Violet Oon is a picture of bliss. After all, why wouldn’t she be? Over the course of a career that has spanned more than five decades, the journalist-turned-chef has established herself as the grand dame of Singapore’s food scene who is also the leading authority on Peranakan cuisine. In 2012, Oon’s two enterprising offspring, Tay Su-Lyn and Tay Yiming, decided to join her on the culinary journey. “My children felt there was an important heritage to share, be it in the flavours, taste, textures and textures,” Oon says. “Most Asian families don’t write their recipes. It’s sad if all was lost. It was a quest against time.”
Since then, they’ve presented a tantalising curation of Singaporean cuisine at their line-up of restaurants that have proved to be a hit with local and international diners. One of them is the Satay Bar and Grill, a gourmet destination bearing Oon’s name that specialises in comforting and uniquely Singaporean nosh. It is here, seated within the plush interiors of the dining joint that we find the resplendent-looking matriarch with an unmistakable twinkle of pride in her bespectacled eyes.
It is a scene of familial joy—Oon is flanked by her equally well-dressed and good-looking brood: Su-Lyn and her aesthetic-physician husband, Melvin Tan; Yiming and his ophthalmologist wife, Gillian Teh. Over a delectable spread (and some tipple), the quintet talk recipes, about style, food and the way forward.
Why is dressing up food so important?
Violet: It’s important because it shows appreciation. I’m Peranakan. I grew up in an environment where the food you cook must look beautiful on the table. I tell my chefs: “Make sure everything that leaves your hands is beautiful.” It has to look the same, no matter who you present it to.
How does style apply to food?
Su-Lyn: Most of the time, we eat with our eyes first. In this day and age where Instagram is so popular, we’re also attracted to a restaurant or a dish that is photographed beautifully. Our local food is hearty, but how do you style it in such a way that changes someone’s perception of it, yet not lose the essence of what the dish is? It’s a challenge we love to undertake.
What’s it like being part of a family where food features so prominently?
Gillian: I’ve certainly packed on the pounds since meeting Yiming! Eating was an essential part of our dating days. For me, food is nourishment for the soul and it is meant to be enjoyed with the family. Seeing my husband work with people dearest to him makes me immensely proud of him. It brings all of us that much closer.
Melvin: It’s great because we all love to eat. I think at the end of the day, food drives relationships. If anything, the family’s business is a great test of our support systems. It’s been a very busy time for all of us, with me starting my aesthetic practice, Epion Clinic; and my wife and Yiming setting up a new restaurant. I’m blessed that we have all these pillars of support.
What’s up next for the family?
Yiming: Just like there are many facets to fashion, there are also many facets to Singaporean cuisine. The tapestry is so rich. We’ve been exploring many aspects of that with the restaurants and we want to continue doing the same—but in a way that works for us. The food business isn’t a sprint, but a marathon. Any decision we make has to be long-term. It’s essential for us because of our mother’s name, and we want to protect and honour the legacy she’s created.
Photographer: Ivanho Harlim & Shysilia Novita; Stylist: Sharon Tulasidas; Makeup and hair: Eric Tan, Jane Lau and Katherine Wong/PaletteINC using Urban Decay and Kenue Haricosmetics