A Covid Change of Course: An intimate interview with Da Hai Shan’s maverick Singaporean chef-owner

Singapore is one of the most expensive countries in the world to live in and it’s not easy to run a food business in Singapore, especially when your food is so niche and pioneering. As Singapore’s social enterprise legend and accidental chef Benny Seeto of Eighteen Chefs famously said, “If you want to kill your enemy, ask him to open a restaurant.

Chef Lee, chef-owner of Singapore’s first “Chinese food and lifestyle cult” since 2016, Da Hai Shan, agrees.

Fresh from having resigned from a listed company in her prestigious former life as a Corporate Counsel and M&A professional, Chef Lee shares that she had had the best laid business plans, the most incredibly crazy sense of innate optimism and coincidentally had also been plotting to sell Har Cheong Gai (a traditional Chinese marinated fried chicken that originates from Singapore) for a very long time. After all, she had mastered the art of making Halal Har Cheong Gai since around 2010, for her loved ones and when she was trying to impress a Cantonese potential mother-in-law.

After quitting the professional world, she had tossed her expensive tailored suits for greasy aprons and humbled herself to start from the very bottom of the F&B food chain to work for her Chinese friend’s aunt’s shop at an exploitative SGD$6/hour (when the market rate was SGD$9/hour elsewhere back in 2016) because she wanted to seriously learn from the more experienced people in the industry.

She recounts her “lowly kitchen slave days” with a hint of amusement and states emphatically “There is really NO substitute for hard work and clocking in experience in the food business. You can’t jump into being a ‘boss’ without having worked for someone as a slave, without having been humiliated, disciplined, trained and patronised for years first. Absolutely not, if anyone is to take you seriously. Otherwise you’re simply, at best, a home cook who got lucky despite being so lazy and untrained.”

And over the years, in trying to upgrade herself and beef up her experience, she has worked at the whole gamut of food establishments from a Nasi Padang shop to a famous modern Chinese takeaway kiosk to a famous fine dining restaurant— immensely overqualified but disguising her pedigree background, high education and culinary achievements very well amongst co-workers as if her whole life over the last few years was one extended episode of Undercover Boss.

“Even though I’ve always been a hardy kind of person whose menial skills set includes furniture carpentry, house painting, cementing walls and making flower bouquets, people who had always known me in the society as a high-flying professional and knew my so-called privileged background were skeptical that I could even last a day working in a hot, humid kitchen doing dogsbody work. But boy, I showed them!” she laughs good-naturedly.

It was from the dissatisfaction of being exploited for profit and with being a mere employee, and from her balking at the hygiene practices at the places she had worked at, as well as the other people’s merry penchant for Monosodium Glutomate (MSG) in their cooking, that Chef Lee plotted the concept and business plans for her lifelong passion project: her very own authentic Chinese food brand specialising in almost-extinct comfort Chinese food that she grew up eating.

She did everything herself, from drafting the employee contracts to sourcing for materials/equipment/ingredients and constructing the facade for her stall, including designing the packaging, flyers, signage and ubiquitous bright orange logo that today is one of the most recognisable in the Singapore food industry.

“Branding is very important to me,” she stressed. “I have always stood for something all my life— all my schoolmates from primary school to my Masters education would probably tell you the same thing about how I stood out for standing up for things that nobody dared to speak up about— and it would be illogical if my food brand did not follow suit. Further, branding is not just about aesthetics or consumer psychology but more about the values that are important to me as a person, that I want the customers to relate to. Everything from the name Da Hai Shan to our packaging to our colour schemes have meaning.” She also credits her government official father who had begrudgingly helped her with some logistics, and her uncle and aunt who had invested some of the huge capital she had needed to start for the first time, even though they had tried to dissuade her as none of them had ever been in such blue-collar enterprises and they had collectively felt it was “a waste” for such a highly-educated legal scholar to transition to go into the food business. “My grandmother was the most upset, but it only made me want to prove her wrong!”

The actual impetus for Chef Lee to open Da Hai Shan had been long before that, as she was someone who grew up cooking her own Halal Chinese food since the 1990s because she found a lot of food she ate outside to be lacking in authenticity since the taste had been “bastardised by ethnic preferences”. She reminisces, “There were only so few good Chinese food places back then that were Halal, selling the kind of healthy, light, non-sweet and non-spicy food that I eat on a daily basis (I have a very sensitive wussy stomach!). So I naturally had to cook such Chinese food myself, especially for survival given my household situation. I would buy groceries with my measly pocket money as a young girl, and cook soups and various types of noodles for myself as a daily staple.”

“Actually, my first passion when I was a young girl was Japanese food, as I was so obsessed with the clean taste and light overtures brought out by the freshness of Japanese ingredients. I read Japanese recipe books, and spent years of my weekends glued to the TV watching ‘Japan Hour’ to learn the recipes and practised often. My first brother was always a willing diner, thankfully. Back then, there was no internet (well, dialup but ain’t nobody got time for that!) so it wasn’t as easy as today. We had to work a hundred times as hard back then to hone our culinary skills. Imagine, in a traditional Japanese joint, a kitchen apprentice would work for up to 5 years doing just one thing, like just washing the rice for sushi, before he could even rise up to be the line cook! People these days have it so easy, with their ‘training’ in Youtube University,” she chuckles.

She continues “Gradually, I began to expand my repertoire to Continental Western (which I found quite boring as it wasn’t challenging enough) and Chinese food (which excited me as it was deceptively simple but intricate) and I used to love hosting small dinner parties in the garden at my dad’s terraced house as well as for my church friends (I used to be a Christian for some time during my rebellious youth).” Looking a bit sheepish, she then adds cheekily, “I think maybe what planted the seeds of my desire to open a food business was the insane ego boost from everyone who was floored by my food and kept asking for seconds!”

So with all those years of cooking experience under her belt, including when she was living in the U.S. and then Canada as a scholar achieving her Law Masters, she finally decided to throw in her lot with the food industry for real. In 2016 Chef Lee sold her beloved BMW, liquidated some of her investments and emptied her savings into what she thought was her “passion made possible” #passionmadepossible (the Singapore Tourism Board’s campaign tagline).

“I mean, I had already taken business and management courses in university on top of the 4 solid years of intense legal coursework in my undergrad Law degree (with its selective intake of 220 students per year) at one of the world’s top universities. I don’t think I was intellectually unprepared,” she laughs cynically.

“Plus, I was always blessed to have been a successful entrepreneur since I was in primary school, starting off with selling decorative perfumed stones to my classmates; I then progressed to selling food in class in secondary school, to running my own emceeing and educational businesses at age 17 earning quite a fair bit… 15years before the gig economy even became a thing. And I’ve brokered US$290million retail malls, handled US$2billion American acquisition bids in my past corporate life. And had made my fortunes trading in shares, and in sound financial investments. What could go wrong?”

A lot, apparently. From staffing problems to business partners embezzling money to attacks by food rivals to the inability to pay rent to battling deep financial losses, Chef Lee went through it all. Yet every time she suffered a crippling setback, she rose again and again, silencing the very critics who said she would not last a day in the kitchen. Da Hai Shan stood the test of time for 5 years. And then when Covid19 happened and everyone started to get self-cultivated notions that they were talented chefs, she saw that there was no better time to leave the grimy world of running a food shop for good and for changing her business model.

“See, I’ve built up this niche effectively and I’ve worked tirelessly on the branding for years. Everyone knows Da Hai Shan now— mention high quality authentic Chinese food (that happens to be Halal) and that appeals to both the Muslim and non-Muslim markets in Singapore, and chances are Da Hai Shan comes to mind first. The Da Hai Shan name is synonymous with premium and comfort Chinese food that was previously not available in Halal form, and Da Hai Shan pioneered so much good food that received rave reviews from the get-go in 2016. We’re not a one-hit-wonder. So much so that many other people upon seeing Da Hai Shan’s success, started copying the things we were selling and even started gaining widespread media publicity by plagiarising text from the Da Hai Shan website and passing it off as their own! Sounds silly but oh so true.”

Chef Lee smiles as she shows us the young inexperienced people who copied her Har Cheong Gai menu to win a funding grant, and had even sent spies to her stall to observe her recipe. “But it’s really alright, I don’t feel threatened because no matter what they do, they will never be me or even half as amazing as Da Hai Shan! I mean, even by measures of personalisation and content curation on Da Hai Shan’s social media platform, Da Hai Shan is a most unique, inimitable and premium entity beyond compare,” she chuckles.

“You need to be authentic and original, not going around copying people or selling things just because they’re ‘trending’. I absolutely abhor that, and Da Hai Shan’s strict policy is to never imitate anyone. We are well known to be pioneers in every one of our signature dishes, and everyone knows I despise jumping on food trend bandwagons. I’m so much about being authentic and so against the imposter culture. For instance, no matter how hard nouveau riche people try, you can’t buy class… and class certainly can’t diffuse to you from the rich and famous people you hang around with to try and ‘belong’. I mean, that’s just one example of the imposter culture in this day and age of social media pervasiveness,” she rolls her eyes in incredulity.

To illustrate, Chef Lee’s assistant quips, “Do you know, she has Lord Haw Haw’s “Germany Calling” audio as her alarm on her phone. How many other kitchen staff, chefs included, would have such a quirky side to them? She took French as a third language in school, and she speaks 8 languages. She was a radio presenter and producer who had her own radio shows and forums in NUS. She wrote articles on economics, on the Hart-Fuller debate and her theses are in the hallowed libraries of major Law schools in the world. She took summer courses at NYU Law. She brokered complex midcap M&A deals as a professional. She did Japanese Law courses in Kyoto. She was a published author at age 19, and her book was awarded a grant by the National Arts Council of Singapore and stocked in every National Library branch in Singapore; she recently was also one of the Top 20 finalists for an international award for her latest anthology of 15 years’ worth of poetry. She has travelled to impoverished villages overseas many times on mission work since the 1990s, and everyone in her past circles knows she used to be a prominent community volunteer and political activist since the 1990s.”

Chef Lee nods and affirms, “I’ve always been upgrading myself in both skills and academia, taking courses even until recently, such as Harvard X’s Computer Science For Lawyers during the lockdown, and news journalism courses from Vice news because my nature is as such— I am never content with being static and I always hunger for more edification in my life. I am also a consummate sportsman and former decorated school jock (I used to play basketball, tennis, netball, soccer, kayak, sail, golf and competed in the air rifle) who is an anomaly in this industry for being a fitness freak and gym-mad because most chefs and food sellers are, as you know, painfully obese.”

“You can’t fake all these unique differentiating factors, or make up such stories to sell in place of your mediocre food,” she chuckles. “And this is why Da Hai Shan as a brand absolutely works, even if the logistics don’t. I’m like a grungy, geeky Asian Martha Stewart (she’s my business idol, by the way!) who’s slightly less attractive than Martha… and not blonde at all,” she laughs.

Her uniqueness as an individual and as an entrepreneur have never been easy for her to handle, in a society that encourages Asian conformity rather than being different. She muses “When I was working at all 3 outlets of a fine dining restaurant that’s arguably the most popular “Muslim-owned” Western-Malay fusion place in Singapore, I had such a traumatising experience. I had been cajoled by the owner for years to join them, but when I eventually did I was shocked and appalled by how low their standards of hygiene were with hundreds of cockroaches in the kitchen and food preparers coughing into the food without masks (even despite the Covid19 pandemic!), how poor working conditions were (kitchen staff were overworked, underfed and paid WELL BELOW MARKET RATE at exploitative sweatshop salaries, and not paid overtime nor had medical compensation), how incompetent and inexperienced almost everyone else was compared to me (but yet some of them were hilariously given a higher position and paid more just because they were men, or good at politicking and talking themselves up— like the 19 year old sous chef who had claimed to the owner that he was the head chef of Garibaldi at age 13!), and sadly, how the company deceived the public into thinking it served Halal food when many of its ingredients were in fact tainted with non-Halal elements and its menu featured China smoked duck that did not come from a Halal source. But employees were just expected to mindlessly conform. You were just a disposable factor of production, and if you went against it you were threatened. As someone who is famously fearless, I’m not afraid of anyone at all, but it’s just a very toxic environment. It’s not surprising though, as most of the employees were school dropouts, gang members, alcoholics and even the owner had affiliations with the underworld,” she sighed in genuine dismay just recounting the unpleasant memories.

She continues with visible conviction, “It totally changed my perspective on everything pertaining to the food industry in Singapore. Working in such sham restaurants where PR-sanitised appearances and paid social media propaganda belie a sinister BOH is nothing like working in the kitchen of, say, my culinary idols Gordon Ramsay or Wilin Low— at that disgusting place I worked at, I learnt nothing I didn’t already know, which was really hard to swallow for someone like me who is always hungry to learn and improve myself. I felt brain-dead a couple of weeks in; bored out of my mind and extremely exhausted because I was made to do everything but paid next to nothing. Even at my previous job at Wok Hey, I actually saw some progression as I went from blanching broccoli and cooking gigantic pots of ramen and udon at opening, to cooking on the line as a junior chef especially when my PRC ‘si fu’ (mentor) realised I wasn’t untalented and could connect with him well in good Mandarin (thus, highly valuable to the company). And imagine, after amassing 5 years of professional experience in the food industry, when I stepped into that “Muslim-owned” restaurant, I was paid 80% less than I was previously paid at Wok Hey. It was insane, how I was being unscrupulously exploited by someone whom I had previously looked up to. I had tendered my resignation 3 times, and he had increased my salary each time I threatened to leave until I decided that enough was enough— the place and management were too toxic to even realise my true value, and the brand was not aligned with my spiritual values nor my high standards at all. I left with zero regrets.”

“Honestly, I never want to work for anyone in the food industry again, after the immense disillusionment and injustice over the last few years. And can you imagine how lonely and wretched my life in the food business is, not being in the company of like-minded peers who share the same background as I do, who have gone through the same suffering in life, who share the same intellectual interests, whom I can engage with substantively on a deeper level? I don’t think I belong in this world at all, other than as an artisanal private chef/caterer whose obsession with high standards and details are accepted in such an environment,” she muses.

“Yes, I was sick of the excess, the superficiality, the materialism and the opulence of the corporate world I come from but on many levels I actually miss the intellectual pursuits and artistic endeavours I used to have the time and company for. Working 16-18 hours a day hard labour for razor-thin meagre earnings, sacrificing my personal relationships and having no time whatsoever for spiritual development doesn’t cut it anymore for me. I need more meaning in my life, as I stand for too much.”

Chef Lee announces that, although Da Hai Shan has had a good run in the brick-and-mortar food industry for 5 years and still gets numerous requests and orders that Chef Lee constantly has to decline because she has other commitments, she now wants to concentrate on her other businesses that she has neglected. She smiles, “By any measure, I’ve certainly surpassed everyone’s expectations especially considering I’ve mostly been running the entire business superhumanly on my own where others can only succeed with the help of family members or a team. I showed people that, while F&B is definitely not easy (certainly truer for a single woman like me without any husband or family to help!), I managed to beat the odds and gained quite a cult following through my extensive repertoire of more than 200 dishes, and have in recent years even arrived at a point where I am able to choose whose orders I want to take and whose to reject indiscriminately. I’ve also never paid a single celebrity to endorse Da Hai Shan’s food but so many of them from actors to politicians to MPs to even the one and only Ziana Zain has had Da Hai Shan food and here we are— they have been my paying customers from the start! So, I’m truly grateful for all that God has bestowed me in this phase of my life.”

“And objectively speaking, from the thousands of messages I have gotten from my more than 10,000 social media followers over the years, I am honoured and pleased to have touched so many lives in various ways: from Chinese Muslims who thank me for allowing them to revisit their childhood by being able to eat the authentic Chinese food they miss, to people who thank me for inspirational and spiritual posts, to people who seek pastoral guidance from me for whatever reason, to people who have thanked me for all the awareness I raise and the advocacy work I do for various social causes through the Da Hai Shan platform. Some people I’ve taught to cook prawns properly (the food service way in restaurants) too have gone on to become almost as famous as Da Hai Shan for their Halal prawn noodles. So, I’m quite happy to exit at the top now having achieved so much in just 5 years,” Chef Lee beams.

But, almost coyly, Chef Lee admits that her passion for cooking and evangelising the beauty of Da Hai Shan’s uniquely Singaporean Chinese food will never wane.

“It’s just that Da Hai Shan will only offer private chef, yacht parties catering and tourist-centric Singapore Chinese food experiences from now. Actually Da Hai Shan has always offered private chef, private dining and yacht parties services since 2017 before they even became a thing in Singapore so it’s nothing novel. After all, Da Hai Shan has always been a maverick from the start and I was always a sailor from my teenage years so have a thing for the sea and boats. Only the reaching out to tourists and visitors to Singapore is something new, and we look forward to cementing our longstanding partnership with the Singapore Tourism Board to give tourists and visitors to Singapore, the best Chinese food experience in a unique way,” Chef Lee shares excitedly.

From this long surreal interview with her, it is clear that Chef Lee is a person very much driven by passion and values, and through all these years her unique experiences and struggles have given a very different dimension to Da Hai Shan’s ethos that makes it stand out from the hundreds of thousands of food options in Singapore. And rightly so.

So if you’re coming to Singapore from overseas when borders open post-pandemic, make sure you follow Da Hai Shan’s Instagram account at least a month in advance and book the most amazing food experience in Singapore that you can get from the multi-talented, pint-sized but indefatigable, true-blue Singaporean chef-owner of Da Hai Shan. 

Da Hai Shan’s website is www.dahaishan.wordpress.com and orders are only taken through Direct Message at their Instagram account at @dahaishan.

Be first to comment

Men's Fashion T-shirts