This is the story of the birth of THE BENTO PEOPLE, the why and how I 'birthed' an eatery with a mission to encourage, educate & enable people to understand more about and be able to practise using the power of food choices to maintain & improve their health.
[ For more info, location & opening hours of THE BENTO PEOPLE >> Click here ]
The Bento People was actually birthed out of a bistro/cafe which originally served up a creative international fusion menu for customers who worked and lived in the neighbourhood.
The birth of The Bento People, with a mission to encourage and enable customers to explore and enjoy eating healthy as a lifestyle, happened a few months into my journey as a doctor turned accidental chef.
As a medical doctor, I had never intended nor imagined that I would start an F&B business, let alone lead and work full-time in the kitchen for a couple of years. But the unexpected event of the chef quitting 2 days before the eatery’s opening led me onto such a journey where I would end up working as a full time chef, and spending time creating dishes and finding ways to encourage adn educate people to see food as medicine, and to make conscious considered food choices every meal.
When the chef quit, I just instinctively stepped into the gap to stand-in as the ‘chef’, prior to which I had no formal culinary training or experience working in a commercial kitchen, although I had been an avid home cook all my life. I had originally, and now looking back rather naively, thought that I would only have to stand in as the chef for the eatery for a few months at most, but little did I imagine that I would end up working full-time in the kitchen from 2014 to 2016, while continuing to manage the restaurant and being in charge of the kitchen even up to today.
At the beginning, I was just enjoying the ‘fun’ of being able to exercise my creativity to create dishes to delight my customers. I never had any ambition to do anything more than that. But being a medical doctor, I soon realised that although I could take the ‘doctoring’ out of me and put myself into the kitchen to work as a chef full-time, I could not take the ‘doctor’ out of me even though I was working as a full-time chef serving food to people and not a doctor helping people with their health.
I also never intended to let people know that I am a medical doctor when I was working full-time in the kitchen of the eatery. In fact I had gone out of my way to try to keep it a ‘secret’. I didn’t know what my other doctor friends would think of me if they found out and most of all, I was worried about what my customers would think if they found out that the chef in the kitchen was actually a medical doctor, I was ‘paranoid’ and had imagined that many customers might say (in hokkien), ‘An Zua Lor Koon Mai Jo, Jo Cook‘, which when translated to ‘Singlish’ would read ‘Why when you can be doctor, you don’t want, why you want to be a cook?’ hahaha. But more worrisome for me was this fear of possible unrealistic expectations from customers that the food I serve in the eatery must be ‘healthy’ just because I, the chef in the kitchen, am a doctor.
But an unplanned social visit by my ex-colleague, the famous doctor food blogger Leslie Tay of ieatishootipost.sg and his subsequent sharing a post on his facebook saying that I am a ‘doctor turned chef’ totally changed the path of what I was doing in the kitchen ( you can read Leslie Tay’s facebook post >> here >> )
My 'cover' was immediately blown, by Leslie’s tay’s facebook post about him finding a doctor turned chef. Initially I was worried, especially when many of my customers, upon finding out that I am a doctor, began to ask me many questions about eating healthy, about the relationship between food and health. This, as well as a series of other events led to me to a decision to fully embrace educating and encouraging people towards healthy eating and lifestyle as my personal purpose and mission. you can read my blog post on this - 'Advocating Healthy Eating - the day I began to embrace it as my purpose and my mission' This was the seed that birthed The Bento People as we know it today.
My 'research' about 'Eating Healthy' perspectives and habits disturbed me
The first thing I had to do and did was to dive deeply into research - about what medical science say about the typical dietary habits of modern city dwellers and how they have contributed to chronic diseases like diabetes. I also began to do more research on what people think about the relationship between food and health, talking to people, my doctor friends and also customers about their diets and their understanding of the relationship between food and health. This gave me a greater insight into the common dietary habits of most people and how that had affected their health and what are the areas that needs changing and what I could to do to contribute in some way to helping people make changes to how they eat so as to keep in health and restore lost health.
And what I found disturbed and also discouraged me. Most people acknowledge that food choices have a great impact on health and especially chronic lifestyle-related conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and weight problems as well as the consequent increased risks of strokes and heart attacks. But the majority of people were unable or even unwilling to change their existing food choices and dietary habits to keep in health or better control their blood sugar/cholesterol/pressure problems, with most preferring to choose the 'easier' way of just taking and depending on medications to control their conditions, thinking that that would allow them to keep in health without any need to improve or change their dietary habits. These people were usually the kind who LOVE FOOD and who have the very wrong perception that 'Eating Right for Health' and 'Eating Happy' cannot co-exist.
I also discorvered another group of people at the other end of the spectrum - people who are 'obssessed' with and even 'fanatical' about every new 'Healthy Eating' fads, to them eating healthy was only and all about following every new 'findings' / 'discoveries' regarding nutrition and 'Healthy Eating' and they would be quick to embrace every new 'superfoods', 'super diets' or anything that had a 'healthy', 'nutritious', 'Super-___' or 'organic' labels stuck on them.
The First Challenge - what kind of 'Healthy Eating' principles and offerings' would I stand for, advocate and offer?
First thing that I knew I had to do then was to be very CLEAR and CONSISTENT about the 'Healthy Eating' principles and offerings I would actively promote to my customers. It had to be something that I would actively practise myself, and something that I would be able to also, without any hesitation, encourage my wife and our two precious kids to practise as well.
One thing I knew for sure was that I would not want to be promoting any kind of ‘super’ diet, ‘super’ food , ‘super’ nutrient or any kind of health fads just because they were 'marketing-worthy' to the health-conscious consumers. I just wanted to decide for myself what 'Healthy Eating' principles, practices and products I myself would be comfortable with and be able to be passionate about championing and offering to my customers and even my wife, my kids and everyone whom I care about.
Falling back on my medical background was a natural thing to do. This was where I went back to where I 'came from'. I went back to medicine to look for answers. And for months, I dived deeply into research and looked at what reputable medical research institutions and health authorities from around the world, from their extensive medical research and studies, were saying about the greatest gap and need in modern society regarding food choices and health.
The very compelling conclusion that I came to after my deep dive scan of research and the local situation, in terms of what most people in Singapore need to do better in terms of their dietary habits so as to prevent and control chronic lifestyle-related conditions ( high blood sugar/ cholesterol/ pressure) was this: Building a good foundation that eliminates/reduces as much as possible all added / free sugar & processed foods - especially processed carbohydrates and meats; and upon that foundation, making specific choices, with the guidance of their doctors, in order to tackle their individual specific health problems and goals. Some may do well to choose food focusing more on GI (glycemic index) considerations, whilst others may need to consider adopting a more Whole Food Plant-based or Grain-lite/free dietary lifestyle for a season at least.
So I decided that I want to be able to use my restaurant to Encourage, Educate and Enable my customers to do the above.
The first thing I did then was to 'clean up our menu' so as to adhere to my new mission, 'throwing out' all the food and drinks in our old menu containing free sugar or were processed. So out went the ice-cream ( the ice-cream freezer and display in the restaurant is now used to store and display quinoa for sale! haha), out went the fruit juices too, and out went the meatballs and luncheon meats that were used for our very popular meatballs and spam fries.
Upon this foundation of no free-sugar/processed foods, I wanted to be able to encourage, educate and enable customers to practice conscious and considered food choices specific to their own health challenges, needs and goals, whether it is low GI, whole food plant-based or grain-lite/free. So my second challenge was to develop a new concept/menu to do this.
The 2nd Challenge - the search for a concept and menu that I could use to educate and encourage my customers to make conscious and considered food choices specific to their respective health challenges, needs and goals.
After much searching and thinking, I found it. The Bento Box. I realised that a bento box with equal compartments would be the perfect vehicle for my purpose and goal to teach my customers about making specific food choices, including and especially the relative proportion of the different food types/groups for every meal based on their own needs and goals or based on the diets prescribed to them by their doctors
In the end, I even ended up having to air-freight lacquer bento boxes from Japan because I could not find suitable ones in Singapore with the dimensions and compartments that I wanted to use to guide my customers on how to have the right proportions and portions for their meals.
The 3rd Challenge - The Menu
Now that I was clear about the healthy eating principles I was championing and the concept/vehicle to deliver that to my customers, I needed to create a menu to support that.
And so for many weeks after that, I went into a intense research and development mode in the kitchen, creating and testing many 'Low GI', 'Whole food plant-based(vegan)', 'Wholesome non-processed meats', and 'vegetables' dishes to put on the new menu for the new concept. In particular, I wanted to create healthy dishes that the average Singaporeans might take to, so I created a whole grain red rice with Chinese olive vegetables, a whole grain brown rice option flavoured with a variety of fresh herbs, I also used quinoa to create ‘quinoa fried rice’ and ‘quinoa lemak’, I created a range of new dishes with wholesome non-processed meats, vegetable and whole-grains with flavours familiar to the Singaporean/international palate, such as Thai Tom Yum, Thai Green Curry, North Indian Masala, Japanese Miso amongst many others.
Because I knew that in order to succeed in my mission, I knew I simply had to make the 'healthy' also tasty.
The final challenge - giving it a name.
After many intense weeks of research, testing and development in the kitchen, we were finally ready to launch and introduce this Make Your Own Healthy Bento concept to our lunch customers. The only thing left to do was to give it a name.
A few days before our launch, I was in the car with my 18 year old son, Ryan. I shared with him my plan to launch a ' Make Your Own Healthy Bento' concept and explained my motivation for doing so. He was very supportive and encouraging. I told him I wanted this Healthy Bento concept to be a brand new F&B concept that would stand for our mission of educating and enabling our customers to choose better for health. We started to throw out possible names for this new brand and within minutes, the name 'The Bento People' came up and we both immediately agreed that we should adopt it as the brand name for the new 'Make Your Own Healthy Bento' concept.
So it was as simple as that, - The Bento People brand name was thus chosen and birthed in a five-sminutes conversation with my son.
And on the 28th of April 2015, six months after the eatery had first opened for business, we relaunched our eatery with a brand new brand 'The Bento People' and served 'Make Your Own Healthy Bento' for the first time, and with that took our first baby steps in a long journey towards realising our mission of educating and encouraging our customers towards embracing 'healthy eating' as a lifestyle.
I still have much to learn on this journey and I would be most grateful for any advice and help that anyone would offer. I would continue to learn, listen and try my best.
I also know it is not going to be easy and would be full of obstacles.
But I am prepared to give my all to achieve this mission.
Wish me luck.
The Bento People - Eat Happy. Choose Healthy.
- Waking people up to
The Power of Lifestyle to Heal & Destroy, helping them to maintain wellness & regain lost health through informed lifestyle & food choices
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