Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle employs only three people including the star chef Chan Hon Meng. Working out of a Singapore food court in the heart of the Chinatown Complex, this one-dish kitchen is now the first Michelin-starred food stall in the world. Behind an austere stainless steel front, Chan works 17 hours a day plating soya sauce-braised chicken–a Chinese import–onto a bed of rice or noodles. Along with someone manning the register and another to keep an eye on roasting chickens, this three-man team commands lines that can take hours to resolve. Hunched over a large wooden cutting board, Chan takes the lead and chops the braised chicken for eager customers while the queue grows.
Chan has run Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle for decades and built a loyal customer base that swears by his simple dish. Costing only S$2 (£1.10), his soya sauce-braised chicken has been a daily favorite of locals for years for a quick lunch during work hours or a casual outing with friends. This might change, however, since Chan was awarded a Michelin star in Michelin’s new Singapore dining guide. Catching wind of a new food trend, gourmands have been salivating at the thought of experiencing authentic local food. The line to the tiny food stall now snakes around it several times and would-be diners have reported waiting up to two hours for a plate of chicken. When asked whether it was worth it, they unanimously replied, “Yes.” Those unlucky enough to have queued up just a bit too late, just after the stall ran out of food, will come back another day.
The choice of a food stall for a Michelin star has pointed to a new direction for Michelin, which traditionally awards stars to Western-style sit-down restaurants helmed by star chefs who have worked under other Michelin-starred chefs. This previously unknown food stall–unknown at least to anyone but locals–has been catapulted to fame along with a second food stall hawker, Tang Chay Seng for his Teochew noodles at Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle. The lack of decor, space, a name-brand chef, or even formal training has reoriented Michelin toward authentic, traditional foods that are no longer necessarily synonymous with upper-echelon dining, but just good food. This has been a long time coming, as Singaporean food court cuisine has long been the subject of respect amongst celebrity chefs including Anthony Bourdain, whose New York city food hall, Bourdain Market, will heavily feature Singaporean cuisine.
While their newfound fame has brought Chan and Tang much deserved respect, they are not the only beneficiaries to their Michelin stars. The cuisine of Singapore has been a hidden gem for decades and has just now received the recognition it deserves. “I think the best outcome (of the Michelin awards) is for locals to see hawker food in a different light. This will hopefully also translate into increased participation and recognition in the trade as we are facing a huge shortage in manpower and continuity in the industry,” says Li Ruifang, a street hawker at Tekka’s Food Center. The craft and skill of a food stall hawker cannot be learned at a culinary school, but is rather passed on from chef to chef under years of tutelage. Chan, for example, learned his signature dish from a Cantonese chef nearly three decades ago. The repetition and routine of cooking and perfecting a single food has lead to excellence and consistency across Singapore’s thousands of food stalls.
Making on only one dish day in and day out has meant that Chan’s decades of experience can be focused onto a single traditional Chinese dish from the province of Guangdong. The chicken is first roasted until crispy, then braised in a secret blend of soya sauce, sugar, and other Chinese spices. Served on a plate of rice or Chinese rice noodles, braised soya sauce chicken has become something of a ‘soul food’ for Singaporeans. The Michelin star and subsequent international recognition has led to a renewed appreciation for more traditional dishes in Singapore, which has increasingly leaned toward Western imports like McDonald’s–a restaurant in which a Big Mac that costs roughly twice as much as a plate of soya sauce-braised chicken.
The Michelin star, though prestigious, has not come without its own unique set of challenges for Chan. He reports an increase of 30 chickens to a total of 180 chickens a day that he must prepare for an growing audience. The appreciation for his craft, while welcome, has meant an extra hour of work a day for little monetary compensation. “As for prices, it’s not fair to raise them just because I won an award,” he said, speaking in Mandarin. “In fact, my suppliers have increased prices four times in the last seven years and I’ve not changed my prices at all. I will continue trying to absorb the price increases until I really can’t do it.”
Working 17 hours a day has also taken its toll on Chan’s 51-year-old body. Without enough room for a seat within the stall, Chan spends his entire shift standing awkwardly over his chopping board, repeating the same chopping movements all day. Along with the lack of air conditioning and oppressive heat from roasting chickens, it is strenuous work. It is then no wonder why Chan believes his to be the last generation cut out for this line of work. Young people have options that do not require the kind of labor Chan has survived. “It’s hard work, but this is all I know,” he says, adding that he even has trouble finding help. Singapore’s strict limitations on foreign workers has meant increased difficulty in hiring assistants willing to withstand the muggy environment for 17 hours a day. Along with hiring difficulties and increased hours necessary to fulfill his growing number of orders, Chan wonders whether or not he can retain his Michelin star. Consistency is key to Michelin, but Chan finds himself caught in a precarious situation. “If I try something new, my old customers may not like it. But if I keep doing what I’ve been doing, then in a way, I wouldn’t get better,” he said. For now, he continues to put in the time, feeding people as he has always done.
Having worked for decades with little fame or recognition, Chan Hon Meng has never asked for the limelight. Now that he has it, the elevation of his food stall and Singapore food culture in general is a heavy burden to bear. A simple traditional dish of soya sauce-braised chicken has done for Singaporean cuisine what no Western import has ever done, which was to transform the perceptions of the Singaporean food court–a utilitarian, sparsely furnished, uncomfortable setting for simple, delicious food. Chan’s continued dedication to his customers and his stall can be measured by the smile he wore on his face as he received his plaque, and not the paltry £1.10 he receives for each plate. Whether or not he can maintain his Michelin star is up to the fates, but Chan is not so worried about it.
“No time to think so much now. Need to go chop chickens,” he said, before doing exactly what he promised.