By Dom Galeon
Images by Noel Pabalate
While many know him now as the founder of a globally successful chain of restaurants, which has now come to Manila, many don’t realize that Chef Chan Hong Meng came from humble beginnings. When he opened a small stall in 2009 at the Chinatown Food Center in Singapore—the largest open-air hawker center in the city—he never expected how much it would change his life.
I had a chance to meet the man, or Hawker Chan is he’s fondly called by fans of his restaurant of the same name. To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t expect Chef Chan to be the unassuming, always smiling, simple man that he is. Nothing about him screams “I’m a Michelin star chef”—and I mean this as a compliment. It’s not every day you meet a celebrity chef that’s as humble as Chef Chan.
But he has all the right to be a superstar. Chef Chan received his Michelin star in 2016, seven years after his soya chicken first started drawing crowds, including tourists, in Singapore. He’s among the first that’s not a fine dining restaurant to receive a Michelin star.
“I was very excited. Every chef dreams of getting a Michelin star,” he tells me during an interview, as we were waiting to formally open the first Hawker Chan branch in the Philippines at the SM Mall of Asia. But the 53-year-old chef never even knew about the Michelin Guide when he started. A Malaysian by birth, Chef Chan went to Singapore in the 1980s, where he trained under a master chef during his teens, learning how to prepare his now-famous version of the Hong Kong-style soya chicken.
“I never imagined that it would be this big,” he says. “When I opened that small stall in Singapore, I was already very happy because, for six years—even before the Michelin star—there would be people lining up for at least an hour just to try out my chicken. When I got the Michelin star, the lines got even longer! I couldn’t catch up, I couldn’t do it by myself. I had to find a partner who could help me sustain everything.”
He has since opened up branches of Hawker Chan in Taiwan, Melbourne, Bangkok, and now in Manila in partnership with Foodee Global Concepts. In all of these cities, Hawker Chan has drawn crowds. There’s always a long line of people wanting to try it out, whether they want to taste it for the first time or they’ve already tried it in Singapore and wish to experience it again.
True to being known as the world’s first cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant, Hawker Chan Manila’s dishes are priced quite reasonably. The soya chicken doesn’t disappoint, and I was rather lucky that I got to try it without having to wait in line.
‘I never imagined that it would be this big. When I opened that small stall in Singapore, I was already very happy because, for six years—even before the Michelin star—there would be people lining up for at least an hour just to try out my chicken.’
“The most important thing is for me to keep the taste or to improve it,” says Chef Chan. So I asked him how he keeps the taste, without spilling the beans, of course, to his secret sauce. “We have a commissary in Singapore, where we actually make the sauces, which we then send out to our different branches,” he explains. “A chef from Manila also went to Singapore to train, and I came here one week before the opening to make sure that the original taste of the sauce is maintained. My job is to help them make the food—and to do everthing—better,” he adds.
I asked him what he plans to do next, now that he’s enjoying a level of success that quite a few chefs get to. Again, I was quite surprised to hear his answer. “I never aimed for anything, really,” he says, ever the unassuming man that he is. But this doesn’t mean that Chef Chan doesn’t have dreams. Quite the contrary. He builds his dreams one day at a time. “Every day, I try to do my best,” he adds. “If you do your best for today, the next day will be better.”
His food has definitely made it in the list of my favorites—and I’ll definitely come back to line up soon—but the man himself has earned my admiration.