#TrueCalling: Su-Lyn Tan

IN COLLABORATION WITH HUAWEI,
featuring photos shot/edited on the new Huawei P10, co-engineered with Leica.

Why do we do what we do? What is it that drives us, day after day, to pour our time, effort, and our heart and soul into the art, the beauty, the solutions and magic we create?

We pursue our dreams and chase them into our reality not because it is the most natural thing to do, or the easier way to live. Quite the contrary. It is hard work, dedication (sometimes to the point of obsession — do we see a few nods?), and many have described it to be a lonely journey. So why do we do what we do? Because, quite simply, when all is said and done, it gives us joy and feeds our life’s purpose. And hopefully, by doing what we do, we’d be spreading a little of that joy, and a little light to the people around us and, who knows, the rest of the world.

In a new seven-part series entitled #TrueCalling, we’ve partnered up with Huawei to bring you the stories of seven women — creators, doers and, yes, dreamers — to find out what makes them tick. How has whipping up a new recipe, designing clothes, or capturing moments from around the world, for example, brought them happiness? What interesting lessons, people and ideas have they encountered along the way? We’re going to give you a glimpse into their worlds through our lens.

At the beginning of this series, we spilled a few beans on culinary artist Janice Wong’s love affair with food and art. This week, we return to the topic of food — but with a little twist. Strictly speaking, Su-Lyn Tan is not in the business of food. At least not in the way that someone like Janice is. But, as one half of Chubby Hubby and a complete gastronome, food is her business. And pleasure. Cooking, learning, savouring, talking, sharing, discovering… all of it. “My love for food connects me to people of all walks of life,” says the co-founder of The Ate Group, a strategic content agency. And food makes people happy. “Sharing it enables me to engage with people… I love bringing joy to others.”

Lucky for this writer, I had a little taste of that joy which peppered our chat, as you’ll see. On the day of our photo shoot, Su-Lyn got busy in her photogenic kitchen — what a little slice of heaven it was! — and baked an Earl Grey pound cake from scratch. I may have watched it happen right before my eyes, but I am still in awe and disbelief that it was such a neat, calm and fuss-free operation. To this Rachael Nay, it was just like a magic trick. But more importantly, that cake — that cake! — made me a very happy girl that day. Very happy, indeed.

 

I am a perfectionist.
Through and through.
And unbearably so.

When, or how, did food become a love of yours?
Su-Lyn Tan:
Both my parents enjoy their food and drink. I grew up in a household where mealtimes were to be savoured. It was always a part of my life. I remember setting out weekend breakfasts on the coffee table in my parents bedroom as a young child of perhaps eight — we’d have kippers and hard-boiled eggs on halved slices of toast. My parents would have freshly brewed coffee served in cups and saucers (an aroma that I continue to associate with comfort and happiness). It was sort of an elaborate imaginary room service.

We’d also dine out regularly as a family. I was fortunate that my parents would make the effort to take my sister and I to new restaurants. We’d taste new things all the time. It was one of the ways we spent time together as a family.

I remember two childhood obsessions: Ravioli in cream sauce and sole meunière. I might have ordered these every single time I found them on a menu. In that repetition, I discovered what I liked and disliked in the finer details of each dish. I was also the irritating prat who would ask for a fish knife (my parents are not particular that way, so I really don’t know where that came from. Too many repeated exposures to My Fair Lady and Easter Parade, perhaps?) .

My mother is a wonderful and instinctive cook. My parents love to host guests. I remember, as a teenager, hosting parties at home nearly every weekend. My father made me my first Screwdriver, he gave me my first sips of wine. And I love the scent of tobacco because he used to smoke a pipe.

My mother would have an evolving repertoire of dishes, each becoming new favourites among

our guests as she refined them. These were dishes that she had tasted and decided to try her hand at recreating, or of her own invention. I remember her stuffing Chinese glutinous rice into our Christmas turkeys for some years (possibly a Violet Oon influence). There was always something simmering in that heady Teochew combination of caramelised sugar, dark soy and star anise on the kitchen stove. And I recall fondly a moulded Japanese mandarin cheesecake (more like a gelatin-set mousse) that we’d whip up for every happy occasion (regrettably, that dessert recipe has since been lost. I distinctly remember the adorable illustrations that accompanied it). To me, food has always been closely intertwined with hospitality, with bringing joy to the people around you.

Do you remember the very first dish you ever made?
SL:
I can’t remember the first dish I ever made. But the earliest dish I do recall making stands out for being possibly the worst dish I’d ever prepared. I was perhaps nine or 10. It was a Hawaiian pizza I’d made unsupervised. Embarrassingly, it was made with tinned pineapple rings and probably picnic ham. I assume that it was a frozen pizza base (I made my first pizza base from scratch much later in life). There are no romantic memories of aromas and scrumptious first tastes. It was likely a school holiday lunch. I do remember enjoying making pizzas prior to this incident. I can still remember the eager anticipation I’d felt. I was looking forward to eating this pizza. On ingestion, it was passable at best. But what made it memorable was how ill it made me after. To this day, I cannot bring myself to eat another Hawaiian pizza.

What did you dream of being when you were little? Is it anywhere close to what you are now?
SL: I wanted to be a writer. Even at 12, in our

childish autograph books, my friends painted a future of writerly work for me in a cottage in the English countryside. But I was pragmatic and never thought that I would actually become one. Which was why I acquired a degree in Media Studies with a focus on media theory and research, and a second major in public relations.

What I have come to realise now is that while one’s passion and desire is important, fulfilment is best achieved when you remain open to how you apply your passion.

I do think that I have achieved my ambition to be a writer. I help tell people’s stories every day. But I would never have imagined, as a 12-year-old, what possibilities could lie ahead. I started off with a skill. My first job was my dream job. I was a writer at 8 Days magazine. I scored it by responding to a newspaper ad. Much of the fundamentals of writing, I learnt from the incredible team of editors and writers I worked with there.

What I do today, running a strategic content agency, enables me to apply my skill in many ways, to help people and brands great at what they do, but who aren’t necessarily great at communicating it. What I initially thought would be a matter of crafting meaning out of words, has now become a multimedia palette with an ever-changing selection of canvases.

Our stories can now be told across media. They can be experienced. They can be felt. The words may be delivered by someone else. They may reside in an image. But we craft that story, and how it is told, together.

Yes, I think what I was shooting for as a child is pretty close to what I am today.

 

 

I appreciate food that has been thoughtfully prepared. When I am happy, I just eat a lot of it. When I’m sad, I tend to cook more than I eat. Giving someone else joy makes me happy.

In this series, we want to explore this thing called happiness, and purpose. How does food fit into your life in this respect?
SL: Food per se is not my happiness. Making or eating good food is not what brings joy to my life. It is a medium or channel for me. Sharing it enables me to engage with people. And while I am fundamentally an introvert, I love bringing joy to others. Not just by literally feeding them, but by building a sense of connection that is uplifting. Of course, I value the ability to nurture and care for the people around me through my cooking. But more importantly, my love for food connects me to people of all walks of life. Everyone eats. Food can be an equaliser. It opens the door to many other meaningful conversations. Some of which can make a difference in someone else’s life in some small way.

Are you happiest when you’re dreaming up new recipes? When you’re whipping up a meal for people you love, and bringing joy through their taste buds? Or are you most blissful when you’re eating and experiencing new flavours?
SL:
I am happiest doing all these things. For me, my love of food is infinite. And it is an endless process of learning about it. Because food and eating is fundamental to human life. And it is a living, breathing process. The way we eat constantly evolves. At no point do we arrive at our destination. The more I create, cook and taste, the more I learn about

my fellow human beings. And to be honest, if I were to do all these without sharing my learnings, it would be meaningless to me. A significant part of my happiness emanates from sharing and communicating what I’ve learnt with others in a useful way.

What is your all-time favourite thing to cook (or a recipe that you can’t help re-inventing over and over again?) And what is your go-to food when you’re happy and when you’re sad?
SL: I go through phases of obsession. But I guess the constant theme is comfort food. Food that many people can identify with. I enjoy re-inventing these, capturing threads of flavour and experience that give people joy, and finding new ways to deliver them. Recent obsessions have included the KitKat bar, Maggi mi goreng and wontons.

I also love to make the foods that my children love. Sugar cookies, ragu alla Bolognese, chocolate cake. These I try my best to deliver with the highest nutritional value and flavour.

I don’t have fall-back favourites. I appreciate food that has been thoughtfully prepared. When I am happy, I just eat a lot of it. When I’m sad, I tend to cook more than I eat. Giving someone else joy makes me happy.

GIVE NOTHING BUT YOUR BEST.

What’s your creative process like when it comes to creating your recipes? Are you a perfectionist, or do you like to be more spontaneous and play it by ear as you go along?
SL:
I start with an idea, then take a researcher’s approach by studying and comparIng precedents. I search for evidence of success, study the credibility of sources, extract commonalities. Then I attempt to make elements of the dish using a recipe I have extracted from an archive of successful recipes.

The process of refinement is never ending. Because what we love to taste constantly evolves. That’s why I save my recipes on Evernote and re-write them frequently. There is always a core method that I will return to. But these days I am more confident in deviating from it by trusting my palate.

I am a perfectionist. Through and through. And unbearably so.

Would you say that food is, to you, a way of self-expression and communication?
SL: Absolutely. It is not a closed loop of cooking and eating. It is a meaningful text to me — both in its creation and its consumption. And it

is an experience. Where you eat, how you eat and with whom, adds meaning to it.

Do you think your recipes have grown with you? I mean, do you see a shift in the food you make at various stages of your life? If so, how has it changed or evolved?
SL: Absolutely. In my teens, I cooked to replicate the tastes of home. I think, in my 20s and early 30s, food was very much about indulgence and excess. Rich, heavy flavours, and elaborate, time consuming preparations were celebrated. With age and children, economy of time and healthful preparations have become more important. I think greater exposure (as in the many years of eating well and widely) also educates the palate to appreciate a wider spectrum of flavours. So acidity and bitterness enter to give balance to richness; some sweetness, to enhance the savouriness.

In your Chubby Hubby bio, you say you’re “an obsessive cook and critical eater” — does that sometimes rob you of the joy of just “being” and enjoying your passion? 
SL: There is a lot of eating and cooking that goes on without my talking about it. I’m not robbed of my morning 15 minutes at my office desk with a latte and a square of dark chocolate.

When I have it, I savour it.

The state of just “being” for me is being critical and curious in a productive manner. So even with my coffee and chocolate, I am aware of what coffee it is, how I made it, whether I like the taste of it; what chocolate I’m having, how it pairs with the coffee, whether storage as affected flavour. There is no lower state of consciousness in my mind.

And my passion is really in communicating what I’ve learnt. I want to be helpful, to offer something that might be useful to someone else in some way. Perhaps it is by virtue of my journalistic training. But everything is an opportunity for learning.

How many hours do you spend in the kitchen?
SL: On a good day, I get three to four hours in the kitchen from 10pm. But it is not a constant.

Finally, what is your mantra in cooking and in life?
SL:
Give nothing but your best. If your soufflé flops or your curry splits, own it, learn from your mistakes, and get on with it. Every failure is an opportunity to learn.

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If your soufflé flops or your curry splits, own it, learn from your mistakes, and get on with it. Every failure is an opportunity to learn.

PHOTOGRAPHY & ART DIRECTION  //  Karman Tse
SHOT ON  //  Huawei P10, co-engineered with Leica

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