‘I feel that parenting is like flying a kite – knowing when to pull the string to set boundaries and when to let go and allow children to explore and do the things they like, so they can become the best they can possibly be.’
Our latest ‘Cool Dad’ is Chef Zor Tan, owner of Restaurant Born, a new restaurant set within the iconic Jinrikisha Station. We chat to Chef Zor about meeting his wife, Grace Lam, when they were both teenagers working at a Japanese restaurant. Chef shares how he landed a position in the kitchens of the legendary Chef André Chiang, and how he feels he has OCD wanting everything to be just so at his Restaurant Born, which serves fine dining contemporary cuisine that marries the elegance of French gastronomy with the influence of Chinese flavours. After working from noon to midnight, Chef Zor takes over from his wife and sleeps in the same room as his 6-month-old baby boy Zayle, does the night feeds and nappy changes before making brekkie for his 3-year-old daughter Zelda. Read on for his philosophy on parenting and more!
Tell us something crazy about yourself.
I can fall asleep in 5 minutes! But that’s also mainly due to fatigue. Having OCD is something I developed as part of my work. I need things to be done in a certain way. This happens at home and especially at work, whether it is in the kitchen or front of house. Before each service, I will personally check every table setting, furniture placement and even the bathrooms.
Your parents ran an economy rice stall in Malaysia – did you grow up helping them cook here?
I didn’t assist my parents at the stall, but I would help eat the leftovers. The best leftovers are the chicken drumsticks that my mum would keep for me and my brothers.
Did you always want to be a chef?
I only knew I wanted to be a chef after working at a semiconductor factory when I was 17 years old. I didn’t enjoy the work, so I soon found myself at a Japanese chain restaurant, and it was there that I not only discovered my love for cooking, but also met my girlfriend, wife now (Grace), who was working part-time in service. Grace was 17 years old – she was studying then but worked part-time in service at the restaurant. She struck me as pretty and cute, and I made the first move by offering to ‘da bao’ or take away food for her. Grace encouraged me to enrol in formal culinary studies to further my career. At that time, the culinary profession was still considered ‘low-level’ without much of a future, but this motivated me to better my knowledge and prospects in the field.
After you graduated culinary school you landed a job at Jaan par André, then helmed by Chef André Chiang with whom you later worked at Restaurant André – how did you manage to get your first gig at such a prominent restaurant?
When I first read about Chef André in an article, I saw his beautiful creations and at that point, decided I wanted to learn and work under him to create food with such refinement and beauty. When I graduated from SHATEC, I applied for a job at Jaan par André and got an interview. I was disappointed that I didn’t hear back from Chef André but instead of giving up, I persisted and made a personal call to him. It turned out that he had misplaced my application and couldn’t reach me. I landed the job, and my colleagues then would often tease me about having worn office clothes to the interview, but to me, it was a sign of respect.
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What was it like working with the legendary Chef André? Spill the tea!
For 11 years, I worked with a perfectionist who was both demanding on himself and his brigade. There was immense pressure to deliver a high level of finesse. Chef André was always one step ahead with his concepts and ideas and working next to him in the kitchen required much focus and concentration. After my first week of working for him, he said to me ‘good job’ and that made me more motivated to do even better. I gave it my all, and I was grateful to have received his mentorship, a solid culinary foundation, the local and overseas exposure through opportunities of working with great chefs around the world and taking on significant roles as Executive Chef of Restaurant André and the co-Executive Chef of Restaurant Raw in Taipei. When Chef André decided to close Restaurant André the same year, he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse – as the Executive Chef of Sichuan Moon at Wynn Palace Macau, which received positive affirmations in its first year with two-Michelin stars and 23rd placing on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards 2020.
When you aren’t cooking yourself, what do you love to eat?
I love hawker food, but I am not one to queue, so I am happy eating whatever I feel like having that is convenient to get.
What are your working hours like? We hear when you get home at night you start your next ‘job’ and do all the night feeds for your new baby?
We are currently only serving dinner, so I am usually at the restaurant from noon to midnight. When I get home, I will take over from my wife, who looks after the kids most of the day. This is my time to share the load. I sleep in the same room as my baby boy who currently has erratic sleeping patterns. Some nights, I won’t be able to lay him down. Once I do, he will start to cry. When he is in need of a feed and diaper change, I will wake up to warm up the milk and then try to help him fall asleep. Come 6am or 7am, my wife takes over. If my daughter is up by then, I will prepare a simple breakfast and feed her if she’s not in the mood to eat, then send her to school while my wife tries to get my baby boy to sleep. If my wife feeds my daughter, I will be the one to bathe my son.
While you have now well-established yourself with Restaurant Born, your childhood was more modest – your father gathered cockles and fished to support the family’s meals. Do you think it’s important to raise kids to be grounded or is it more important for you to give them access to things you may not have had growing up?
It’s about balance. Whatever I did not have as a child, I’d naturally like to give to my own children, but at the same, it’s important to remind them not to forget where we come from. I hope my kids will learn that they may not get everything they want every time, or get it as easily.
Were you academic at school? How do you think you and your wife will manage your kids’ education?
I was academically slightly above average in school, but at that time, I thought working was more important. To me and my wife, education is a must, but it’s not an absolute must to be a very high achiever. They should be able to keep up with the curriculum, but still have the chance to enjoy their childhood. They can choose to pursue their interests and we will be there to support them.
What’s your favourite one-on-one activity with your children?
Eating with my daughter after our swimming sessions is my favourite one-on-one activity. Seeing her enjoy food as much as I do (she currently likes Din Tai Fung), and remembering her favourites make me happy. This is also the best time to have a conversation with her when she’s most focused on just the two of us.
What is your parenting philosophy?
Most recently, I switched my parenting approach after observing how my daughter has become more intuitive and is able to communicate more. I too am learning, to let her express herself so I can understand her needs or wants.
I feel that parenting is like flying a kite – knowing when to pull the string to set boundaries and when to let go and allow our children to explore and do the things they like, so they can become the best they can possibly be.
What has been the most surprising thing about being a Dad?
Seeing my children grow is very fascinating and it often makes me reflect on how my parents used to raise me and my brothers.
Many thanks, Chef Zor, it has been interesting hearing about your career and how you are embracing your role as a Dad!