We met up with the self-proclaimed food geek Vivian Pei to talk about the magic formula for F&B success, game changers and why molecular experiments aren’t for everyone.
1. You have undoubtedly a passion for food and seem to be drawn in by the creative side of things. When starting new projects, be it a cooking class, a photo shoot or a cook book, what is it that initially interests you?
I have spent a good amount of time in the F&B industry – in the front and back of a restaurant, behind the bar or consulting. Although food is my strong suit, I recently have been learning a lot more about cocktails and wine. I am usually interested in anything related to food and drinks, because I find there is a lot of room for creativity.
For a new project, it could be a new concept, ingredient, trend, personality, anything that is different and interesting.
2. What projects are you working on right now?
The cooking studio at Coriander Leaf is my priority at the moment, but in whatever spare time I have (not much!), I am working on book and TV projects also. However, I can’t really talk about that yet, I don’t want to jinx anything!
I actually grew up in a restaurant family in the States and initially my family didn’t want me to work in a restaurant. After working in the corporate world for many years, in branding, marketing, identity (all of which can be very abstract), I realised that my passion was food. Food is much more black and white. You either like or don’t like it – it’s very simple. The trick was to find a way of working in this industry, but not specifically in a restaurant, in order to have more flexibility in what I do. Writing came naturally out of that and then food styling and consultancy afterwards.
4. You are cooking, writing, teaching, consulting and plenty more. Where are you really at home?
Generally I don’t call myself a chef, because I have never run a professional kitchen. I have the utmost respect for chefs, a chef has to deal with money, people, the menu, inventory, the suppliers and a million other things. So I consider myself a cook, but who also does other things.
5. Food startups are growing fast, be it delivery services or an on-demand chef service. Is Singapore especially fertile for food startups?
Food is still considered an industry that is easier to get into than others, there are low barriers to entry. However, there are common misconceptions. Some people consider themselves good hosts and want to open a restaurant. But entertaining a small group on one evening is totally different than doing it night after night. Your dish has to be the same every day – flavour has to be consistent.
Another reason I think food start ups are popular besides the above is simply that Singaporeans love to eat! All day long, everyday. And different trends arrive on these shores regularly, from Japanese food, to Korean, cocktail bars to whiskey bars, Spanish tapas, doughnuts, to the latest, Korean churros. So in principle, the target market is there.
It is a really good question, because a lot of people who I thought should have succeeded actually closed. Whilst there are other places surprisingly stayed open. However, location will always be an issue.
I always thought that if you provide a good product and good service, you would be successful. But that’s not the case any longer. I don’t think anymore that there is a fail-proof formula. No one has the Midas touch.
A lot of the younger chefs and bartenders are very ambitious and want to have their own places or be senior very quickly. It’s great to have a lot of natural talent and hard work will get you a long way. But you still have to learn the basics first, which for some isn’t sexy enough. You can’t start out doing molecular stuff without knowing how to make a proper béchamel or mix a negroni.
7. Singapore has drastically changed in the last decade. What are the most important chances in the F&B industry that you have seen?
Since MBS and RWS started, whether you like it or not, the scene evolved as the celebrity chef restaurants increased the standard. There was a lot of local talent, but before they weren’t challenged as much. Having some of the big names here has created some excitement and glamour around food.
I think there still needs to be a level of appreciation for the work that goes into the food and the drinks. The local food culture is really rich and sophisticated. However, people eat $15 ramen and complain if their fish balls cost $0.50 extra, even though the shop might not even have changed its prices in 5 years. Most people in restaurants work really hard, but are not appreciated accordingly. On the other hand, people don’t mind paying the prices of the celebrity restaurants. There seems to be a discrepancy that is troublesome.
9. If you were cooking at home, what would be on your plate?
Jiaozi or dumplings are very much on my repertoire. I am also a big fan of any kind of pork, the fattier the better. When I have people over for dinner, I probably will be preparing something more on the decadent side, but over the years I have tried to move away from plated dinners. I prefer to make big platters of food for everybody to share.
I like to make my own pasta, which isn’t very hard but impresses people. I tend to make things that people wouldn’t make for themselves. I personally don’t have a sweet tooth, but I do love to bake as well. It usually makes people happy and that’s what counts in the end.
10. As you have lived in different countries and travelled around the world, where would you still want to explore the local cuisine?
I haven’t been to any part of South America and have been waiting for a long time to do so. I have a lot of friends from Brazil, Peru and Argentina and always wanted to go visit when they are there. Unfortunately I haven’t managed it yet. The Scandinavian countries are also on my list. I find the more I travel, the more I realise there are still so many places I haven’t seen! For example, I recently became completely smitten with Croatia from a trip this past summer. When it comes to places that I have already been to, then Paris is definitely my spiritual home.