SINGAPORE // Chan Hon Meng is not a typical chef with Michelin star pedigree. Where he works, there are no crystal glasses to polish or white tablecloths to press.
Diners who sometimes queue for hours to taste his famous soya sauce chicken might have to share tables with strangers. Or endure Singapore’s humidity in an open-air food court, known as a hawker centre.
Hawker Chan, as he is known, is the owner and chef of Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle – one of the world’s first street food stalls to win a Michelin star.
His stall, together with another Singapore hawker stand, Tai Hwa Pork Noodle, shocked the culinary world in July last year when they were each awarded a coveted star by the French food guide which typically rates fine dining restaurants.
Donning his well-worn chef’s whites – complete with soya sauce stains – the 52-year-old Malaysia-born chef told The National how Michelin made his dream come true.
“Before Michelin, my business was already flourishing,” he said in Mandarin, his native tongue.
“I really wanted to partner with someone to open a few more stalls … [but] no one wanted to start a business with me.”
The tables turned after the Michelin award. More than 10 people approached Chan for partnership deals but he picked Hersing Culinary – a brand management firm that owns several other Michelin-starred franchises. The company promised to expand his business beyond Singapore.
Today, there are five branches of Liao Fan Hawker Chan eateries – three in Singapore, one in Taiwan and another in Thailand. The Philippines and Indonesia are due to open new Hawker Chan eateries in the next two months.
“It was a dream that was impossible to fulfil before,” he said.
But Chan is not about to stop dreaming.
“I want to become the second KFC one day, to bring my soya sauce chicken to every part of the world,” he said.
He would also consider setting up shop in the Middle East “if someone there is willing to partner with us”.
Touted as the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred meal, Chan’s soya sauce chicken noodle or rice costs only 2 Singapore dollars, or a little more than Dh5 – cheap even by local hawker standards.
“I have not raised prices for the last 10 years,” he said proudly, while admitting the new branches charge twice the amount due to higher rents.
Singaporean Gene Lim, 63, has been a regular customer for the last six months.
“As long as there’s a long queue, the food must be good,” he laughed.
He said Chan’s soya sauce chicken is tender and “unique”.
“Not everyone can do it in such a way.”
Another customer, who called himself Lim, comes regularly from Malaysia and usually buys four to five whole chickens for his family in Kuala Lumpur. He has queued for up to two hours before but says “it’s worth the wait”.
But not everyone agrees.
Australian tourist Raymond, 69, admitted he was “a bit disappointed” with the chicken noodles after being in line for an hour and a half.
However Chan harbours no illusions about his own culinary skills.
“In this world, no one can be the winner all the time. There may be others who are better than us out there,” he said.
He knows many come to try his food because of its Michelin status.
“Some tourists tell me: ‘It doesn’t matter whether your food is good, I have tasted a Michelin-starred meal already!’”
“How many people can afford to pay for Michelin meals in their own country?” he asked.
The affordability of Chan’s fare certainly surprised Spaniards Gemma Figueredo and David Martinez.
A meal for two at a Michelin-star restaurant in Spain costs about €400 (Dh1,639), Gemma said, but at Hawker Chan’s branch outlet, they paid only €10.
While obtaining Michelin status is no small feat, keeping the star can be just as hard.
Some Michelin chefs have attempted to return their stars, calling the award “a curse” or “burdensome”. Others have shut down their restaurants citing excessive pressure, or the loss of freedom to create.
Other chefs have even taken their own lives after losing, or facing the possibility of losing, their Michelin stars.
British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay – who lost a two-star rating for his New York restaurant in 2013 – once admitted: “I started crying when I lost my stars. It’s a very emotional thing for any chef. It’s like losing a girlfriend.”
Asked if there was immense pressure to keep his star, or earn more, with Michelin due to release its next report card for Singapore restaurants on June 29, Chan replied: “Yes, definitely ... But whether I get the Michelin star again or not, I am already very satisfied because people overseas now know about Michelin soya sauce chicken.”
“My fame has already spread to the whole world, this is something that money cannot buy.”
So is he now the millionaire the media has made him out to be?
“I am still living in a three-bedroom government flat – what millionaire?” Chan laughed.
“But talk to me in four to five years. Maybe then you can say this hawker is now a millionaire!”