Her rise to eminence was a rather fortuitous one. In 1980, Australia-born Raelene Tan was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed student in the kitchen of Violet Oon, expanding her culinary dictionary under the tutelage of Oon. Led by an interest in Asian cooking styles and tastes, she continued pursuing the lessons with great zeal. Tan, who was in her 40s then, had come to Singapore from Australia almost a decade earlier. Later, when the grande dame of Singaporean cooking launched the now-defunct The Food Paper, she invited Tan to contribute as a writer. Tan’s first published article, chronicling the “correct way” to drink Japanese sake caught the eye of Landmark Books. The boutique publishing house then commissioned her to write a series of five books on Singapore-style etiquette. What transpired after was an over three-decade-long career which solidified her position as a culinary and etiquette savant.
The prolific writer, whose hobbies include eating (but of course), travelling and spending time with her grandchildren playing Monopoly, has also charmed Singaporeans with her fairytale marriage to Tan Soo Ren, an enthralling cross-cultural love story spanning across 50 years. The couple had first met at a boarding house in West Hampstead, London when he was studying architecture and she was working at the Australian High Commission, before finally settling down in Singapore. In spite of her Western heritage, Tan’s culinary heart truly belongs to Singapore, a place where her tastebuds evolved gradually to relish fresh chilli and various curries.
We had a rich and delicious conversation with the dining doyenne about her experience as a venerated Tatler reviewer. Read on below.
How did you start reviewing for the Tatler Dining Guide?
Raelene Tan (RT): The Tatler bureau chief made contact in 1997, after reading my series of books on etiquette, and also reading various newspaper articles on food that I had written. He extended an invitation to join Tatler’s reviewing team, which I accepted with pleasure. And now, 25 years have flown by!
How has the role of the reviewer changed over the years?
RT: The role is now that of a reviewer, rather than a critic, ascertaining the overall general mood of a restaurant. Previously, the focus was almost solely on food, whereas now a wider scope is emphasised. For example, the reservation handling, the welcome accorded, answers by staff to questions posed by a reviewer, and providing tips for readers, such as best table locations for romance or for business discussions, or a memorable vegetarian dish, or particular wines to try.