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Building a culinary empire

Michelle Zhu
Michelle Zhu • 9 min read
Building a culinary empire
Singapore’s food ambassador Violet Oon explains why she attributes the rising success of her eponymous chain of restaurants entirely to her two children, Tay Su-lyn and Tay Yiming.
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Singapore’s food ambassador Violet Oon explains why she attributes the rising success of her eponymous chain of restaurants entirely to her two children, Tay Su-lyn and Tay Yiming.

SINGAPORE (March 20): I first tasted Violet Oon’s famed Peranakan fare at her flagship establishment in Bukit Timah, then known as Violet Oon’s Kitchen. It was a laidback neighbourhood establishment featuring colonial-style interiors, whitewashed walls and chalkboard menus.

Which is why three years later, I found my visit to National Kitchen by Violet Oon much of a surprise. The restaurant exudes a stately ambience with its mirrors, dark wood panels, floral Peranakan tiles and glittering chandeliers. “You should revisit the Bukit Timah outlet sometime; it looks really nice,” Oon tells me over the phone prior to our interview.

I learn from her that Violet Oon’s Kitchen has since been rebranded as Violet Oon Singapore after undergoing an extensive facelift in 2015. The Bukit Timah outlet is also where the new visual branding was conceptualised and there is now a distinctive design observable across all three Violet Oon F&B establishments.

Oon’s third and latest F&B project is named Violet Oon Satay Bar & Grill. It had just undergone renovations at the time of writing. The restaurant will be officially launched in a week or so, but I could see that floor and kitchen staff in their Violet Oon uniforms were already hard at work, helping with the décor and fussing over the kitchen grill amid the subdued din of contract workers putting up the ceiling fixtures.

The spanking-new outlet is true to the design and concept of the revamped Violet Oon brand. It oozes a casual luxury that beckons friends and colleagues to hang out for drinks after work, while retaining a propriety fitting of a place for a meet-theparents session.

‘My children are my bosses’
Oon is quick to clarify that she takes no credit for Violet Oon Inc, the company that all three of her restaurants operate under. Although it is named after her, the company is mainly a joint effort between her son Tay Yiming, 35, and daughter Tay Su-lyn, 40.

“I always tell people that my children are my bosses, and it’s true,” says Oon with a smile. The 67-yearold food ambassador and former journalist recalls that while she did attempt to set up her own publishing company named Ultra Violet Pte Ltd in the 1990s, the enterprise was shuttered a few years later.

“[Ultra Violet] failed because as a creative person, as a writer, I found that running a business is very different. If you are a chef, you are obsessed with the food, so everything else is not important... My children are from what I call the ‘generation of everything’, so I couldn’t have accomplished what they did. It was the two of them who decided to set up my brand a few years ago.”

While the restaurants’ eclectic interiors were conceptualised and implemented by co-owner and designer Su-lyn, it is her brother, the director, who mainly oversees operations and business development, including the planning and execution of staff training. As for Oon, she says her role is to continue curating, chronicling and creating recipes and dishes — just as she has been doing since she was 16.

“I’m so proud of Yiming for having created the brand’s DNA, which he has taken and translated into standard operating procedures. Before the opening of each restaurant, he would make sure to go down every day to taste the food and ensure that quality and service, for example, were consistent. If anything was lacking, he would work with the chefs until midnight to get it right,” says Oon.

Su-lyn, too, has nothing but praise for her brother. “Ming has the staff operations down pat. He’s the one who makes sure the service staff know how to recommend each dish on the menu to guests, who may not be very familiar with Peranakan food. We made it the responsibility of the staff to [recommend] a nice menu, and to do that, we made sure they had tasted every dish themselves. It’s very important to us that the service we provide matters just as much as the food,” says the mother of three.

Showcasing Singapore’s cuisine
Su-lyn explains that the establishment of Violet Oon Inc stems from a shared vision with her brother to “build a global brand by presenting Singapore’s food at the highest level”, as both of them had grown up watching their mother talk about local cuisine with high regard.

“People around the world recognise Singapore for its delicious food, but they usually see it as [a rustic] dining experience in a setting such as the local TV series The Little Nyonya or places such as Chinatown… But our food is as good as the ‘royal’ delicacies served up in any other place in the world,” she continues.

“So, we started a whole new business based on my mother’s good food and everything we grew up eating. We revived [the Bukit Timah outlet] after operating it for about two years, and turned into a restaurant rather than the café/bistro that it was, while retaining a similar menu and presentation.”

“That’s how the whole look and feel was first launched at the Bukit Timah restaurant,” Oon chimes in. “Su-lyn was the one who was responsible for it all, thanks to her background in interior and fashion design.”

The rebranding exercise as well as the company’s expansion from one to three restaurants took place in 2015, the same year Manoj M Murjani, chairman of investments and acquisitions company Group MMM and co-founder of TWG Tea, came on board as an investor.

“Manoj has brought so much to the table with his experience and know-how of building a global name [TWG]; he’s a great visionary in that sense. His main contribution was building Violet Oon as a brand and providing the big picture… It really fits perfectly because he gets what we are doing and encourages us to keep doing. Instead of trying to change the business, he is helping us enhance it,” says Su-lyn.

Three’s company
It is the general view that disagreements and even drama are rife in family businesses. Violet Oon Inc appears to be no exception to the stereotype. While Yiming admits that discussions with his family members- cum-business partners can get “quite boisterous” at times, he believes such an approach allows them to get to the core of whatever they are talking about pretty quickly.

“It has really been a roller-coaster ride, but I couldn’t have asked for more in terms of who I am going along for the ride with,” says the director, who is also an avid cook. He adds that it is “quite a treat” to be able to glean culinary techniques and knowledge from Oon herself. “I see my mum as the main creative force driving the business, and all of our inspiration comes from her. Su is also an extremely creative person who manages to combine that with a great sense of how to manage a business.”

Oon says conflicts are a necessary ingredient for a company’s success: “Unless you argue, you never end up with the best idea. It’s very important to fight for what you believe in before you come to a decision. In fact, one of our strengths is that we are able to disagree over things. That was how my father brought me up. He told me, ‘You have to fight for what you believe in as long as you believe it’s correct.’”

From street food to fine local fare
As its name suggests, Violet Oon Satay Bar & Grill will feature one of Singapore’s most iconic street foods, satay (skewered meat), in addition to a full grill menu to be paired with craft ales, lagers and stouts from The Good Beer Company, a local brewery. The concept for the third addition to Violet Oon Inc’s chain of restaurants first came to Yiming when he observed how popular Oon’s Chicken Satay dish was among the majority of guests at National Kitchen.

“Aside from pork, beef and chicken satay, we also offer satay made of prawn and beef tripe — common among the smaller communities in the Malay Archipelago. We have this amazing honeycomb beef tripe; I learnt how to make it from an aunt who has her own recipe,” says Oon, whose face lights up at the very mention of food.

Su-lyn adds that one rule the family adheres to in their restaurant business is to “never take shortcuts or make any compromises” when it comes to food preparation — which means that every dish is made from scratch using traditional methods.

“Yiming calls it ‘long-cut cooking’, but to me, it comes naturally because I’m not used to shortcuts such as using ready-made stock. I would say my real job, aside from having been a food journalist, is being a sociologist. Through my cooking, I continue to pursue the truth. It’s a sentimental journey for me as well as my customers,” Oon says with the zeal of a crusader. “Every family should write a cookbook. These families do not realise how unique each of their dishes is, as they think what they are eating is ‘normal’. It’s not. It’s like something locked in time and we try to translate this personal experience into our restaurants’ food.”

Oon says it is “absolutely lovely” to have her son and daughter fully in charge of the eponymous business. “This makan heritage that I spent my life chronicling is now being passed on to the next generation, who treasure not only my cooking but also the food heritage of Singapore.”

This article appeared in Issue 770 (March 13) of The Edge Singapore.

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