which thick cooking fumes arrives, so that the fans scattered here and there won’t be enough to freshen up the air.

We also tasted the wonton soup

We also tasted the wonton soup

There is however a solution, with a premise. After obtaining one star – confirmed for the third year in a row only a couple of weeks ago - Chan Hong Meng received many offers from entrepreneurs interested in doing business with him. He also considered the possibility of selling his soya sauce chicken recipe, for 2 million Singaporean dollars. In the end, he made a different choice: in October 2016 he signed a deal with Harry Chua, the head of Hersing Culinary, a local culinary brand that owned the Tim Ho Wan brand at the time – one Michelin star since 2010, in Hong Kong,for their dim sum, which also competes for the title of "cheapest starred restaurant in the world", with prices similar to Chan’s. Today Tim Ho Wanis a brand with 45 restaurants in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Philippines, Australia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, United States and Cambodia (the other giant Jollibee Foods Corp, from the Philippines, has just arrived in Milan in Piazza Diaz, and bought the brand a few weeks ago for 33.4 million dollars). From this partnership, the Hawker Chanrestaurant chain was born.

The "comfortable" Hawker Chan location, a few steps from the historic one

The "comfortable" Hawker Chan location, a few steps from the historic one

Today Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle is called Hawker Chan Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle. And only a few steps away (50 metres) from the historic location, they’ve opened the first Hawker Chan in pure McDonaldsstyle, in November 2016: no longer a kiosk, but a real restaurant, with air conditioning and the usual queue at the counter, with trays and tables where you can eat. With a paradox: the food is the same, we didn’t notice any remarkable difference, but it’s more expensive than at its starred sister – in this case the establishment only "received" a Bib Gourmand. Prices are however still very accessible: for the famous soya sauce chicken with rice you’ll spend 3.8 dollars, which is almost twice the original 2, but it’s still only 2.38 euros. We also tasted a combo of three pork specialties (pork belly, ribs and char siew) for 10 dollars.

The combo dish with three pork recipes 

The combo dish with three pork recipes 

Two final notes. After these two points of sale, many others followed, the latest of which opened in Manila only a few days ago; but you can also find Hawker Chan restaurants in Taiwan, Jakarta in Indonesia, Bangkok and Pattaya in Thailand, Melbourne in Australia. And the goal is to grow further. In all cases, the secret mixture for the chicken marinade is prepared in the main shop and sent to the various places.

Chan Hong Meng at the Michelin Singapore award giving ceremony in 2016, when he got the Michelin star 

Chan Hong Meng at the Michelin Singapore award giving ceremony in 2016, when he got the Michelin star 

Second note. Given that, as the Michelin inspector whom Chan Hong Meng contacted said, the Red Guide’s judgement is «only based on food, not on the restaurant», which was also confirmed by the Italian director Sergio Lovrinovich («The star is only in the dish»): why is it that you can give a star – and a well-deserved one – to a sultry kiosk, and not to our best and elegant pizzerias? One couldn’t even claim that pizza «is a single product, a single base with a limited series of ingredients on top», again the words of Lovrinovich. There’s surely much more choice in the menu at Simone Padoan’s or Franco Pepe’s, to mention two cases, than at Hawker Chan, where the offer is basically limited to 5 or 6 dishes, chicken or pork, and a couple of side dishes. So why? It’s a mystery.

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso


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