HE IS exacting in his reviews. Yet Wong Ah Yoke, The Sunday Times' food critic of 15 years, believes in eating lousy food once in a while.
'It's important to taste different standards of food as a reviewer,' he says.
'If you eat only good food, you'd lose that sense of excitement when you're served something good. So you need bad food to get that balance.'
Besides, the soft-spoken, mild-mannered 46-year-old bachelor wasn't raised on good food.
A native of Kuala Lumpur, he was born to a sawmill-manager father and housewife mother 'who wasn't very interested in cooking', he says.
He arrived in Singapore in 1981 to study English literature and economics at the National University of Singapore.
After graduation, he wrote food reviews for the now-defunct tabloid Singapore Monitor and two magazines before joining The Sunday Times in 1992.
His review column, Eats, which is known to make or break restaurants here, is published every Sunday.
He learns about restaurant openings from press statements, recommendations from friends and colleagues, and 'just keeping a look-out myself', says Wong, who never makes reservations under his real name when he is reviewing the restaurant.
Now a Singapore citizen, he eats out as often as seven times a week for work. He also edited two Life!eats food guides in 2004 and 2005.
How does it feel to be able to strike fear into restaurant staff every time you walk into an eatery?
Actually a lot of restaurant staff don't recognise me because people say I don't look like my photo byline. But when they do recognise me, they sometimes get all nervous and overly attentive - coming up every 10 minutes to ask me how the food is. It can get irritating after a while.
Has a manager or chef ever apologised for his bad food?
No. I avoid such situations by not commenting about the food while I'm eating, because it only gets people nervous. I'd rather they just treat me like a normal customer.
What's one feature of bad food that really irks you?
When there's too much pepper in food, especially soups. It overpowers the rest of the flavours, so it should be used sparingly. And I hate it when people put pepper in my soup before asking me first.
Which restaurants do you go back to again and again?
Places that are good and affordable. One is Pu Tien in Kitchener Road, which serves Heng Hwa cuisine. The cooking is very consistent and the prices very reasonable - less than $30 per person. I always order the steamed prawns in bamboo and Heng Hwa fried bee hoon.
If I want to pamper myself a bit, I go to Golden Peony at Conrad Centennial hotel for dimsum. You get interesting dimsum there which you won't find anywhere else.
Is there a restaurant you like so much that you'd never write about?
No, I believe in sharing. If a restaurant is good, people should know about it and the restaurant deserves the extra business. But there are secret hideaways that I can't write about because my friends who recommended them made me promise not to. One is a Japanese yakitori restaurant near the National Library.
What's your biggest culinary weakness?
Any meat with fat, be it pork or beef. It's hard to say no to that.
What's your favourite childhood memory of food?
My Mum wasn't a good cook, but my Dad was. He cooked only occasionally but everything he did was great. I haven't tasted stewed belly pork with yam or braised hairy melon that's better than his.
Can you cook?
Yes, but only three or four times a month. My signature dish is Cantonese-style braised beef brisket. I came up with my own recipe by guessing what goes into it. One secret ingredient is cardamom.
What's always in your fridge?
Dried goods like mushrooms, oysters and fish maw. My palate is very Cantonese, so these ingredients are used to make my comfort food - congee and soups. I can never leave soup unfinished, even if it's full of MSG, and I know I'll be thirsty after that.
You're known to not write about really bad restaurants, and you always give a new eatery a few weeks to settle in before you check it out. Why?
I do give bad reviews, especially when the restaurant is very high-profile and can take a bit of heat. And I make sure I've eaten there at least twice so that the review is justified.
I give a new restaurant some time to settle in because everyone has teething problems. It's only fair.
How do you keep so slim with all this eating?
I exercise four to five times a week in a gym, 11/2 hours each time. But it's still impossible to get rid of the love handles. After a certain age, you can only slow down your body's inevitable decline.
What would your last meal be?
Cantonese congee with salted pork and dried oysters.
|Is this article useful to you?