CHEF Alvin Tan, 45, loved to eat pastries as a child but his clerk father and factory worker mother barely earned enough to feed the family of nine.
'We couldn't afford cakes and breads and on the rare occasion that we had money to spare, we could only buy the leftover scraps,' says the Goodwood Park Hotel durian pastry chef.
So after completing national service, he chose to become a patisser. He had the support of two of his older brothers, who were doing well as pastry chefs then.
The bachelor started out as a pastry porter with Goodwood Park Hotel in 1983, delivering pre-ordered pastries to other hotels from the break of dawn. It was back-breaking work that lasted till lunch and, in the afternoons, he would help make pastries in the kitchen.
But his pay-off soon came.
|WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE
|A D24 durian because if not for the fruit, I wouldn't be where I am today.
That very year, the hotel's executive chef, a Frenchman, decided to launch durian mousse cakes and got him to buy and prepare the durians.
The cake was an instant hit and he was promoted to a pastry trainee. From there, he worked his way up the ladder and assumed his present title in the early 1990s.
Now, he is the one responsible for the hotel's annual durian fiesta, which lasts from March to July, and creating new offerings for the promotion each year.
On why he never thought of switching to a different hotel or specialising in other pastries, he says: 'I'm happy here. The company is good to me, I have many friends at work and I love my job.'
And he maintains he is not sick of the pungent yellow fruit, even after having made durian pastries for 25 years.
'I can't be sick of it. It's what I've built my career upon.'
What is your favourite type of durian?
I like Sultan durians, otherwise known as D24. It's the same type of durian we use for the hotel's durian pastries. I like it for its rich, creamy texture. That said, I seldom buy or eat durians outside of work unless my mother, whom I live with, craves it. If I have to buy durians for her, I usually go to the durian stall near my four-room flat in Kim Tian Road.
What is your favourite fruit?
When I was young, it was durian. But now I prefer watermelon because I eat durian almost every day at work when I test the quality of the pastries. Not only is watermelon juicy, it is also a 'cooling' fruit according to traditional Chinese medicine, which makes it perfect for countering the 'heatiness' of durians. I have the fruit at least twice a week.
Is there a smell you particularly like?
I'm surrounded by the strong odour of durian all day so I really like light fragrances such as the floral smell of jasmine tea.
You must smell of durian at the end of your workday. How do you get rid of the odour?
I shower at the hotel before taking public transport home. I give myself a good scrub from head to toe. To clear my breath, I squeeze some lemon juice into a glass of water and drink it.
Where do you find inspiration for your durian pastries?
I pay attention to the type of food people like to eat and try to keep my durian pastries relevant. I also look for complementary flavour pairings. The new items this year are the durian and brownie chocolate cup, which is durian mousse studded with brownie chunks in a chocolate cup, and the durian oreo cake.
Chocolate and durian go well together and it's been several years since these two flavours were brought together in our pastries, so that's how I came up with this year's creations.
Where are your favourite local eating haunts?
I love the wonton noodles from Lavender Food Centre. I like its sweet gravy and the pork lard they add to the dish. I have it at least once a month. There's always a 30-minute wait at the stall but it's worth it. I also love the fish head steamboat from 136 Hong Kong Street Fish Head Steamboat in Neil Road. The stock used for the steamboat is sweet and full of flavour.
Do you have any unusual eating habits?
I don't like cockles. I can't overcome my bias of cockles being unclean. That said, I must have cockles in my char kway teow. I like the flavour the cockles lend to the noodles when they are fried together. But I don't eat the cockles.
What item is Goodwood Park Hotel's durian fiesta most famous for?
Durian puffs (right). The crisp puff pastry complements the creamy, pulpy durian filling. Our durian puffs are also different from most because it is packed with a generous amount of durian mousse.
This article was first published in The Sunday Times on Mar 2, 2008.