Eric Teo: The Singapore Chef Extraordinaire

Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Paul Bocuse, Gordon Ramsay and Wolfgang Puck all share something in common. They are each world famous master chefs whose brilliant and passionate cuisines have earned them top-notch accolades and adoration of food aficionados the world over.

Looking at our homefront, our very own Singaporean chefs are also fast rising to become culinary experts in their own rights. At the Culinary Olympics held in Erfurt, Germany from 17 to 20 October 2004, Team Singapore stood tall amongst its international counterparts, finishing top 10 (seventh place) in the competition. Held every four years, the Culinary Olympics is the food equivalent of the Olympic Games and attracts a world of interest.

This was a remarkable achievement for Singapore, considering the larger nations had more experience and talent. More importantly, we were the only Asian nation to garner a top10 finish, ahead of Japan (14th placing), Malaysia (24th placing) and South Korea (27th placing). In other words, Singapore was ranked 1st amongst the Asian nations at the end of the competition.

Very interestingly, FCBC had connections with the competition through the Team Captain. His encouragement, perseverance and leadership helped Singapore to two golds, one silver and one bronze. He also led the team to pick up an award for the Best Western Cuisine.

That man is none other than Chef Eric Teo, currently the Executive Chef of Mandarin Oriental Hotel Singapore. Eric is also the President of the Singapore Chefs Association. With 21 years of culinary skills girded around his waist, he has garnered individual accolades like Executive Chef of the Year 2006 and the Award for Excellence for Western Cuisine Chef at the Hospitality Asia Platinum Awards 2004-2005.

Though his awards and achievements make him larger than life in the F&B industry, Eric remains humble of his achievements, abilities and talents. Though he is very busy with work, Eric remains very committed to serving the Lord.

He is a member of Melvyn Mak Network and actively gets involved in network activities to reach out to the community and people they have targeted. A network outreach event that he recently co-organised involved having network members prepare several dishes for the less privileged and the elderly clients from TOUCH Community Services.

For all the talents that he has, Chef Eric attributes them and all his successes to our Saviour Jesus Christ, with whom he had an encounter during his first competitive Culinary Olympics in Germany during 2000.

Here is his story.

What made you decide to be a chef in the first place?

I simply adore food! I have always been eating more than the rest in my family, so they used to call me ‘Tam Jia’ (Greedy in Hokkien). Nicknames can be a good thing. As you like to eat, you like to explore. That led me to find new places and new things. When you start to eat so much, you become impressed by the people who are capable of making good food. I felt that I wanted to be like one of them.

I started off as a waiter in Hyatt Hotel Singapore. When I was in the service industry, I could not please the guests as much as the chef can. That is because guests will return for the chef, but they will not return for a waiter like me.

So I quit the position after becoming a senior Captain and went into the kitchen as a trainee. This meant that I was right back at the bottom again. Along the journey, there had been some rough rides but then again, not everyday is a beautiful Sunday. I have had tough times learning from the cooks before – it was not so easy. But that was part of training.

What happened during your first Culinary Olympics in Germany during 2000?

I accepted Christ in the year 2000, and quite coincidentally it happened during the year that I participated in my first Culinary Olympics competition in Erfurt, Germany. At that time, my wife just became a Christian.

When I called her from Germany, she said that she was at a cell group. Puzzled, I asked her, “What’s a cell group?” and she explained to me what it was. She also added that she was praying for me while I was competing in Germany.

Initially, I found it to be a little uncomfortable but then I realised that the prayers she made for me had an effect on my competition in Germany. I was in a situation where we were adapting to a 2º Celsius environment and adding to that, we could not speak the German language and neither could our hosts (the Germans) understand us very well in English.

Still, we came in 2nd overall and we brought home three Olympic gold medals. It was a historic win for Singapore as we had never achieved such accolades before in the history of the Culinary Olympics.

Being the Team Captain, I was pretty stressed up then. Yet somehow, things went very smoothly. I felt that the Lord played a big part in the success of the team, because there were times things happened when we least expected it. For instance, a team member who initially fell sick recovered in time to compete in one of the culinary categories. I believe that God had a hand in blessing us with such a great result and it showed that the prayers made by my wife had been answered.

What happened after the competition?

There was much expectation of us from the hotel and our guests after our return from the competition. This resulted in us spending long hours in the hotel.

It helped to have an understanding wife, and between us we strengthened ourselves through prayers. Attending the Alpha Marriage Course helped us to understand the situation we were in and to resolve conflicts and problems between us as a couple.

To me, I do not think that I am successful if I have a successful career, but a broken marriage. And I thank God for this successful marriage that I am having, and also for the ups and downs in my journey. To say that I had more faith in the Lord after the competition, I believe I have.

Earning so many culinary nods around the world, what effect do you think it will have on Singapore?

The feeling is great. The hard work has paid off. Winning the awards will also inspire the younger cooks, because I was inspired by other chefs when I was a trainee. I aspired to be like them and I made it, so now it is my turn to inspire the young and take over me in the future.

I hope the awards will make Singapore an even bigger ‘Red Dot’ and to make people sit up and notice that Singapore is more than just its great local food, but we are also capable of serving up great Italian and Western cuisine.

How are you making a difference in your industry now?

I am currently training four disciples. They believe in me and want to learn from me. I have been imparting my skills and highlighting to them other things to look at like attitude, character and discipline in the kitchen. To me, you must possess a very positive attitude and a passion in what you do besides just cooking. Being a marketplace leader, you have surely sought the Lord in all that you do?

What God has taught in His word, I tried to apply them into the daily operations of the hotel, in my training lessons and in handling guests. I pray before handling the guests’ complaints, especially the big ones that involved thousands of dollars. These cases have an effect on the hotel’s revenue and I always asked the Lord for discernment and wisdom in speech on how to deal with the guests.

Each day, I start off by praying in the morning, and when I get home, I thank Him for His blessings on me for the day. At work, I find time to call my wife to ensure that she knows where I am throughout the day. I also make sure that I will be at church every Sunday.

Even in the worst situations and circumstances, I give thanks to Him. In my situation there is ups and downs everyday. When something happens, I would enquire of the Lord to show me why it is so, and I pray that it would turn out better. And every time, it does turn out for the better! And even if it does turn for the worse, there must be something that the Lord is trying to tell me.

Do you also seek Him about your cuisine creations?

I will never know if a particular dish will work out or not. For instance, take the signature dish I created for Orchard Hotel, the Nasi Udang Mangga. When they asked me to create it, they did not give me any pointers.

If you were to live through your own strength and not rely on God, nothing created would be good. You need to think a lot and plan a lot while trying to make this signature dish a success. I just committed it in prayer to the Lord and He gave the guidance and inspiration. In other words, just trust and believe that He will lead you to success.

How do you juggle the expectations asked of you?

Honestly, it can be rather stressful for me. Imagine juggling between your family, your career at the hotel and leading some 110 employees, running a Singapore Chef Association with 800 active members, mentoring others for upcoming competitions and finding ways to create unique marketing strategies for the hotel. If the Lord is not with me, I will probably not be as successful now. I may just be hopping around jobs, and having a broken family. And with so many obligations, I would not have sustained if I was without Him.

How do you find encouragement from the Lord through those difficult periods?

I have a desktop calendar in my office that contains scriptures and prayer notes, and I use that to find encouragement from the Lord daily.

Do you have opportunities to share about the Lord with others at work?

Yes I do, but I do not usually start off with sharing about Christ straight away. People around me often wondered how a Secondary Two boy and an ex-waiter like me can reach where I am today.

From this point of view, I start sharing a story about how I held somebody’s hand through my life journey. This hand led me to where I am. They would then ask me who the person is, and I would tell them that He is the Lord Jesus. Only then do I start sharing about Him to pre-believers after this story.

I would add that with my finite strength, there was a limit to what I could do, especially with all the stress and problems that could come anytime and anywhere. And at times when you needed someone to listen to you besides your wife, it was the Lord who did that for me.

Yet He never complains and still gives guidance to you. With that, what more can you expect? Praise the Lord.

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