He hasn’t got a ‘serious’ chef persona. Willin rushes in and tells me to wait right there. He has some curry puffs that he wants me to taste. Just simple food and not even his, but Willin Low has not only talent but real passion for taste and texture.
We settle in the courtyard of Willin’s first restaurant (there are others), Wild Rocket. We nibble our savoury pastries, sip a cocktail and cool off. This is a quiet haven away from the baking concrete of the Singapore streets in the city below. It’s an oasis of green calm with just the sound of splashing water to gently invite the guest into a comforting stupor. The dining room of the restaurant reflects the same quiet over lunch, but becomes vibrant with conversation in the evening.
I asked Willin if there were any food-related connections in his family. Does he come from a dynasty of restaurateurs?
He laughs. ‘My mum hates to cook, and I have always enjoyed cooking. My mum’s very clean and neat and I was never allowed to mess up her kitchen. I’m a really fussy eater, so it was inevitable that there would be a showdown. She would cook something, and my siblings and my dad would eat it but I would say, “That’s overcooked! That fish died for a reason, and the least you could do is not to overcook it.” That’s a really rude thing to say to your mother, and she would say, “I’ve slaved all day over this, your brother and sister are eating it, I don’t see why you won’t!” and she would send me to my room with nothing. I always had an emergency supply of prawn crackers under my bed, because I knew she would send me to my bed without anything to eat. So there was no-one in my family who really loves to cook, but we were blessed with a neighbour who cooks really well, and she would make curry puffs and send them across, and that’s where I got to eat lots of good things!
‘I think I have always known that I enjoyed good food, which was why I was so fussy. The hawkers (food stalls in Singapore) were so good, and we ate out all the time, so as a school student I was exposed to lots of good food. I remember someone from England asking me, when she was eating at Wild Rocket, whether the Indian and Chinese influences in the food were deliberate, and I explained that when my mum went to the market to buy breakfast there would be Indian bread, Malay soup, Chinese noodles and I would be eating them never thinking about the origins of the dishes, it was simply breakfast. I think that food is a binding agent, it allows us to understand and respect other cultures.’
But there were culinary challenges ahead for Willin. ‘When I went to England, to Nottingham University, the food in the halls of residence was horrendous. I remember we had rice, but cooked in lots of water, so you had to fish out the rice from the ‘soup’! And why was it yellow? Everything came out of a tin – the tuna was grey, the mushy peas were grey – and I couldn’t eat it. Next day we had spring rolls, and I thought, “Oh, good – can’t go wrong with something deep-fried!” but when I cut into it, it was filled with those mushy peas! So I had to cook something, and the first thing was chicken congee – a chicken porridge that my mum often cooks. Make a stock with the chicken, cook the porridge in the stock, take the chicken out and shred it, marinate it with sesame, soy sauce and white pepper, deep-fry shallots to use as a condiment, some spring onions and cut chillies. That was the first time I had made it, because mum never let me cook at home, and I really enjoyed it.
‘My corridor mates all loved my food so I started cooking more, and all my Singaporean friends started coming over to my room to say hello, conveniently around mealtimes, and that’s how it started. I cooked things I missed from home, like fried vermicelli with braised pork belly – mostly things that my mum would make. The irony of it was that I used to complain about mum’s cooking, but there were actually things that I really loved. Now we have learned to understand each other and when I’m home for dinner she will cook my favourites.
‘I moved to London to study for my bar exams, and I wanted to eat in restaurants, but I couldn’t afford to do that, so I cooked at home, trying to replicate restaurant food. I got a bit bolder, making things like rack of lamb. I was craving giant prawns, and they are very hard to come by in England, so I went to Selfridges and all I could afford was three giant prawns, and lychees – just seven! I had two housemates, so I came back with three lychees for me and two each for them! That was the first ‘fancy’ dish that I made. I removed the shells from the prawns, pan-fried them in butter, chopped some garlic into the pan, parsley, chilli, squeeze of lemon, and we really enjoyed it! That was the first time I thought, “Hey, maybe I could sell this!” I think seeing the reaction of others to my food helped a lot, and I had learnt so much from other Singaporean and Malaysian students, who would teach me how to cook their favourites. I cooked all the time in my corridor, despite being the butt of jokes from some of my English friends: “Hey, is that my friend’s cocker spaniel you’re cooking?” “No, don’t you know that we Chinese only eat German Shepherd?” This was at a time before chefs were ‘sexy’ – there was no Jamie Oliver, just Delia Smith (more a favourite aunt).
‘Then I came back home to Singapore, and worked as a lawyer. I did my bar exams and worked for a very prestigious law firm for about a year. Hours were very long. Once I came home at seven in the morning, and my mum was horrified and I was very disillusioned.’ It seems all the things you see lawyers doing in the movies was only fiction and Willin was just stuck behind piles and piles of paper. He looked at a colleague five years his senior and asked himself if he wanted that to be his future. ‘I looked for an exit plan,’ says Willin.
‘I decided to find a post as an in-house legal counsel, and worked for several firms including Singapore Airlines. It was wonderful – the hours were great, it was a hospitality business and I travelled everywhere first-class (that was the first time I had tried caviar – I kept looking around the plane to see how to eat it!). I was exposed to lots of fine dining, and I fell in love with the business, and started thinking about what I would do next, because I had said I would work as a lawyer for five years and then start my own business.’
During this period Willin was cooking every weekend for friends. ‘I read that to be taken seriously in anything that you do, you need to charge money for it – if you get it for free the value is less. So when a friend wanted me to cook for a house-warming party, I said “Yes, if you pay me.” Everyone loved it, and started talking about it. Then I asked a friend to help me build a website, and that made a world of difference in making the business legitimate. So Mondays to Fridays I worked as a lawyer, and weekends I became a private chef for hire, my colleagues working as waitresses!’
After two years of part-time chef/part-time lawyer Willin was confident enough to take the next step and took the advice of a friend who told him to leave his ‘day job’ and open his own restaurant. ‘He told me to quit my job, because if you don’t you’ll never have the impetus to get going. So I did and started looking for a restaurant that would hire me. That proved to be difficult, as restaurant owners were suspicious of employing someone from the legal profession!’ I wonder why?
In the meantime Singapore Airlines started a budget airline, and Willin was able to work there setting up the legal department. ‘A month later a restaurant took me on as kitchen assistant, so I continued at the airline one day a week, to help pay the bills, while I cleaned squid, chopped vegetables and made bread for the other six days. I did that for 6 months, and between the two jobs I learnt everything I needed to know about running a restaurant and managing a business.’
Willin started looking for a location, and a friend mentioned the Hangout Hotel, up on a hill, but Willin had never heard of it, and wasn’t sure he could just walk in and take over the premises. Later that week the Straits Times wrote an article about this private chef and mentioned that he was looking for a place to open a restaurant. ‘Following that story someone emailed me saying that they needed a person to take over the Hangout Hotel! I had never heard of the place before, and then twice in one week!’
That was eight years ago and at a time when there were not many restaurant openings, so the media were eager for any new projects; and from a story perspective a lawyer who quits his lucrative career to become a chef was interesting. The newcomer worked hard to cultivate good working relationships with butchers and produce suppliers at the market and it took a while for them to take Willin seriously but eventually all those business and culinary threads came together. ‘Word got around, people started coming, and we did really well. I wanted to grow and share ownership in the business with the employees, so as they came onboard we opened more, and now we have five restaurants.’
Wild Rocket is now a well-respected restaurant in a beautiful location. Willin is a highly-regarded chef and has a close relationship with his local suppliers. The bill of fare relies on fresh ingredients and there are lots of fish and shellfish on the menu. The dishes are thoughtfully presented with Asian flair, but how would Willin Low sum up his cuisine, his style of food?
‘When I first started cooking I just cooked food that I liked to eat, we never thought of what to call it. But the media wanted to put me in a category, and I had to come up with a name if I didn’t want them to name me, so I thought, well, it’s basically Singaporean, so I decided to call it Modern Singaporean – that’s what I am, and no-one can fault it because no-one knows what it is! Some people had asked us if it’s Fusion, but I didn’t want to call it that because in the 80s fusion wasn’t done well. In those days it was just Western and Asian ingredients thrown together without any understanding of either, and it became ‘confusion’.
‘We are in Singapore and that puts us in the right position to marry the two, because everything that we have is already a fusion. I call my food Mod-Sin for short, and already four restaurants that opened last year are calling themselves Mod-Sin as well, so it’s caught on. The regional foods of China are becoming better known; now people are coming to live here from Burma, the Philippines, Thailand, so there are lots of traditions to draw upon.’
Wild Rocket presents thoughtful combinations of fresh ingredients and aromatic spices tempered with that confident Willin Low gastronomic inspiration. The ‘Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants’ Awards seems to have overlooked this animated chef, and that must surely be an oversight to be rectified in the near future.
Wild Rocket @ Mount Emily
10A Upper Wilkie Road
Phone: +65 633 99448
Visit Wild Rocket here
Opening Hours: Tuesday – Saturday
12 noon to 3pm – Lunch
6.30pm to 11pm – Dinner – last order at 10.30pm
11.30am to 3pm – Brunch
6.30pm to 10.30pm – Dinner – last order at 10.00pm
Closed on Mondays
Interview by Chrissie Walker © 2018