SINGAPORE (June 12): Annette Tan is a food writer, author, food consultant and private dining chef. On normal days, her popular private dining service FatFuku sees constant bookings of at least eight to ten people gathering at home to savour her brand of Peranakan food. However, the “circuit breaker” measures — in place on April 7 to curb the spread of Covid-19 — put a stop to all social gatherings. This also meant that Tan’s business all but disappeared.

Undeterred, Tan started MyTreat, a non-profit pay-it-forward movement aimed at supporting the local restaurant industry. As she tells Options: “In mid-March, I was interviewing restaurateurs for a story about how Covid-19 had affected their businesses. All of them spoke of how their restaurants were so close to going belly-up because business had been severely affected. That really saddened me, especially because I think of them as my friends. As a food writer, the F&B industry has given me a community and a vocation, so it felt very close to home. I really wanted to do something to help, even if it’s in a small way.”

MyTreat is a social media drive that encourages people to purchase someone else a restaurant meal. The list of recommended restaurants include local favourites like Tanuki Raw, MeatSmith and New Ubin Seafood. Tan says that while she may not buy herself a restaurant meal on a regular basis, she will buy a meal for someone else just to do something nice for another person. The idea for the movement, she adds, started when Tan had a conversation with her friend and orthopaedic surgeon Dr Mizan Marican. Tan explains: “[Mizan] was telling me how he had been buying treats for his colleagues working in the isolation wards and emergency department at Singapore General Hospital.”

It was then that Tan hit on an idea that will have dual benefits — it will help frontline health workers while aiding ailing F&B businesses. As she explains: “We could do something nice for healthcare workers while promoting economic flow within the F&B industry. So I started OurTreat (an offshoot to raise funds and buy restaurant meals for frontline healthcare workers), since I’d received messages on the MyTreat platform from people asking how we could do more. At its heart, MyTreat is a kindness movement, so sending love and gratitude to the people on the frontlines of this disease fits right in with our mission.”

Tan says she chose to focus on healthcare workers because she feels that we have the privilege of staying at home, comfortable and safe. Healthcare workers, on the other hand, continue to work every day, putting themselves at risk while dealing with the emotional toil that comes with caring for the sick. So, she thought it would be nice to have a little treat waiting for them when they came out of a long and gruelling shift. Also, having Mizan and his fellow doctors on board allows Tan to reach the community of healthcare workers more easily.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive and Tan says she is overwhelmed by the generosity of the people who joined the initiative. She says: “Within the first week, we raised $3,500 with a single Instagram post. To date, we have raised over $14,000. One highlight: we had a volunteer at Saint Theresa’s Home ask if they could buy meals for the home’s elderly residents and post it under MyTreat so that they could inspire others to do the same.”

On hearing that all the staff in the nursing home actually live there with the patients, Tan decided to send them a round of treats so the whole community could share a lovely afternoon together. “We’ve also learnt about chefs who are giving free meals and bread to anyone in need at this time, so we’ve tried to support them by patronizing their outlets for the OurTreat cause,” she adds. Going forward, there are plans for similar initiatives. While the MyTreat and OurTreat movements happened organically, its future remains uncertain but Tan will continue to sustain such efforts for long as she can do her bit to help the community.

You could say that these initiatives are things close to Tan’s heart. After all, food has always been an integral part of her life. Her parents, she says, were food lovers: Her mother was “an amazing cook” while her father loved eating good food. Tan, herself a self-taught cook, said she learned to cook by watching and “helping” her mother as a child. From her father, she learned about the joys of eating well. “As a kid, my happiest memories were made on the back of my father’s scooter whizzing across the island in search of his favourite foods like turtle soup and beef kway teow. Through their example, my parents taught me the value of sitting down to a meal to nourish personal bonds, so cooking and celebrating food and the relationships that are formed around it continue to be an important part of my life,” she explains.

Her earliest influence also helped to chart her career path. While she started out as a journalist, the changing media landscape made her rethink her options as she witnessed digital media taking over while traditional publishers struggled to realign their business models. There were job and budget cuts, and a lot of uncertainty in the market. She then decided on a career switch, gravitating to her passion — food. Tan explains: “As a freelancer, I was among the first to be affected. I realised that I needed a different mode of income, so I turned to food and cooking. Starting a private kitchen was an idea that I’d been toying with for a long time so I jumped into it.”

So what lies ahead for the F&B industry here? She says: “I think it’ll change drastically. Social distancing will continue to be integral, so we may not be able dine out the way we used to for a long time to come.” Indeed, the future is uncertain but Tan hopes that people will change and be a little more kind and considerate towards everyone. We can never know what anyone is going through just by looking at them, but Tan hopes we should all approach each other with compassion. She admits that this is something she is constantly trying to learn. “It is easy to say but so difficult to do. It’s also important to always ask, ‘how can I help?’ and commit realistically so that we can give with meaning. There’s no sense in committing to something you don’t have the time, money or emotional bandwidth for.”