Xi Yan, a 60-seater restaurant in Singapore bags five Golds at the World Championship of Chinese Cuisine. Owner Thomas Choong talks about the provision of God.
By Yeo Zhi Qi
At the 7th World Championship of Chinese Cuisine, an international Chinese Cuisine global competition that took place in Singapore from Nov. 15 to 18 this year, Singapore’s private dining restaurant Xi Yan Culinary Art bagged an impressive total of six awards. Competing against more than 50 teams and 200 chefs from some of the top restaurants around the world, Xi Yan has much to boast about, bringing home awards such as “Best Dish—Soup & Seafood Hot Dishes” and “Best Dish—Dim Sum.”
“This was the first ever international competition for the Xi Yan Singapore team and competing with big restaurants backed by huge teams was quite an experience!” says Xi Yan’s director Thomas Choong. “Nonetheless, Xi Yan fielded a team of four—Chefs George Huang and Liang from Hong Kong, and Chefs Chun Jie and Du Jie from Singapore—with our floral arranger, Sherralyn. We’re extremely pleased with the results of five Golds and one Silver.”
Xi Yan has been rather unique from the start. While most diners head to their favorite restaurant with an idea of what they’re going to order, this is not the case for customers of Xi Yan. A private dining Chinese restaurant where customers are offered a set of dishes that have been predetermined by the chef, Xi Yan appeals to those looking for contemporary Chinese cuisine with an innovative spin—and those who like to be surprised. With a constantly changing menu offering dishes such as Oolong Tea Smoked Chicken with Mango Salsa or Lemongrass and Kumquat Squirrel Fish, diners can expect the unexpected at every visit.
The restaurant offers a quiet and relaxing ambience that mimicks the comfort of one’s home. Stepping into the 60-seater restaurant at Craig Road, one notices that the decor of the place is unique in that it resembles an art gallery. Indeed, Xi Yan displays a wide collection of hand-picked paintings.
Choong, 57, is a member of City Harvest Church. He tells City News that the Xi Yan concept was birthed in the late 1990s by his brother Yin Lee together with celebrity chef Jacky Yu, and their first restaurant opened in Hong Kong in 2000. Choong said that the unique dishes and the home dining concept were key selling points. Seeing how well-received Xi Yan was in Hong Kong, he decided to introduce the same concept to Singaporeans in September 2005. Xi Yan’s concept and dishes proved an instant hit with the island dwellers too.
As with most successful ventures, running Xi Yan Singapore has hardly been a bed of roses.
But judging from the fact that one has to book weeks in advance to secure a table at the restaurant, it is evident that the initial challenges have not hindered the Singapore outlet from replicating the success of its Hong Kong branch.
SUCCESS BEYOND BUSINESS
When the married father of two is not busy running his restaurant, he dedicates his time to granting the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions. He sits on the board of directors for Make-A-Wish Foundation Singapore. He also leverages on his contacts in various industries to raise funds.
Of the many wishes that Choong has helped to fulfill, one that he remembers especially well is an 18-year-old girl with kidney problems who wished to learn how to cook. “Most people tend to wish something for themselves, they want to be a scientist or a doctor for example, but this girl wanted to learn how to cook so that she could bring her family together,” he says. “I thought that was a really sweet gesture.”
Not only did the committee fulfill the girl’s desire to learn cooking, they also got celebrity actor and host Mark Lee to dine together with her and her family. Recounting the incident, Choong says, “There is usually a multiplier effect when we fulfill someone’s wish. It is not only the individual that benefits but there is a knock-on effect on the child’s friends and family members as well.”
It looks like Choong has extremely good work-life balance, successfully juggling his many portfolios. But that wasn’t always the case.
“In 2007, I was very challenged at work,” he tells City News. “I realized that I could continue to rationalize and humanly deal with the mental pressure, but I may not necessarily feel God’s peace.”
At a CHC Easter service in 2007, Choong responded to the altar call. Since then, he says, he has given more, both in terms of time and resources, to helping others more than he has done before. He says, “I don’t have to think about making money because God has always provided.”
For someone who used to believe in self-made success, Choong now believes that the Bible is one’s biggest resource in gaining strength and wisdom.
“I’ve learned that there’s more to yourself,” he explains. “There’s always God and His grace.”