The lunch service was almost over. Mr Wong, Senior Cook at the Istana, had prepared popiah for a lunch hosted by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Made with stewed bangkuang, sliced vegetables and crabmeat, it’s one of his signature dishes.
Just when he thought he could take a quick breather, Mr Wong got a call: Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of the Kingdom of Thailand wanted to meet him.
What happened next is one of the gracious highlights of Mr Wong’s career. “Her Royal Highness told me that my popiah was delicious and said ‘thank you’,” he says. Coincidentally, that day, 19 January 2013, was Mr Wong’s 73rd birthday. “When she heard about it, she also wished me ‘Happy Birthday’. I was very honoured,” recalls Mr Wong.
“Uncle Hoon” – as he’s known to all at the Istana – has been a cook there for 52 years. He has served all seven Presidents and three Prime Ministers in Singapore’s history, not to mention countless guests and foreign heads of state. For five decades, Mr Wong’s comfort food has soothed the challenges of nation-building, and his delectable meals have added to the warm hospitality received by visiting dignitaries. Looking younger than his 75 years, the affable Mr Wong walks with a spring in his step. His responsibilities include preparing a variety of meals at the Istana. “They are mostly working lunches, so I cook light meals that are taken during meetings,” he says. “Sometimes we also have to prepare and cook for functions like barbecues or dinner parties in the evenings.”
Mr Wong’s father was a staff member of Government House, as the Istana was known during the colonial period. His family lived in the staff quarters on the grounds, and Mr Wong was born there in 1940. During the Japanese Occupation, the family took refuge in Hougang, but returned to Government House after the war. In 1963, Mr Wong began working in the Istana. Serving during meals, he caught the eye of President Yusof Ishak. “Encik Yusof was very kind to me,” he recalls. “He told me that I could learn more as a cook and encouraged me to take up cooking.”
President Yusof asked his aide-de-camp to arrange for Mr Wong to learn Western cuisine in the kitchens of Hotel Singapura and Hotel Malaysia. Mr Wong also picked up Malay cooking from the President’s wife, Puan Noor Aishah, at both the Istana and President Yusof’s family residence.
Much of his job satisfaction, says Mr Wong, has come from being able to add variety to his culinary repertoire. Today, he has acquired the finer points of cooking a wide range of dishes, from Japanese shabu shabu and Nyonya mee siam to Western steaks and Malay sayur lodeh. Mr Wong also holds the recipe for the Istana’s celebrated gula Melaka pudding, which has been enjoyed since the colonial days.
“The recipes are all in my head. Agak-agak,” he says, using the Malay term for “estimate”. Yet these words, spoken so casually, belie his commitment to his craft.
“Uncle Hoon will adjust the flavours and seasonings of a dish until it tastes perfect,” says his colleague Mr Chew Beng Huat. “If an ingredient is necessary, he won’t compromise. He’ll never say, ‘Never mind’. He puts his heart into the food he cooks.”
In 1993, Mr Wong received the National Day Long Service Award. His secret to serving gracefully is a love for his job. “Wherever we work, the important thing is that we like the job,” he says. “We must have a sense of pride in what we do.”