Food For Thought — Ah Lock & Co
Have you had authentic Hakka Yong Tau Foo? Ah Lock & Co’s founder entices you to try a bowl, and learn about this local delight.
Some people are born with silver spoons in their mouths… others are born with vegetable knives in their hands.
Ah Lock & Co’s founder Lee Lock Teng sits down with us for a chat about Singapore’s hawker culture, his trials and challenges in starting up his business, and the savoury delights of Hakka Yong Tau Foo.
It’s a pleasure to chat with you, Lock Teng! How did you begin your journey into F&B?
It was my mother who got me cooking when I was 10 years old. Basically, I had nothing to do at home, so she got me in the kitchen—cutting vegetables and washing dishes for us.
Then it progressed to unsupervised cooking. She'd tell me 'Oh, just cook this [dish] for dinner tonight.’ The food was good, so no complaints!
I started cooking for myself around 13 years old, and ultimately, I started cooking Italian dishes for my friends.
What inspired you to turn your passion into a business?
I wouldn't call it a dream, but I’ve always wanted to open a cafe. When I got older I thought: Cafe food may look nice, but can you earn money cooking it? That's a different issue.
I wanted to create something really Singaporean; dishes that we would want to eat every day. Not food that you try once and then you come back six months later.
That’s why I began with a hawker stall. It was the cheapest to operate, and I didn’t need much capital to start out. It was the fastest way I could get my feet wet.
And why start an outlet in Tanjong Pagar Centre?
Since the beginning, when people look at my food they'll say, 'Oh, that looks healthy'. That was one of the directions for us: To go into the CBD with healthy Chinese food.
-Laughs- No more salads for you guys! Just good local food.
We've actually came down [to Tanjong Pagar Centre] four or five times before opening here. it's growing really fast. Environment-wise the food hall is perfect: The eateries here are very attractive; it’s connected to the MRT; the crowd’s great.
I understand that your signature dish is from your grandmother’s recipe.
Her dish was really special to me. You can't find it in hawker centres or coffee shops. I wanted to help people understand the cuisine of the Hakka community, which is a minority ethnic group.
When I say yong tau foo, people think [it's the conventional type], where you can choose different ingredients.
But traditional Hakka Yong Tau Foo is nothing like that: We only use one or two variations of the ingredients. It's also different in terms of flavour, and how
we make it.
I also understand that you’ve incorporated some Japanese donburi elements into the dish.
We've actually changed the rice to Japanese short grain rice and incorporate seaweed. There's this thing about Japanese rice and seaweed that really comes together, and makes it delicious.
What was the most challenging element of starting your own business?
When I first started out I didn't know what was going to go wrong or what was going to go right. It was a constant process of [making] mistakes and solving them on the spot.
Business was really bad when we first started. Every day I'd tell myself "I need to improve, I need to bring this to the next level... make it presentable, make it worth the money. If not I'll just be another F&B outlet that's closed down."
Honestly, the most difficult part [of being in F&B] is the hours you spend at work. You have to sacrifice your social life, your family time.
For the first three months, I had to do it solo as I couldn't afford manpower. My mum actually came into the picture in the third month, because she wanted to help. The situation got a little bit better, and the workload got less intense.
I had more time to improve the recipe itself. People started to like the food, and we started to get word of mouth, and that was the turning point for media to come in, and start covering our food.
And you offer other variations here at Tanjong Pagar Centre?
Yes, the Tanjong Pagar Centre has other dishes as well: Hakka Fried Pork; min jiang kueh; local coffee and tea.
Everything we do is handmade: Stuffing the meat into the tofu every single morning; preparing the vegetables; making the min jiang kueh fresh every day, in a traditional wok.
We really want to make authentic, coffee shop staples that remind you of home-cooked meals... but from a coffee shop that's stepped up its game, and in a great environment.
What do you love the most about Singaporean food?
If you go to a hawker centre, you'll see that most stalls specialise in just one item. I love that tradition: 'I specialise in chicken rice, and I only sell chicken rice'. You’ve got so many different choices under one roof, but each hawker is a master of their own speciality.
Is there more we can do to support traditional hawkers?
I've always noticed that traditional hawker food like char kway teow has to be to cooked up for every single dish. And these dishes are all going to face extinction in the coming decade if we don't do anything.
I'll be frank: I'm in the same trade, but I wouldn't want to be cooking char kway teow at the same stall 10 years later. Putting myself in the shoes of people of my generation, I'm not sure if anyone's going to take over. So that's why I've tried to step up the game.
By creating a dish that’s traditional but you’ve evolved?
Yes, exactly! We need to evolve our hawker food. That way, you'll still have people who're keen to work in the kitchen.
Honestly, I found it really difficult to hire help when we first started out at the hawker centre. -Laughs- I’d tell them 'There’s no air-con', and they'd say 'Oh… I'll think about it.'
But here it's super easy. It’s in a great environment, so why not?
Finally, do you have words of advice or for hawkerpreneurs?
I think sustaining is more important than just trying. I've heard many stories about people who've started their business for just six months and expect success.
Most people just give up halfway. You really have to be patient. Starting the business is about taking the leap of faith, but sustaining the business is like running a marathon.
Visit Ah Lock & Co. at
Tanjong Pagar Centre, 7 Wallich Street
#B2-22/23/24, Singapore 078884.
Monday - Friday
7.30am - 8.30pm
11.30am - 8.30pm