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A Day with Woo Wai Leong

No sugar coating it: the chef-owner of restaurant Ibid offers a raw, behind-the-scenes look into the dark side of the F&B industry.

By W Tan | 23 December, 2019 | #saturdaynightsobriety, Food, People, Restaurants
2019-12-23 12:25:51 2019-12-23 17:54:09

We meet Woo Wai Leong on a relatively quiet Wednesday night. It’s 11pm, the last guests have just left, and his team is starting to clean up. Woo excuses himself from behind the pass and greets us with a cheerful but visibly tired, “Hey”.

While he bustles around putting things in place, we peer around restaurant Ibid in curiosity. Things look pretty much the same as when it opened a year-and-a-half ago – the open kitchen, the chinoiserie interior, the eye-catching display wall with Woo’s MasterChef apron taking centre stage in a sea of curios and cookbooks. In Woo’s words: “The restaurant’s still here. I’m still here. The place has changed a little in that it’s more lived in now. Menu has changed, wine’s about to change, the team and business partners have changed. I mean, just business as usual in a small and medium enterprise of Singapore.”

Woo’s independent restaurant stands out as a bit of an anomaly in a notoriously cut-throat industry plagued by high rentals, shortage of trained manpower, and capricious diners. It’s no secret that many new restaurants fail to make it past their first year. But even without the backing of investors or a large F&B group, the lawyer-turned-chef has weathered the storm admirably, with his little 25-seater winning a Michelin plate this year for “fresh ingredients, carefully prepared; a good meal”.

That’s a feat made more remarkable by the fact that his team is extremely lean – just six full-time staff, including Woo himself. “We haven’t had a front-of-house in the past four to five months,” he admits. “Dash that – no waiters, no servers, no managers, no sommelier.” All these responsibilities are jointly shared by the kitchen team who, more out of necessity than design, have blurred the lines between front- and back-of house. With a tinge of pride, Woo adds, “And people still say that service here is one of the more unique things about the restaurant.

Service is something that Woo emphasizes, because no matter how amazing the food, “a meal can be sunk by a bad service experience”. With the limited manpower and resources available, he’s taken it upon himself to go the extra mile in ensuring that all guests have a good time, going as far as to research their profiles online to infuse personalised touches into their meals. (Just hours earlier, he’d prepared a special dessert topped with a hand-drawn Union Jack for a family of guests whose daughter was headed to London for university, and even shared a list of his favourite restaurants there. “Better than just giving them a random dessert wishing ‘bon voyage’ or ‘all the best’”, he explains.)

Plating dishes amidst the hustle of bussing tables and hosting guests

‘Dream-weaving’ such personalised dining experiences à la Eleven Madison Park is, of course, just a fraction of what he does as chef-owner. In addition to bussing tables and hosting guests, he also handles reservations, payments, suppliers, food costings, menu refreshments, website updates, marketing initiatives, etc. “Bless their heart; [the team] tries their best to help,” he says with a grin, “but I will let them go off first and reset the entire room myself, polishing glasses, putting out menus, settling admin stuff. All that takes time.”

Unfortunately, time isn’t a luxury he has much of. For restaurant Ibid to reach the level of recognition it enjoys today speaks volumes about the countless hours and tireless efforts invested by Woo and his team. More so, it’s a hidden narrative about the innumerable personal sacrifices they’ve made to survive – and thrive – in the F&B industry.

Woo heaves a gutsy sigh on the topic: “C’mon, let’s be more honest about this industry. It’s hard as f*ck.” The long gruelling hours, the heat of the kitchen (both literally and figuratively), and the lack of time for rest or relationships can take a toll on even the toughest of chefs. Unsurprisingly, sleep deprivation, depression, alcoholism, smoking, addictions and other health problems are rife in the industry.

“That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Woo confides. “I dare say that most chefs at any point in time are combating one form or another of depression. We’re standing most of the time. A lot of us aren’t really eating well or leading healthy lifestyles. We’re destroying our bodies. That’s just the hard facts of the industry.”

Squeezing in a quick staff meal before dinner service

Things aren’t helped by the fact that the professional kitchen is, because of its military roots, a “very masculine, macho environment” with a strong sense of hierarchy. It’s almost toxic the way Woo describes it: “Even amongst chefs, you’re not really allowed to show weakness. Because everyone is supposed to be like, chin up, you can do it. It’s true, we wish each other good service, but sometimes people are really hurting. And we tend to just brush it off and go, nah, you’ll be fine, it’ll all work out.”

What he’s hoping for, through this candid interview, is to push for more open and honest conversations. Times have changed, he points out. Kitchen brigades have shrunk in size, and with more women entering the industry these days, it’s simply not realistic – nor healthy – to expect everyone to operate like they’re still in the military. He advocates more flexibility and understanding in his own kitchen, and recommends for fellow chefs to have a good support base, though admittedly “it’s difficult because if your family and friends are not part of the industry, they could never really fathom the sort of weight that rests on your shoulders as a head chef or chef-owner”.

Tough as the lifestyle is, Woo still intends to press on. We ask him, hand on heart, if he’s ever thought of going back to law, and his answer is an honest “yes”, he’s thought about it plenty of times. But he’s staying put for now, because he feels that F&B is where he belongs. Deep down, he still enjoys the hospitality of giving people a good time.

So yes, the former lawyer’s not returning to law anytime soon. But would we return? To Ibid? Absolutely, in a heartbeat. If not for the conversations, then for the cooking – real, honest food by a really honest chef.

A writer by profession, a gourmand by passion.