Standfirst: “This is not just a cook book; it’s a testimony of my journey.” This book came about when Chef Heman Tan wanted to put into a tangible record all his efforts throughout his years. Every single recipe is a validation of how far he has come in his cooking career, testing out methods and trying ways all to become better than what he already is when nobody guided him. This is, Iron Man Chef Tough. Love.
The Running Man
What do you get when you combine a triathlete and a chef? Not possible, you say? Then you probably haven’t met the determined Chef Heman Tan. The fourth child of a vegetable seller and his spouse, Chef Tan had early encounters with food in restaurants that were run by his friends and relatives. However, it was another, more troubling need that actually sparked his interest in the industry. Suffering from dyslexia, Chef Tan couldn’t excel in school and suffered emotionally from dejection. He became recalcitrant and made friends with fellow delinquents, eventually developing an interest in narcotics. Ironically, it was when that interest became an inherent need did he take up part-time jobs in restaurants. Hoping to deter their son’s path down the wrong road, his parents scrounged up a hefty sum and sent him off to London. While this venture did little to stir him away from the drugs, it formed an important foundation of Western cooking in his career. He eventually returned to Singapore with a need to prove himself. He faced humiliation when he had to close his first restaurant, Maxus. Participating in marathons and triathlons took Chef Tan’s mind of things when troubles came and he was knee-deep in debt. With the help of his wife, Lydia Lim, he got back on track and started again at the bottom, working himself into the successful chef he is now. Even now to realign his emotions and organise his thoughts, he drives down to East Coast Park and goes for a run.
Now, about the cookbook; Chef Tan’s style of cuisine is described by him as “very Asian with Western influences here and there”. While he prizes his heritage as a Chinese chef, he understands the importance of incorporating techniques and ingredients from various cuisines to make his food approachable to anyone. For example, he includes a recipe ( sous vide grass-fed beef tenderloin) that calls for a method more commonly used by Western chefs. Sous vide- a science-employed method of cooking where food is vacuum sealed and placed into temperature controlled water. The result as he puts it, “Juicy and succulent meat.” Foreign ingredients that can be found on our shores like French escargots, Korean gochujang and even Greek halloumi appear in this cookbook. The recipes are divided into six general sections, namely starters and soups, poultry and meat, seafood, vegetables, noodles and rice and desserts, making it accessible for you to decide what to make based on your availability of ingredients or lack thereof. The ingredients were chosen by Chef Tan simply because they were easily obtainable. As a chef, he often encourages his cooks to learn about the ingredients they are working with. Also good to note, is the fact that the book is bilingual. The ingredients and methods are explained briefly and clearly, in both English and Mandarin. One of the best things about the cookbook is that in pages where applicable, Chef Tan includes his cheats for a perfect final dish. Readers who like to know why and how a certain technique or step produces a reaction, should look out for these notes.
This cookbook surprises you not with just his culinary journey, but his other talent: ceramic arts. Beside each and every recipe, is a full coloured picture of the final product that demonstrates how artistic Chef Tan truly is. In all those enticingly beautiful photographs, he has plated the components on his handcrafted earthenware. That is something he is extremely proud of as he spends a lot of time in shaping various sorts of clay and researching their qualities. An informative masterclass section in the beginning of the cookbook has Chef Tan explaining the fine qualities of cooking with clay pots. His end dream he said was, “To serve everything I cook on my own handmade ceramic wares.” DD
This article was published in Cuisine & Wine Asia September October 2016 under Chef +Cookbook. In our Print edition, we spelt Chef Tan's name wrongly. The name in the quotes and the standfirst should be Heman, not Herman. Our sincere apologies, Chef Heman!