Tay Su-Lyn, Violet Oon's Daughter, Steps Into the Light
I’m sure many of you have heard of Violet Oon or have dined at her three eponymous restaurants, which have enjoyed resounding success in the past three years. After all, she is Singapore’s doyenne of Peranakan cuisine who has put local food on the global culinary map. However, few are aware that her journey of finally becoming a skilful restaurateur—a title that has eluded her for the longest time—could not have been made possible without her daughter, Tay Su-Lyn. Although Su-Lyn prefers to be in the background and does not grant many interviews, her unassuming nature should not be mistaken for a supporting role, as she is just as accomplished to be in the spotlight. Before joining the family business, Su-Lyn was the co-founder and designer of T-Bags, a successful LA-based fashion label, which she ran for 13 years before selling to her business partner. Her bags and clothes—a mélange of vintage glam meets boho chic—at one time had gained a following among Hollywood celebrities, and were donned by the cast of Sex and the City: The Movie. Since then, Su-Lyn has parlayed her creativity and drive into developing new concepts for Violet Oon Inc. by revitalising and elevating the storied brand, while still preserving Singapore’s diverse culinary heritage. Her brother, Tay Yiming, has also joined the charge by overseeing operations and staff training. Together, they plan to create an experience around the food they grew up with, by “presenting authentic Nyonya and local fare in the best way possible to Singaporeans and an international audience”. In person, Su-Lyn is enchanting; not only for her beguiling looks, but for her remarkable poise and sensitivity that warmly radiates through your soul. The more time you spend in her presence, the more captivating she gets, as her deep, sonorous voice draws you in further, breaking down any walls of inhibition. As I begin to ask more questions, she answers every single one with untrammelled candour, and there is a frank, human delivery that isn’t wanting to impress, but with the genuine desire to connect. I tell her I am surprised that no one has done an in-depth profile on her, given the fact that she has managed to transform her mother’s narrative into a thriving restaurant empire—despite past failed attempts in the 1990s. “My mum is fantastic at her craft, but she has never had the opportunity to do it right,” Su-Lyn says. “And I have always felt that my brother and I would be able to tell her story the best, because we know her so well.” While Su-Lyn has worked hard to tell her mother's story, it's time someone told hers.
WY-LENE YAP: How was it like growing up in your household with food playing such a huge role in your mother’s life?
TAY SU-LYN: Amazingly yummy. [laughs] My brother and I are not the typical foodies who have to check out the latest food trends or restaurants. Actually, I love grandma’s cooking or going to people’s houses to eat, as I enjoy home-cooked meals. We also followed my mum around a lot when she had her food tastings—sometimes even overseas—and we would try all the local food in each city. So in a way, we were exposed to different cuisines at a young age.
WY-LENE: Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
SU-LYN: Probably not! I hated going to school. [laughs] I was very unhappy because it was boring and tough…
WY-LENE: What did you study in university?
SU-LYN: Industrial economics and accounting. It’s funny because I had a housemate who was taking the same course as me, but eventually decided to pursue her passion in early childhood education. I was also kind of in the same boat as her because I wasn't sure about what I really wanted to do. One day, I was telling her that I had difficulty reading and she asked me to read to her. The next thing she said was, “I think you are dyslexic.”
WY-LENE: So you only discovered that you were dyslexic when you were 20?!
SU-LYN: Yeah! For the longest time, I couldn’t understand why I got 1 out of 10 for spelling.
WY-LENE: How did you pass all your exams?
SU-LYN: Barely! I was always second last in class, but I was really good in math and economics since it’s about understanding the concepts. Subjects like history were painful because I had to memorise all the words… and chunks of information…
WY-LENE: Well, you don’t need good grades in life to be successful.
SU-LYN: I think in life, you learn to survive.
WY-LENE: I’m aware that you are a big foodie. How would you describe your relationship with food?
SU-LYN: I am very greedy. I like very strong flavours and deep-fried foods like the crispy pork lard that you get on your mee pok.
WY-LENE: What is your favourite dish cooked by your mum?
SU-LYN: I used to love her buah keluak. And we would get to eat it once a year during Chinese New Year because it takes so much effort. Cooking was really a labour of love for my mum and she would express herself through food. But now that we serve it at our restaurants, the charm has been taken away since I’ve probably tasted it a million times. [laughs]
WY-LENE: Your mum has had some past failures in the food business. If anything at all, what have you learned from them?
SU-LYN: When I was around six years old, my mum would always say that she didn’t know what to do with my brother and I. But when I turned 12, she started to talk to us like adults. She would tell me about her businesses, her hopes and dreams… and in my head, I could kind of see that it wouldn’t work because there were so many things that she hadn’t thought of back then. To be honest, at that time, she didn’t have anyone to help her—she could handle the creative part but the business model, the execution, etc… weren’t in place. I think growing up and seeing her go through all those experiences, was probably better than anything that I could have learnt in school. And despite all those failures, it still doesn’t take away from what she stands for and what her purpose is—which is to preserve Singapore’s food heritage.
WY-LENE: What does heritage mean to you?
SU-LYN: The stories that people tell: either with their family, the way they eat or the traditional methods of cooking. For example, in the Peranakan household, why do they eat at a long table and not a round table? Back in the day, Peranakans could speak English because a lot of them would entertain the British by inviting them to their homes, and the wives would cook a scrumptious meal for their guests. So food was served on a long table to emulate the English culture. In Peranakan cuisine, the sauces are so salty and flavourful because the men would eat all the meat in a dish, while the women would get the second layer—sauce with rice.
SU-LYN: I grew up listening to these interesting nuggets of information, and I want to share them with people.
WY-LENE: You used to run a successful fashion label called T-Bags in L.A. for 13 years before you sold it to your business partner [Shadi Askari]. How did that experience shape you as a person?
SU-LYN: I met my business partner when I was studying fashion merchandising in school. We were in the same class and she said to me: “I’m thinking of sewing bags, do you want to start a bag company?” During that time (20 years ago), the whole vintage revival was very in. So I got a sewing machine, and decided to give it a go, because in life you won’t know until you try. We started sewing bags using vintage materials and sold them out of our trunk. Having that experience made me realise that I could create anything with my own hands.
WY-LENE: What were you most famous for?
SU-LYN: Our leather bags were a hit because at that time, the 'tooled cowboy' look was extremely trendy, so Barneys and Neiman Marcus started selling our bags. Another major plus point was how our bags came in 20 different colours with various appliques. After experimenting with bags, we began sewing fringes and applique patches onto jeans (which we bought wholesale). Surprisingly, they started to sell and more orders would come in. So I thought to myself: this could really work! After graduating from fashion school, I asked my dad if I could borrow $6,000 to start my own business. Gradually, it evolved from bags into a clothing line with vintage-inspired prints.
WY-LENE: I remember you telling me that a lot of celebrities wore your stuff, even the Sex and the City cast.
SU-LYN: Yeah, I was in the cinema and I nearly fell off my seat when I saw our designs being worn in the movie.
"I am not fearful of going into a new business—in fact, it is exciting to me to bring an idea to life."
WY-LENE: What was your biggest takeaway from that whole experience?
SU-LYN: To have a fashion business and sustain it for 13 years made me feel like nothing is impossible. I am not fearful of going into a new business—in fact, it is exciting to me to bring an idea to life.
WY-LENE: Tell me more about your current role at Violet Oon.
SU-LYN: A big part of my role involves business development. First and foremost, our vision for the brand isn’t just to have a restaurant—we want to create an experience around the food that we grew up with—even preserving and protecting the cooking techniques used, so that we can present authentic Nyonya and local fare in the best way possible to Singaporeans and an international audience. Ultimately, we want to have a global brand on the culinary world stage. To me, it’s like the best-kept secret… people know about Thai food, Vietnamese food… and all they know about Singaporean food is chilli crab, satay, and perhaps chicken rice? But we have so much more to offer, so a lot of conversations that I have with my brother are about creating different concepts for Violet Oon. For example, our Bukit Timah outlet serves Peranakan cuisine, while our Clarke Quay outlet is a satay bar, and National Kitchen is a tribute to Singaporean flavours.
WY-LENE: I understand that six years ago, Violet Oon Singapore at Bukit Timah started out as a bistro.
SU-LYN: Yes. After operating it for two years, my brother and I felt that the bistro concept didn’t really do justice to my mum’s cooking. So when we relaunched the brand, we went back to our roots—a.k.a. doing things the ‘old-school’ way—and also brought back very old recipes that we ate at home. It was clear to us that the goal was to become the best Singapore restaurant.
WY-LENE: So when Manoj Murjani came onboard as an investor, and your Bukit Timah eatery was remodelled and relaunched in 2015, did you feel the pressure or a sense of obligation to help your mum finally succeed?
SU-LYN: What I actually felt wasn’t a sense of obligation, but the fact that my mum does have an amazing story to tell. She is fantastic at her craft, but she has never had the opportunity to do it right.
WY-LENE: Sometimes you need someone else to help tell your story.
SU-LYN: Yes! And I have always felt that my brother and I would be able to tell her story the best because we know her so well. Ultimately, we have her best interests at heart because we are family. My mum raised us to enjoy Singapore food, and there is so much history and tradition behind it. Now that we have a voice and the capability, I thought: let’s all do this together. The funny thing is my mum never asked us to join the business, because it’s a lot to ask from the both of us to give up our careers. Imagine if your mum said to you, “How do you feel about Singapore food? I think it’s really important to preserve our heritage.” Lucky for her, we felt the same way.
WY-LENE: Your restaurant interiors are gorgeous. Were you in charge of that?
SU-LYN: Yes. Manoj and I worked with an interior designer. When we told Manoj about our vision, he had the idea of presenting the food in a grand Singapore Ballroom, and all the different elements should feel like Singapore. We had kept the original Peranakan tiles from our old place, and Manoj thought that they were amazing, so we went to collect more from different buildings and junkyards. The black and white accents in all our restaurants are indicative of old black and white houses in Singapore, and the green bar is a tribute to my mum’s Chinese name, Swee Gek, which means beautiful jade. Emerald is a colour commonly associated with Peranakans and if you notice, a lot of our tiles are emerald too. So we wanted every little part of our restaurant to tell a story—even our logo has a pineapple motif, which is a symbol of hospitality.
WY-LENE: Family-owned businesses tend to be challenging. How do you go about resolving conflicts when they arise?
SU-LYN: Peranakan women can be very loud, and there is a lot of shouting and fighting in our household. I pity my poor brother. [laughs] But what’s so great about our family dynamic is that we put everything out in the open, and we don’t take offense. We can tell our mum that she is being ridiculous and vice versa, and that is how we are able to hash out ideas with one another. Eventually, we always come up with a better idea. At the end of the day, we will always have each other’s backs and want what’s best for the business.
"Growing up, I thought that my mum was very irritating... But I am so happy that we are working together because I get to see a totally different side of her. And I have so much respect for her."
WY-LENE: Do you think that running a business together has strengthened your family bond?
SU-LYN: It definitely has. Growing up, I thought that my mum was very irritating [laughs]. And the funny thing is that my mum also found her mum irritating as well. You know mothers always like to nag, and you only see one side of them. But I am so happy that we are working together because I get to see a totally different side of her. I have so much respect for her—at 68, she is still incredibly hardworking and dedicated to her craft. I am still learning so much from my mum and hope to be like her when I am 68 too.
WY-LENE: Out of your three restaurants, is there one that performs better than the rest?
SU-LYN: Yeah, the National Kitchen. But it attracts a very different crowd. I think some people would prefer our Bukit Timah outlet because it is more homely, while others might like our Clarke Quay Satay Bar & Grill more if they wanna chill out with their friends.
WY-LENE: Are you going to open more outlets in Singapore? And which international markets are you thinking of expanding into?
SU-LYN: We are planning to open a new outlet this year. In terms of overseas markets, we were invited to look at several different places around the world like London, New York, and Japan, and we did some scouting on our own too. After spending some time in each city, people have given us feedback that they would love to see us there, so it all depends on the deals that come through.
WY-LENE: How many staff do you have currently?
SU-LYN: About seventy.
WY-LENE: How do you cope with manpower issues?
SU-LYN: At one point, we made the decision to hire more experienced staff because we wanted to achieve a certain level of service in all our restaurants. So we have quite a number of managers to take care of each station—it is more costly, but delivering good service to our customers has always been important to us.
"If a customer came to our restaurant last week and said that our Ngoh Hiang tasted different, that is more distressing to us than not getting a Michelin star."
WY-LENE: Are you aiming for a Michelin star this year?
SU-LYN: Honestly, I don’t know the criteria to get a Michelin star. But I do know what we need to do to get an amazing rating from a customer. If a customer came to our restaurant last week and said that our Ngoh Hiang tasted different, that is more distressing to us than not getting a Michelin star.
WY-LENE: [laughs] That’s a good answer.
SU-LYN: It would raise major alarm bells like, "What happened to the Ngoh Hiang?!" Especially with local food, we pride ourselves on making sure that our dishes maintain a level of consistency—no matter how many times we cook it. That’s what we are committed to.
WY-LENE: Who would be at your ideal dinner table?
SU-LYN: My best friends.
WY-LENE: What do you think is your greatest strength?
SU-LYN: My resilience and the fact that I always give people the benefit of the doubt.
WY-LENE: How about weakness?
SU-LYN: I can be disorganised [laughs].
WY-LENE: Name one thing you’ve learned the hard way?
SU-LYN: I think there are always consequences to a person’s actions. There is a saying, “Connection Before Correction”—and I had to learn it the hard way with my kids. Sometimes after a long day at work, because I am so tired, I may take my frustrations out on them, and immediately I feel the consequences of my actions. I am definitely more conscious now of the kind of relationship I want to have with my children.
WY-LENE: What’s the toughest part of being a mother?
SU-LYN: The outcome you want for your children, and what it takes to get there. It doesn’t happen by accident. You want them to be kind, courageous, empathetic, and driven as an adult but they need to see, learn, and experience those moments when they are young. For example, children need to be taught many times on how to be kind before it is instilled in them, because their first instinct might be anger or retaliation when something bad happens.
WY-LENE: What is an important life lesson you would want your children to learn?
SU-LYN: They can achieve anything they want to in life with grace and compassion.