When the food you prepare is served to Anthony Bourdain, you can only be sure of one thing – it coming under the most stringent scrutiny ever. As daunting as that sounds, one young hawker is pretty familiar with that.
Earlier this year, the famous American chef and Emmy-winning host of “Parts Unknown” on CNN flew to Singapore. One of the “parts unknown” he visited here was the famous 545 Whampoa Prawn Noodles and that alone is enough recognition for Li Rui Fang, the cook behind this prawn noodle stall in Tekka Market.
Like you, we were curious to know more about what it takes to satisfy a particular palate like Bourdain’s; so we had a chat with Rui Fang and learned about how 545 Whampoa Prawn Noodles came about. The mother of one was also forthcoming about her decision to set up the Tekka Food Centre branch and dispensed some useful advice for budding hawkers.
As a hawker, we’re certain that a great deal of preparation goes into the food that is served to customers. How’s a typical day like for you?
For five days in a week, I would wake up at about 1:30am and reach the food centre at about 2:30am. After preparing the ingredients for the day, we will be open for business at 6:30am.
I do most of the cooking while my Dad takes over when I need a small break. We typically sell out around 1 to 2pm and then we will need another one-and-a-half to two hours to wash down and do some food preparation for the next day.
On some days, I might skip the wash-down at the stall and head home early to cook dinner for the family. Otherwise, I would reach home around 4 to 5pm. Cooking dinner for my 10-month-old is a daily affair and I also take the evening to spend some quality time with her and my husband.
Bedtime starts at about 7pm but I usually surf the internet and use social media until I fall asleep.
When did you decide to take over from your father’s hawker business, which has been passed down two generations from your grandfather’s times?
I’ve always been involved in the business since I was a child and showed interest in the business even though my father was highly against it as he knew the difficulties of his trade and worked hard to provide us with education to get a white-collar job.
After working four years in an MNC, I quit the comfortable job without finding another as I felt unsatisfied with where I was heading. During the time that I was taking a break, I decided to help out at my Dad’s stall in Whampoa and that reignited my passion for the business again.
After much convincing, my father finally relented and gave me his blessings to look for my own stall. My father and mother ended up following me to my stall in Tekka to help me with the business.
What was the main driving force behind your decision to finally quit your job and take over the prawn mee stall from your dad?
The stall in Tekka is mine, and not my father’s. Besides finding little satisfaction in the desk-bound job, I felt that it was a waste to let the business and the recipe end with my father’s generation.
Was it hard to make that decision and why?
The decision was always an easy one to make. It was the resistance from my father that was hard and it’s easy to see why. He took part in the business at an even younger age than I did and it took a toll on his health with the long work hours and harsh environment. He also has reoccurring injuries due to the repetitive motions of the work.
Did the initial thought of being a hawker overwhelm you as it may be a different ballgame?
I’ve always been a “do first, think later” kind of person but this was a decision that I’ve considered since young. Although it was and still is a very tiring job, I have long expected it from my experience in Whampoa as well as from witnessing the lives of my parents.
Have you ever thought of how life would be if you didn’t quit your job and take over from your dad? If yes, how would it be?
Life would be quite boring if I weren’t a hawker. There wouldn’t be the same sense of fulfilment that I am having now in continuing a legacy.
On the positive side, I would probably have more time for my friends and continue to go clubbing (laughs).
What were some of the obstacles you encountered while running a hawker stall and how did you overcome them?
When we first started, the difference in business from Whampoa to Tekka was jarring. Although we were still making small profits, it was a little scary to have periods of time in a day when there are no customers and it’s hard to pass the time when it was lull.
I started to have wrist injuries after some time and had to see different doctors to find relief for the pain. It only got better when I tried to be consciously wary of the movements that I use during cooking.
When the going gets tough, what keeps you going?
Reading and hearing about customers enjoying my noodles are the best ways to motivate me from time to time. Some customers don’t even have to say anything but the frequency at which they appear at my stall speaks volumes about something that I am doing right.
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Recently, Anthony Bourdain, the famous American chef and host of his TV Show, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown on CNN has patronised your stall, how do you feel about it?
It was a big honour to have him there. Besides being extremely well-known himself, his current show has won multiple awards as well. “Parts Unknown” isn’t as food-centric as his previous shows so having him and his team to select my stall as one of the destinations in Singapore makes the opportunity even rarer.
What word of advice would you offer young entrepreneurs who aspire to be in the hawker business one day?
Having a passion for both food and cooking is an absolute must, but to survive in this industry requires more. There have been new hawkers with great food but didn’t survive. There have also been new hawkers with great marketing that didn’t survive too.
In the current state where cost-of-living is high and business overheads are high, hawkers will need both good food and some marketing skills to reach out to customers.
Young entrepreneurs must also prepare to have patience to wait for the business to stabilise and take the time to hone their skills in cooking their food.
We do agree with Rui Fang that there are much vagaries in the hawker scene but one thing’s for sure – if Anthony Bourdain comes all the way to Singapore just to have a taste of your food, you’ve struck gold. The long snaking queues outside her stall are fooling no one.