Cover Tien Jia Chen of Duke of Congee (Photo: Darren Gabriel Leow)

In this three-part series, we talk to savvy young chefs who are injecting new life into the time-honoured trade

Having spent five years schooled in culinary arts, Tien Jia Chen had his heart set on working his way up the Michelin-starred restaurant ladder for the first five years of his career before starting his own restaurant. However, the Covid-19 pandemic sent his career plans into a tailspin, as restaurants faced dining restrictions and scaled-back operations. Undaunted, the enterprising 25-year-old shifted gears and opened a hawker stall in a nondescript coffee shop near Bedok Reservoir in January this year. Focusing on the perennial comfort food, Duke of Congee serves 20 varieties of congee with an extensive assortment of toppings, from pork meatballs and snakehead fish to seafood.

Opening a hawker stall was an unexpected detour for Tien, who graduated from The Culinary Institute of America’s Singapore campus last October. He recalls: “When I was studying, the image of a hawker was not as prestigious as working in restaurants; it was something associated with the older generation.”

However, starting a hawker business seemed like a viable option after last year’s unfortunate events. Last May, he missed out on a much-anticipated internship at the two-Michelin-starred contemporary American restaurant The Modern in New York. In order to graduate, he scrambled to secure a four-month internship at Mediterranean small-plates restaurant Lolla here, churning out pasta dishes and Basque burnt cheesecakes.

See also: Combining Our Love For Singapore’s Hawker Food With Champagne

Witnessing the vulnerable state of restaurants last year sparked his decision to bring forward his plan of running a food business. “Starting a hawker stall is more fail-proof during a pandemic—it’s easier to start on a smaller budget,” he explains. He pumped in $20,000—a combination of his savings and money borrowed from his parents to start Duke of Congee.

Prior to opening Duke of Congee, Tien spent four months researching which local dish to perfect, before settling on congee as it is “the most common Singapore- style comfort food”. His congee is fashioned after the Hainanese rendition, which is a cross between the creamy Cantonese congee and grainy Teochew styles. To give the congee more viscosity, Tien uses a mix of glutinous rice and jasmine rice.

While the congee’s taste is old-school, the preparation and cooking methods are injected with a dash of modern practicality. Eschewing the laborious method of stirring the congee continuously, Tien lets a sleek steam-injected boiler do the job, which breaks down the grains while retaining the moisture of the congee. Like how mise en place is neatly decked out in restaurant kitchens, a stainless steel cooler box on the kitchen island houses ingredients such as meat slices and century egg. He also installed a pass—a long, flat surface where the final flourish of condiments is added to the congee before serving it to customers. Much effort also goes into preparing the congee ingredients—the pig liver is cooked medium rare and marinated in starch and hua diao wine to tone down its gaminess, while the snakehead fish slices have a hint of ginger and hua diao wine.

See also: Hawker Food in Singapore: How Young Chefs Are Ensuring Its Survival

Tien’s culinary school training is also apparent from the many electric timers around the stall. He uses an infrared thermometer to ensure that the oil is at 190C to 200C just before the dough is fried to yield a crisp texture. Currently, his team of three, including his girlfriend and culinary schoolmate, Lilyan Baptist, 23, have dedicated roles and “workstations”.

Reflecting on his eye-opening journey as a hawker, Tien says: “Most people forget that hawkers are bosses of their own. It has exposed me to juggling more responsibilities as compared to working in a station at a bigger establishment.”

His business has blossomed and saw a surge during Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) in May. Due to the dine-in ban, takeaway volume intensified. The stall sold more than double the usual amount of 300 bowls per day during that period. With the stall’s burgeoning popularity, Tien plans to expand the Duke of Congee brand, adding dishes and opening several outlets in the future.

He affirms: “The biggest satisfaction of being a hawker is interacting with my customers and being empowered to meet their food needs, ensure better working conditions for my staff and that cooking can be done more efficiently so that the hawker trade can continue.”

See also: 5 Fine Whiskies to Get You Through Phase 2 (Heightened Alert)