They call me ‘Doc', now they call me ‘The Accidental Chef’
My name is Tat Hon.
People call me 'Doc', not so much as a professional title, but Doc has become my name to many of my friends, colleagues and even bosses for the past 20 years. After practising as a medical doctor for a number of years, I then went on a journey that took me to roles and places that not many doctors would have chosen to embark on.
And recently, many also began to call me ‘The Accidental Chef’ or ‘The Doctor turned Chef’. All this happened by 'accident', an accidental coming together of encounters with people and unplanned turn of events.
It all started with a meeting.
To start with, I am no chef. I have no culinary training or F&B experience. At most I am a crazy home cook who loves to cook for family and friends, creating dishes as a form of outlet for my creativity and I find a lot of joy in seeing the delight on the faces of my family and friends whenever they bravely subject themselves to be guinea pigs for my culinary experiments.
A series of events thrust me into this current role as a chef. It all happened about a year and a half ago in early 2014 when I met some people who started me onto this journey.
First, I met some people who left a deep impression on me and for months after that they were constantly on my mind. I shall be scanty with the details here to protect the privacy of the people involved. In particular there was this group of people in their late 40s and early 50s who had spent a significant period away from Singapore working on worthy causes overseas. And I saw that on their return to Singapore, they could not find meaningful or rewarding employment. I could not help but feel that they deserve better and I felt I should, if I could, do something for them to give them the meaningful and rewarding employment that they deserved but I just didn't know how.
The birth of an idea
Second, I met up with an old friend, who works in the F&B industry, whom I felt I should honour for some help he had given me in the past but for which I felt I had not adequately expressed my thanks. I asked him out for breakfast for the sole purpose of thanking him. But the breakfast took an unexpected turn when he started sharing with me about how he had been giving help to F&B start-ups. I asked him what he would advise me to do, if I were to start an F&B business. His advice was to choose F&B businesses with good profit margins such as baked items, Drinks or Ice Cream. I asked him about the necessary capital outlay for a simple F&B business and when he gave me a figure, it was surprisingly much lower than I thought.
It was supposed to be something simple
Soon an idea began to gestate, one of starting a simple F&B to provide meaningful and rewarding employment to people the likes of the people I had met recently and whom I really wanted to do something for.
Within weeks, I had done enough homework, or so I thought, to think that it would be viable and manageable to start a simple bakery to provide meaningful employment to people like them. I was not starting any social enterprise and I was not about to tell the world that we are a social enterprise, for we are not, I just wanted to help a specific group of people and wanted to find a platform to provide meaningful jobs for these people. (I am just sharing the background of how the idea first started as something that I wanted to do to help some people on my own accord, so I must categorically say we did not start off as and still are not a social enterprise.)
The idea was to start a simple bakery, nothing too complex that people that I was thinking of helping and hiring would not be able to do well with some training, diligence and practice. It was supposed to be something small and simple.
The Snack Culture Company was thus born
I even got a baking school to specifically create for us a customised express course to train myself, my wife and some people whom I thought would form the initial start-up team for this venture the basics of making dough and buns. The initial idea was to have a bakery offering only buns but with interesting fillings inspired by cuisines from around the world such as Nonya's ayam buah keluak, Korean bulgogi beef and Louisiana's cajun prawns. It was a simple grab and go concept and the name 'The Snack Culture Company' seemed apt for a simple bakery offering snack sized buns with fillings inspired by different cultures from around the world.
So within a couple of months, what first started out as a desire in my heart to help some people was now taking shape and was mere months from being a reality.
( Post Note: The Snack Culture Company was the original concept and brand that was birthed, but after sometime, that would subsequently transform to become The Bento People, a F&B concept that focuses on encouraging & enabling people to Choose Healthy & Eat Happy. The Story of why and how this happened is shared in my other post - The Birth of The Bento People )
I never thought a small HDB shop space would cost so much
The next step was to look for a modest small space to start the bakery, something which I had imagined to be routine given our modest ambitions. A simple HDB shop house half shop of some 300 sqft was what we were looking for. This is where I had my first roadblock that made me change course. First thing I realised as I did my homework, was that the simpler the concept and offering (I was planning a simple bakery offering only one type of buns but with many different types of interesting fillings), the greater the need for a location with high human traffic. This is because in such a concept, we would need to sell many hundreds of buns a day to break even.
So I went in search of such a place, a small HDB half shop (300 sqft) in a location with good human traffic. So off we (my wife Janice and I) went to all the corners of Singapore, Toa Payoh, Clementi, Ang Mo Kio, Bedok and many nooks and corners of Singapore. We found that places that has adequate footfall for our business concept, we could not afford the rental, for which rental would range from $10K to $25K for a small 300sqft HDB half shop. And units with rental that are within our planned budget are in locations with very low human traffic that would not be able to support a simple grab and go concept that we had in mind.
We found a place at last
After a couple of months of fruitless search, we were discouraged and were about to give up. Then came a chance visit to this place. There was this bakery that was looking for someone to take over their lease because they have outgrown their unit there. When we saw it, we thought we have found the place. It was big enough and rental was reasonable and what more, it was a bakery with a big operational kitchen and we thought we could move in and start operations with manageable investment in renovation. I was wrong. Maybe it was because we were burned out from our months of fruitless search for a suitable unit that we were quite quick to decide on this. We agreed to take over the lease and were thrilled that we have finally found a place to bring to fruition this plan that I had been brewing for months.
Although this shop do not have high human traffic, it is located in the middle of a small semi-industrial, commercial area with office workers and executives looking for lunch during working weekdays. So we thought we could still be viable by changing our initial concept of a simple bakery to a bakery cafe with a simple lunch offering to augment the bakery business. We were wrong, but I shall not delve on that here, perhaps I shall write about this in another posting.
We had to become more than just a simple bakery
What followed after that was almost 3 months of dealing with renovations, kitchen planning and equipment purchases and dealing with regulatory issues. Of course it goes without saying that everything ended up costing a lot more than we budgeted for and there were so many hidden cost and expenditure that we soon burst our initial planned investment budget many times over, it was really scary but we since we have already started on this journey, invested so much time and money, there was really no turning back, We just had to keep praying, keep faith and keep calm. And because I had no prior F&B experience, all these were foreign to me and I had to learn everything from scratch, I just had to rely on common sense to make these decisions that cost tens of thousands of dollars. By God's grace, I managed to do all these without making too many major irreversible errors.
With the change in concept from a simple bakery to a bakery cafe, it necessitated our hiring of a cook to do the cooking for the simple lunch offerings on top of the starting team which we sent for bakery training. We soon found one and were so happy that she agreed to come on board.
The day I became a cook
After many months of preparation, we were finally ready to open for business in late November.
And then it happened.
2 days before our planned opening, it happened.
Our cook quit.
After working so hard for so many months and with so much money and time invested in it, we really could not afford delaying the opening any longer and there was also no way to predict how long it would take for us to look for another cook. So I took a deep breath and stepped into the kitchen and went ahead with the opening as planned.
With me as the stand-in cook in the kitchen, we opened for lunch for the first time on the 25th of November 2014. And on that first day, I found myself handling 5 frying pans at the same time trying to serve the 50 or so hungry and impatient customers who came for lunch that first day. It was not certainly not something for the faint hearted.
That was the start of my journey as a cook.
I never planned to nor had any intentions to remain as one for long, saw myself as a stop-gap measure. I told myself that it will all be OK and I would be able to step away from the kitchen totally once we find ourselves the necessary kitchen team.
I thought I would only need to stand-in as a chef for at most 2 months.
I was wrong. Again.
I never left the kitchen till two years later, all the while working as the lead full-time chef in the restaurant.
I subsequently stopped working as a full-time chef and because of how being a chef transformed me, I began a journey of Preaching, Teaching and Prescribing Lifestyle ( including diet and exercise ) as Medicine to help people retain or regain their wellness especially those who are concerned about or have diabetes, cardiovascular diseases or other chronic diseases where lifestyle play a significant role.
Other relevant parts of this on-going story of the doctor turned accidental chef to incidental chef to lifestyle medicine advocate.
>> Practising, Preaching and Promoting Lifestyle as Medicine - My Passion and Purpose
>> Doctor turned Accidental Chef turned incidental Chef
>> The birth of The Bento People
>> How & Why I became a Food & Health Coach
>> Why & How advocating healthy eating became my purpose, mission and passion
- Waking people up to
The Power of Lifestyle to Heal & Destroy, helping them to maintain wellness & regain lost health through informed lifestyle & food choices
>> My Medical Practice where Lifestyle & Dietary modifications is the first go to medicine
>> My 'School' - Engines of Health - where I run workshops and programmes
>> My Restaurant - The Bento People - where I cook and try to entice people to eat healthy.
>> My Advocacy - The TV & print media where I have the priviledge to advocate the power of Lifestyle as Medicine
Why & What I Blog about
Blog's Top Posts
Lifestyle as Medicine - my journey, my passion, my pain
How & Why I became a Lifestyle Medicine Doctor, Trainer and Advocate
Doctor turned Accidental Chef turned Incidental Chef
Reflections of 'The Food Doctor'
How I lost weight 'accidentally'
Doctor turned Accidental Chef - How it all began
The birth of The Bento People
I made this Tom Yum Daikon-'noodles' because I was 'angry' with how the love for noodles was affecting one of my patients.
No wasted Journeys -
Why I Blog
Buay Chye, God & I. The day God sent me a cook.
Behind every adventurous man is a long-suffering wife
How I accidentally left a legacy as a 9 year old boy
The day blogger Leslie Tay (ieatishootipost) came to visit
The accidental marathoner
- how I accidentally ran the marathon when I was 12
They call me a Maverick.
I say I am an Explorer.
Why & How 'Advocating Healthy Eating' became my purpose, mission & passion.
Sharing about the power of food on Diabetes Lifestyle magazine