Local celebrity chef Violet Oon: "Food is in our cultural DNA!"
Having carved a culinary empire out of food, Singapore culinary chef, Violet Oon, is not an unknown face. After all, she's been cooking up storms for the past 50 years and is set to tease our tastebuds with Peranakan dishes!
Singapore’s food maven, Violet Oon, should not be an unfamiliar face to you, especially if you’re a foodie just like the rest of Singapore.
Violet Oon proclaims that she has “eaten widely all over the world since the early 1950’s!” and counts being a food critic and writer at our local magazine, Her World Singapore, as part of her “food career”.
With a newly-renovated Peranakan restaurant, named Violet Oon Singapore, which ropes in her two children, Yiming and Su-Lyn, it looks like this 66-year-old’s love for food and the kitchen goes beyond boundaries.
theAsianParent speaks to her on how food binds her family together and why working with family can actually be a good thing!
Hailed as our homegrown celebrity chef and Singapore’s food ambassador, could you share how your culinary journey came about to bring you to where you are right now?
I have eaten widely all over the world since the early 1950’S. Thanks to my father’s work, we moved countries every two to three years for a new posting, and we started with Malacca.
In the 1960’s, my father was transferred to London and on the way there we holidayed in Italy where I had my first introduction to real Italian food at the age of 12.
We spent days in Switzerland where I had my first real hot chocolate – and then moved to London and was eating in different cities and towns.
In 1963, we returned to Singapore via France and Spain – our car went into the aeroplane called the Car Ferry in Dover and we flew to Calais and drove through the Loire Valley, Paris, Lourdes, Pau, the Pamplona, then Granada, Madrid and we finally drove to Gibraltar where the car was loaded onto the ocean liner the Himalaya. Then we sailed back to Singapore, arriving in Penang on the night of Aug 31 1963, to the fireworks of Merdeka – when Malaysia was formed.
Back in Singapore, we travelled to Kuala Lumpur for my father’s posting before he was sent to Sabah – I have stayed in boarding schools in Singapore 2 times – CHIJ in Victorian Street (now CHIJMES), then Marymount Convent.
All this history of my early life as an only child exposed me to food from the best to the worst (convent boarding school food), food of varying nationalities, cooked authentically and in many different authentic settings – from dinner at a Chateau in the Loire Valley to honey dew melons enjoyed at road sides in Spain summer 1963, to Simpsons to experience what true British roast beef and Yorkshire pudding is like, to my first Spaghetti Bolognaise in Rome in the winter of 1961.
I learnt how to differentiate eating certain food in the correct settings and how to eat different foods authentically culturally.
Then I started learning to cook seriously at age 16, picking up from my grand aunts and my father’s sisters. When I was studying in the University of Singapore, I used to buy a weekly recipe magazine called Supercook and would create feasts like a full Roast Leg of Pork for dinner and invite friends to come and eat on a beautifully laid out table.
I knew the flavours and textures I was cooking as I would re-create meals I had tasted in their authentic settings already.
I started as a music critic in my 1st job in the New Nation newspaper in the 1970’s, and a couple of years later, was given the food column and became a food critic – I got the chance to meet many great chefs and to be able to learn from them in their kitchens for the newspapers and later in Her World Singapore.
This was all in the 1970’s and 1980’s where travel wasn’t as common then as it is now, so I was amongst the first to experience food in many lands and cultures, which helped shaped my culinary journey.
Violet, you’ve been dubbed as the Julia Child of Singapore. Is that a compliment to you?
I do think this is a compliment when it is a comparison made by Americans as Julia Child was so highly respected and revered during her time. She was of course much, much older than me! And, she has even had a movie made about her cooking.
Has food been a pivotal role in relationships and family for you?
Food has always been very important and pivotal, firstly as a Peranakan, as entertaining at home with the best foods has always been a part of our cultural DNA.
It is of course pivotal now as it has brought my two adult children closer to me and this is of course, most precious to me as a mother – bonding through food is one of the most lovely bonds and till today, I cook up some special meals for them at home.
Now it is for my two grandsons, who spend the night with me once a week and we have the ritual of the supper at night which has become special for my elder grandson.
My youngest grandchild is too young to stay over at two-years-old, but she spends some Saturday afternoons with me and our ritual is Paper Thosai at Junction 8 followed by the Bishan Library which she loves visiting and borrowing books from.
None of my grandchildren are on to Peranakan food yet… I bake gluten-free cakes and pizza for my elder grandson and look forward to him having gluten-free treats when I can find time to make them for him.
We like how Violet Oon and her family are bonding over food and cooking! Find out how her it’s like dealing with disagreements when working with one’s family and what she counts as her favourite food!
With your children, Su-Lyn and Yiming, in the business, how is it like working with family? How do you deal with disagreements and different point of views?
It is both lovely and sometimes just plain irritating working with family but what counts is that beyond the irritation and arguments, there is always always love and the feeling that we want the best for each other.
We have morphed and learnt to deal with disagreements in a more professional way. Each of us has our own area of expertise and department and we discuss like we would in a corporation and do not interfere in the day-to-day of each other’s departments, just like one does not do so while working with colleagues.
There is always space for inputs and ideas sharing during the meetings and with the ease of communication these days, the meeting can either be face-to-face, via Whatsapp, over email or a conference call.
Understand that you had a stroke last year, how has that changed your perspective in life moving forward?
The stroke has affected my balance and I cannot do as much today and it has taught me to sometimes let go and not to sweat the small stuff. Time with grandchildren is very precious as well as time to build up a really strong and sound business brand which is my professional focus. I also treasure spending time with family and old friends.
Building a business with your children, what are some of the surprising discoveries you learned about them?
I always have to remind myself they are fully grownups now and no more “children” with both of them being in their 30’s. Both of them have impressed me with their steely core, dedication and ability to be concept-driven which is most impressive to me. Yet, both are still the well-brought up people they have been taught to be and which is most important.
So, tell us, Violet, what is your favourite family dish?
We have a few favourite family dishes and it would be the complete Nyonya Tok Panjjang which I cook at home for Chinese New Year and also two other favourites such as my seven-hour Roast Turkey with an Apricot Orange Liqueur Sausage stuffing with all the works and a delectable Burmese Tang Hoon plus a Sour and Hot Chicken Soup I learnt from a Burmese neighbour nearly 40 years ago. Both dishes are prized because money cannot buy!
It was wonderful to hear from Violet and how having a common belief and interest can help pull family together across generations. It’s heartening to see the next generation take forth their parents’ passion to help spread the word for traditions and culture, where in this case, Peranakan traits. I’ve personally tucked into their new menu, and although I’m not a spicy food eater, I was blown away by their use of rich flavours and hard work of putting those dishes together.
We wish the family the best of luck with their venture; here’s to whipping up more gastronomic adventures for us in Singapore!
Have you dined at Violet Oon Singapore? Share with us some of your favourite dishes that you and your family enjoyed!