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Cooking doyenne Violet Oon talks about Singapore’s hawker culture and how chefs can remain hopeful amid Covid-19

Samantha Chiew
Samantha Chiew • 6 min read
Cooking doyenne Violet Oon talks about Singapore’s hawker culture and how chefs can remain hopeful amid Covid-19
Restaurateur Violet Oon wants to remind fellow chefs to continue to cook from the heart
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At 72 years old, Violet Oon is not done with work. The way she sees it, passion, a reason for most to keep going, is not just a driver for her to keep working, but a commitment. “The term ‘passion’ is quite overused. For me, I am committed. Committed to the craft and committed to continue on my path,” says Oon in an interview with Options.

The restaurateur, who also is famed for her roles as a journalist, an arts and music critic, as well as a singer, has been championing Singapore cuisine for some 50 years both nationally and internationally. For her involvement in Singapore’s food scene and also her contribution to the country at large, Oon was awarded the Lifetime Achievement for Outstanding Contribution to Tourism by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) in 2019.

After winning this award, Oon declared that she would give back to the society by doing seven community activities, each project representing each decade of her life, as she got the award when she turned 70.

From guiding pastry trainees from the Association for Persons with Special Needs (APSN) to serve dinner at the Istana, to supporting a fundraiser by St Joseph’s Institution, Oon completed her to-do list for the community with a task that especially resonated with her — contributing delicious recipes for stroke survivors, as she herself has survived a stroke some seven years ago. In collaboration with the Singapore National Stroke Association (SNSA) as part of its annual National Stroke Awareness campaign from October to December last year, Oon created four cooking video recipes that are available on SNSA’s website.

Although this is just the latest of several achievement awards Oon has collected over the years, she explains that it all started when she was a journalist, satisfying her inquisitive nature by discovering not just the food that represents Singapore, but also the culture.

Since young, Oon has travelled all over the world, living in several cities as she followed her father’s move around for work. She recalls living in cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Melaka, England and more before finally coming back to Singapore.

Having previously studied music and securing a degree in sociology, political science and geography, Oon did not always have had a passion for cooking. “My earliest memory of being in the kitchen was terrible. I did not like cooking at all. It was back in secondary school, in home economics class, and we had to learn to make rock buns. It was not inspirational. So, I did not get into cooking through cooking, but through the love of eating and the fascination of food itself,” relates Oon, who adds that her earlier inspirations for her cooking are her aunts.

After school, Oon started her job as a journalist, which opened her up to cultures in Singapore, as well as gave the access and opportunity to meet several chefs from all over the world. And it was through her writing and her experiences as a journalist that pushed her to find a career in F&B.

“Becoming a restaurateur and a chef now was a very organic move. That does not mean that I left my life as a journalist. I still think that I am a journalist, and to me, I think that once you’ve become a journalist, you are forever a journalist,” says Oon.

Although Oon, a Peranakan herself, did not grow up with much Peranakan influences as she was constantly travelling, her interest in the cuisine led her to create some of the best Peranakan dishes in Singapore. “With many cuisines in Singapore, the purveyors don’t have to be a part of their culture.”

Back then, there were hardly any Peranakan restaurants and Oon remembers that the only one around when she was young was Guan Hoe Soon, which was opened by a Hainanese family. Luckily, these days, more of such restaurants have popped up, giving consumers a larger variety of Peranakan fare.

“Peranakan food is not easy to cook. It takes a lot of patience. So, I think for those who decide to jump into this cuisine, it is more of an emotional decision and they truly love the food,” says Oon.

Overall, she appreciates Singapore’s multi-cultural influences in the F&B scene. “Our hawker culture — that of eating together — is one of very few cultures in the world where you can get foods from many different parts of Asia in a Singapore place. You can essentially eat Asia on the table!” she says.

As much as Oon has dedicated a large portion of her life to the art of cooking, she notes that recent times have been hard on the F&B industry at large. “These 18 months have been amazingly difficult for everyone, not only in Singapore — and for the F&B world, it has been challenging, but this recent ruling on no dining-in has been quite devastating — for business owners, hawkers, service staff, chefs and the suppliers too,” says Oon.

“As a chef, our quest is to hone our skills to allow our creative juices to flow freely. Our desire is to please the people who eat our food. That gives us the greatest pleasure. It is difficult to share any advice at this stage — beyond staying hopeful, crunching the numbers even more intently and working as an F&B industry together. For chefs, it will be good to remember that our purpose still remains to give pleasure with our food and that this purpose remains whatever happens in the near or far future,” she adds.

There is no doubt that Oon has accomplished much — and by the looks of it, she is still committed to do more not just for society, but for herself.

Work and achievements aside, Oon makes sure to dedicate time to spend with her family. She shares that weekends are family time, which she would spend with her children and grandchildren, and sometimes over a sumptuous meal.

When asked what home tastes like, Oon describes: “In our culture, we’re used to eating a feast. There’s no one single meal that reminds me of home. Home to me is a table of several elaborate dishes that I will enjoy with my family.

Dry Laksa

Kueh Pie Tee


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