Behind Chef Thomas Lam’s finger-licking chicken chops and baby back ribs is a dream to equip and empower others.
Contributed By Yong Yung Shin
There are zealous foodies and there are master chefs. Then there are those who elevate their passion for food and the creation of it to something that feeds not just the stomach but the heart and soul. Located around the corner of an unassuming row of heartland shophouses in an HDB block in Tampines, the five-month-old iWannaGetStuffed café is a gem of a find, for reasons more than one.
A bright orange glass wall decks one side of the interior, bearing enthusiastic scribbles of praise from diners in various languages, all the way up to the ceiling. The easy, casual ambience is reflected in the soft-spoken, gentle demeanor of the man behind the café’s operations and its Western/Italian menu, Chef Thomas Lam.
An ex-naval officer, Lam’s foray into the F&B started with washing dishes—up to 300 a day. Working his way through the ranks, he learned to cook, and eventually set up his own restaurants. With a vision to create an employment platform for those who typically have difficulties in finding jobs, he hired staff from among the physically-challenged and ex-offenders. Both ventures eventually folded due to multiple factors, but by no means were the failures wasted.
SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS
Through the experience, Lam learned to deal with the temperaments of those vastly different from himself. He recounted the story of a hearing-impaired worker whom he had trained up as a sous chef. He was good at his job and on the surface, he looked happy and well-adjusted. “But one day, he just broke down and walked away, never wanting to cook again.”
Lam gradually came to understand the challenges the hearing-impaired face in a working environment filled with hearing people. “It is very hard for the deaf to work alone. They need to work as a pair, at least, so that they can communicate in sign language. It is their main mode of interaction—if they don’t do sign language, they feel insecure.” Similarly, he developed a heightened empathy for staff who were ex-offenders. “Some of them are very emotional; and when they are not able to express themselves, they start breaking things to get your attention. You must have the patience and understanding to accommodate them.”
It comes as no surprise that Lam’s idol is the revolutionary British chef Jamie Oliver, who is on a mission to reboot the paltry offerings at school canteens nationwide. By his manner of speech alone, one can tell that Lam is an equally big dreamer. “Imagine if there is a software or some sort of infrastructure that can help the blind perform the full functions of cashiering, including perform credit card transactions, or one where the deaf can do their work independently … think about the job market that will be open to them.” He went a step further, “Imagine if one day the café can channel a portion of profits to help Third World nations, to help those who are more able but less fortunate than them!”
Lam’s motivation is rooted in the belief that if he can help elevate their esteem, they will be able to believe in themselves and lead independent lives. “All good things come from a godly dream,” said Lam, who is inspired by similar establishments such as Dignity Kitchen (featured in City News Weekly, April 16-17, 2011). “If there are more like us, we can do more.”
Lam’s heart for ex-offenders was borne out of personal experience. As a rebellious youth, he found that the most difficult part of trying to walk right was during the transition stage because “you will still do something wrong here and there, yet you need somebody to believe in you, that you can change.” Besides his day job, Lam teaches cooking on a voluntary basis at centers for delinquent youth and abused children. Some of the students under his wings have not only gone on to graduate from tertiary institutions or set up their own food businesses, they have returned to the centers to help out.
“No matter how many times I fail, I know if I am conscientious in my efforts, lives will be changed. Big dreams come with big knocks. Do you have the character for that? You may not succeed, but you may be the gateway for others to succeed.” Quoting Psalm 16:8, he said, “As long as my eyes are on the Lord, I will not be shaken. Don’t look at the outcome; keep your eyes on Jesus.”
ONWARD AND UPWARD
As to when it will be ready to expand its staff in line with the vision of helping the marginalized be gainfully employed, Lam is moving one step at a time, building up the readiness of its clientele and developing the proper infrastructure. With iWannaGetStuffed’s location in the heartlands, however, sky-high rent is one less thing Lam has to worry about, as with the food.
Indeed, Lam prides himself on offerings that are not just good but memorable, and we dare say, the guy has his money right where his mouth is. Whetting our appetites, we had the Chef’s Home Salad (S$4.80), comprising a mix of rocket leaves, cherry tomatoes, pineapple and oranges, but the twist was in the homemade mint vinaigrette dressing which gave the greens a nice, refreshing lift. The thin-crust Ham and Pineapple Pizza had all the hallmarks of great pizza—a lightly charred crust, chewy base, and just the right amount of fresh toppings—at a very reasonable price of S$8.
It was a meal that kept challenging my expectations. The Grilled Chicken Chop (S$10) was perfectly battered and seasoned, turning in a hearty version of an otherwise boring, common dish (it’s also one of the best-sellers). Similarly, even those who are not big fans of cream-based pasta will find it hard to resist the Pasta de Al Funghi (S$8), which came in a none-too-heavy sauce bursting with the aromatic, earthy fragrance of mushrooms. The Baby Back Ribs (S$15), however, was the highlight of the meal; the tender, fall-off-the-bone morsels, accompanied by a beer sauce that was tangy and subtly spicy with a slight zing at the end was spectacular good enough to rival those at high-end eateries.
As we were polishing that off, Lam sprung up with a gleam in his eye, “Try this dish that has no salt and no pepper.” Curiosity piqued, we braced ourselves for a flavorless, healthy dish, but the Chicken Stew (S$10), which is stewed for six hours in a fruit-and-vegetable base, was nothing short of satisfying, its rich, savory-sweet flavors laced with cinnamon and other spices—and in case you’re wondering, the kitchen is MSG-free.
It is no wonder, then that sales has been on a steady rise. The menu will be expanded next month, and plans for expansion are in the pipeline.
iWannaGetStuffed is having a Christmas Light-Up which includes a preview of its Christmas buffet spread featuring leg of lamb, turkey and salmon at S$15 per pax in mid-November. Call for confirmed dates and timing details.
Blk 801, Tampines Ave 4
+65 6785 4690