We spoke with the co-founder of MOONBOW restaurant, Chef Heman Tan, about his family, his newest venture, and how he juggles it all.
How many people can say they have a professional chef for a parent? Well, Chef Heman Tan is even more than that – he’s a multi-hyphenate. He trained with Cultural Medallion winner Dr Ng Eng Teng to become a passionate ceramist. He has participated in many gruelling triathlons, earning him the “Iron Man Chef” moniker. He’s the Chief Operating Officer of Hillier Group and co-founded MOONBOW, the latest restaurant at Dempsey Hill. All this, and that’s before we even mention that he’s a cool dad too! So in between his busy schedule, HoneyKids had a chat with this celebrated chef to find out more about his illustrious life.
Hi Chef! Can you tell us a bit more about all the different hats you wear?
I’m a professional chef, ardent ceramist, and avid triathlete. As a father to three children, I also do my best to set a good example and teach them the importance of giving back. A strong advocate for creating a more inclusive community in the F&B industry for people with disabilities and the less privileged within our society, I was shortlisted as a finalist of the Social Enterprise Champion (2019) for The President’s Challenge Social Enterprise Award (PCSEA).
We’re big on family here at HoneyKids – can you tell us about yours?
I love them for who they are. My children all have very different personalities and interests. My youngest son loves to read, and you’ll see him engrossed in a book most of the time. My oldest daughter loves art. She’s always scribbling and drawing in her notebook. My second daughter is the one who’s most like me – she loves to cook, bake, and experiment with food. While I’m quite happy that we have similar interests, she does create a huge mess in my kitchen!
Between you and your wife, who would you say is the cool parent?
I consider both of us to be very cool parents… though I’m not sure if my three children would agree! Raising three kids, you learn that respect goes both ways. If you want your children to respect you, you need to respect them as well. My wife and I constantly strive to view things through their perspectives and be open to differing opinions.
Chef Heman, what inspired you to go down a career path in cooking?
Back in school, working in the kitchen was my lifeline. I was diagnosed with dyslexia and studying proved to be a challenge, so I turned to work as an apprentice in a restaurant. It was not an easy journey as I didn’t have a mentor in the kitchen. Most of the time, I had to rely purely on observation and trial and error. I was very much a self-taught chef.
Thereafter, I moved to London where I worked as a cook in an inn. It was there I learned the basics of classic English cuisine and my love for Western cooking techniques grew. After returning to Singapore, I started experimenting and developed a penchant for pairing Asian ingredients with Western techniques, which is reflected in the menu at MOONBOW today.
How and why did you start MOONBOW?
My newest restaurant was conceptualised during the challenging circuit breaker period last year. It’s a celebration of hope as well as a culmination of a long-held dream where I merge two of my life’s greatest passions: culinary arts and ceramics.
The Black Silkie Poulet is said to be inspired by your wife. What other dishes on the menu are inspired by your family?
The Black Berry Four-Grain Healthy Rice. Comprising of a blend of four different grains – blackberry rice, red rice, barley, and pearl rice – the dish was first created for my diabetic mother. The four-grain rice is mixed with olive leaves and Chinese lap cheong sausages for an added bite. The dish is paired with either roasted pork jowl “Ton Toro” or “Impossible” meat patties.
You also confessed that you’ve used desserts to entice your children. Which dessert would that be?
That would be the “Treasure Sweet Souffle Drawer”. My three children all have very different preferences, which was the reason why I included a large variety of desserts in the dessert box – from pistachio chocolate souffle to mango passion mousse cake and apple crumble tartlets. I believe a meal should always end with dessert and this tactic works wonders with my children! Instead of finishing their food quickly and leaving the dining table, they know that their patience will be rewarded with a sweet treat.
So how do you juggle family life and working at MOONBOW?
We only have 24 hours in a day. To stretch those hours, I sacrifice a little of my sleep. I wake up at around 4am every day so that I can squeeze in some work time before preparing and having breakfast with my family. Breakfast with my wife is a routine that I adhere to as I spend most of my remaining time at the restaurant. It’s a time where we catch up and update each other on our days.
Who does the cooking in the house then?
Since I’m mostly at the restaurant, my wife or second daughter will cook during the week. We usually eat very simple meals. On Sundays however, I like to prepare Western food such as the classic Fish & Chips.
If your children were to tell you that they want to follow in your footsteps and become chefs, what would you say to them?
My journey as a chef was incredibly challenging so I would not actively encourage my children to follow in my footsteps. But having said that, if they choose to walk down this path, I would be supportive.
There’s been a lot of uncertainties in the F&B industry, no thanks to the pandemic. What steps has MOONBOW taken to pivot and/or stay afloat?
I consider myself lucky to be working with a flexible and efficient team. When the dine-in restrictions were announced, we quickly pivoted to offer delivery and takeaway services. We streamlined our menu to ensure that our delivery and takeaway items are dishes that travelled well. We’ve also taken the time off to do some in-house training so that when restrictions are lifted, we’ll be able to serve our guests better.
Speaking of the pandemic, how has your family been handling it? What do you do as a family while having to stay home?
Since everyone’s home most days now, we’ve been spending a lot of quality time together. Our daily activities have not changed much, but there’s a certain contentedness and peace in having everyone together.
Father’s Day is around the corner. How is it celebrated within your family?
Among all the roles that you’ve accomplished, which one are you proudest of?
Rather than just choosing one role, I think they’re all interrelated and complement each other. Being a ceramist taught me the value of patience and perseverance, which can be applied to parenting and working with others for long hours in a small kitchen. Being a triathlete trains my stamina, which is useful when I am cooking or throwing clay. All these experiences have shaped my journey and made me the person that I am today, so I’m proud of all of them.
Thank you, Chef Heman Tan!