Fire in the belly
Passion for cooking gave Chef Dave Heng the chops to be one of Raffles Hotel's top chefs.
SAILING the seven seas was chef Dave Heng's idea of a dream job.
'I grew up wanting to be like my father, a marine engineering officer working on board ships. His work took him to far-flung countries such as Mexico and Australia and he always returned with interesting stories to tell,' says the deputy executive chef of Raffles Hotel.
He went on to graduate with a marine engineering certificate from a local vocational institute but realised that the duties of a marine engineering officer did not excite him.
So he decided to become a chef instead, a career choice that did not surprise those close to him since he comes from a family of cooks.
His Hainanese maternal grandparents ran the cafeteria at the British airbase in Changi in the 1970s, where he spent most of his childhood helping out in the kitchen.
His mother, Madam Wee Ah Tah, was a cook at the Goodwood Park Hotel and one of his uncles was the executive chef there in the late 1980s.
Chef Heng started out in the kitchens of the now-defunct Hotel Malaysia in Orchard Boulevard and later moved to Mount Elizabeth Hospital as an executive sous chef.
He even struck out with a few friends and opened a coffee shop in Geylang Lorong 20 in 1994.
The shop, which specialised in an array of budget dishes for breakfast and lunch, as well as Western meals in the evening, did well but he was hungry for more.
'I didn't want to remain a coffee-shop cook the rest of my life. I felt that I had a lot more to learn about cooking,' says the 45-year-old.
So he left the coffee shop and found work soon after as a cook manning the wok station at Raffles Hotel's Doc Cheng's, a trans-ethnic restaurant.
He rose through the ranks over the years and assumed his present position in 2004, where he oversees all culinary operations in the hotel.
On how far he has come in his career, the father of two sons, aged seven and 10, credits his late grandmother: 'It's thanks to watching and helping her at the airbase kitchen that I developed an intimate knowledge of how to use ingredients, which is the cornerstone of my cooking style.'
Care to share a cooking tip you picked up from your late grandmother?
I learnt the trick to cooking a good Hainanese herbal mutton soup. Besides using standard ingredients such as huai shan and wolfberries, she also added ginseng and angelica root to enhance the taste of the stock. She would keep the boiled soup overnight and serve it the next day to allow the herbs to fully infuse the soup.
What food can you not do without?
Roasted peanut and sesame brittle. I usually have a few pieces of this Chinese snack while I watch TV before going to bed. I guess it's my way of unwinding after a long day at work. My mother-in-law who lives in Ipoh, Malaysia, sends this peanut candy every month because she knows I like it.
What is your favourite Hainanese dish?
Hainanese chicken rice. Nothing beats the fragrance of its rice and the smooth, juicy texture of the boiled chicken. I am a big fan of Boon Tong Kee's Hainanese chicken rice and I frequent its Whampoa West outlet.
Do you have any bad eating habits?
I used to eat a lot on my days off. I'd have a double portion of wonton noodle or roti prata for breakfast and big servings of Hainanese chicken rice for both lunch and dinner. But I've since started to watch my diet in a bid to lead a healthier lifestyle.
Is there a Hainanese dish that you miss from your childhood?
I miss the Hainanese rice flour candies that used to be eaten at traditional Hainanese wedding dinners. I haven't found anyone making this white, layered hard candy. In fact, the last time I ate it was at my uncle's wedding in the late 1970s. I miss it because it evokes fond childhood memories.
Where are your local eating haunts?
Besides Boon Tong Kee, I also patronise a wonton noodle stall at a coffee shop in Lorong Lew Lian in Upper Serangoon. The stall is run by an old couple who are very skilful in blanching noodles, so that they have a great springy texture. I'm also a regular at the pork intestine soup stall in Beatty Lane because the intestines are not overcooked and the stock is very flavourful.
Have you ever had a bad dining experience?
I was holidaying in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1993 and was visiting the Mekong River floating market. Curious to try the food sold by these hawkers, I ordered a bowl of noodles. I was shocked when the cook dipped his pot into the murky river and used the water to blanch the noodles I ordered. I paid for the noodles but I didn't eat it.
What dish is your restaurant famous for?
The miso cod fish with seaweed risotto and bonito foam is a signature dish at Doc Cheng's. It combines a Japanese marinade with Western cooking techniques and a contemporary presentation.
This article was first published in The Sunday Times on Mar 9, 2008.
|Privacy Statement Conditions of Access Advertise|