Chef Willin Low on Being the Poster Child for Dream Chasers
In recent years, Singapore has become experiment ground for roving chefs. From tried-and-true creations like Tom Yum pasta, to the more unusual salmon sashimi laksa, a culinary revolution is underway. Local chef Willin Low can be considered a pioneer of Mod-Sin cuisine. “Mod-Sin” (Modern Singapore), first coined to describe the cuisine at his first restaurant, Wild Rocket, “is essentially a celebration of Singaporean cuisine and/or flavours, done in a new way.” Chef Willin also adds that “it can represent a change in form, format, technique, ingredients or even presentation, but ultimately, the spirit of the dish never changes.” 13 years on, the success of Wild Rocket has spurred his expansion into a burger bar, Relish at Cluny Court, Wild Oats at Mount Emily and &Will, a range of ready-to-eat food made available at convenience stores. Two more restaurants of his are slated to open this year.
A former lawyer, Chef Willin is the poster child for those who wish to leave an otherwise cushy job to chase their dreams. When asked about the prospects for a corporate high-flier in the culinary industry, he likens it to that of a rojak dish. “There are so many different aspects and ingredients to rojak—it is fruity, savoury, sweet, spicy and smelly with many different textures and ingredients that might seem at odds with each other, like tau pok and pineapple. But ultimately, they all come together.”
On growing up
I am the youngest and the naughtiest of 3 siblings. Prior to my birth, there were no canes in the house as my siblings were mostly well behaved. I was also the most outspoken one, and for instance, there were certain dishes that my mom made, which I had no qualms in proclaiming inedible. The result? Getting sent back to my room without dinner.
My mom was not especially fond of cooking, only doing so to feed us, though there are some dishes of hers that I absolutely love. Her chicken porridge with giant mushrooms, ngoh hiang and pork siew mai are amazing.
I have been exposed to all the wonders of hawker food from young. I made daily trips to the wet market with my mom for groceries and breakfast, and was usually tasked to get the breakfast while she shopped for the groceries. I remember always being enthralled and mesmerised by the skills of the hawkers, in frying chai tow kway (stir-fried radish cubes) or making mee jiang kueh (peanut pancake). In the late afternoons, we would have tea, heading to the pushcart hawkers to stuff our faces with wanton mee one day, fish ball noodles the next, and char kway teow another. We would always finish the meal with dessert, my mom with tau suan (mung beans dessert) and me with my oh kio (iced jelly with lime).
Lunch on the weekends would be spent at the Old Airport Road hawker centre, along the way to my grandparents’ place, and we would always go for a supper of either hor fun or hokkien mee late at nights, on the way home.
On the migration from law to culinary
I first discovered the joy of cooking when I was a student in the UK. Cooking for my friends and seeing them enjoy my food brought me a feeling of extreme gratification. After 8 years practising corporate law, my last role being with Singapore Airlines as a full-time lawyer, I gave in to the pull of the culinary industry. It came as no surprise to the family though. They all know that I am kind of crazy… in fact, my dad had sat me down when I was 14, and told me how he knew that one day, I would do something crazy with my life. So I had to promise him that I had to get a professional degree first before pursuing anything else.
I am an eternal optimist with a poor memory, which is great because I forget the bad times. And I guess if I were to ever have any regrets, that would mean losing my poster-boy status. In all actuality, I am really someone who never regrets my decisions, even the bad ones. I’d rather make a bad decision than regret not trying at all. If I had not taken the leap, then all the wonderful things that have happened to me and the Wild Rocket Group wouldn’t have been made possible. We have cooked for royalty and heads of states, given jobs to ex-convicts who face difficulty finding employment, cooked at events around the world, raised awareness for orphanages and other children’s charities organisations and met many great guests that turned into friends.
On one cooking rule
Don’t overcook anything because you can salvage it even if it is undercooked. However, the reverse isn’t possible.
On the one guiding principle in the kitchen
Ultimately, the end product must taste good. You can talk about how you want to celebrate Singapore flavours till the cows come home, but if the dish tastes like s***, then as a chef, you have failed.
Top 5 must-have ingredients in your kitchen at all time?
Salt, spring onions, lard, garlic and chillies. You can do wonders with these five fellas.
Favourite comfort food of all time
A good curry puff or my mom’s chicken porridge, or… a good curry puff followed by mom’s chicken porridge, followed by a bowl of Kau Kee Curry Beef Brisket E-mien, some kick-ass Mao Shan Wang Durian and then some dark hazelnut chocolate from Läderach.
Other than eating, I enjoy travelling. Somehow I can’t seem to relax when I am in Singapore, so travelling is a break for me. I love to draw and paint and recently started painting on sandals and luggage. I also enjoy sports which is subject to certain moments with me. I was cycling 20 to 30km every other night after work, at one point. Currently, I swim in the morning, and when I can, I love going wakeboarding and snowboarding.
On social awareness
Over the years, we’ve supported different social causes. I remembered one was an 8-year-old cancer-stricken child, who dreamt of being a chef. He wanted to learn how to cook for his mom and sister who looked after him. His sister had to quit school and look take care of him, because of family finances. After he passed away, the social worker in charge asked if we would be willing to sponsor his sister’s O-levels exam fees. She wanted to get a certificate and go on to nursing school to help others like her brother. It wasn’t a big sum of money, just a few hundred dollars, and we gladly agreed. We didn’t hear from the family for a couple of years, but one day, the social worker called to inform us that not only did she complete her O-levels and go on to nursing school, she topped her cohort. That was a really proud moment for me.
We are involved in Morningstar Beijing, Uganda and India as well. It started with a friend who lives in Beijing and who volunteers at Morningstar. She knows that I love children and would show me pictures of the babies in the orphanage, asking me to pray for them before their surgeries. One day the prayer request was different. They were not able to meet the financial obligations for that month. I was glad to offer my help then and have been supporting them since.
On 2018’s upcoming plan
Travelling like mad, eat like crazy and loving more. I have my annual visit to Morningstar in Beijing, a couple of trips for new projects that we are keen on. It’s pretty much the same as 2017, except that we are opening a restaurant, The Maples Niseko, in Niseko, Hokkaido. It’s a small casual Mod-Sin restaurant serving donburis (rice bowl dishes) and noodle bowls. All the dishes will feature Singaporean and Southeast Asian flavours with Japanese ingredients. Think Kurobuta Bah Kut Teh ramen, Laksa Somen with Snow Crab, Wagyu Green Curry Donburi, etc.
On the future of Willin Low
Wow, I have never given thought to what I want to achieve at the end of my career. In fact, I have never imagined an end to my career. I just want to celebrate food and as long as there are opportunities, I want to keep going.