Xavier Neo’s last job was at the pinnacle of fine dining working as a sous chef in two Michelin star Les Amis in Singapore. The chef, however, decided to pack in the kitchen life to open up his own Singaporean-style Hokkien mee hawker stall.
Singaporean news outlet 8 Days Magazine reports how after two weeks of opening Xavier Neo has lost five kilos. He wakes at 5pm and makes his way to his stall at kopitiam in Toa Payoh Lor 7 to prepare his prawn stock which takes about three hours. He has been working 14 hour days, finishing up at about 7pm after cleaning his stall.
It’s a far remove from the life of air-conditioned kitchens at Les Amis and White Rabbit in Moscow, but Neo does it because of his love for the hawker tradition.
“The kitchen was air-conditioned back then, but my stall is hotter and more cramped,” he told Today. “The biggest difference [between being a hawker and chef] is that I used to work eight to 10 hours a day as a chef, but now I work 14 hours. We’re running our own business, so we do everything ourselves.”
Some might see the move as a step backwards for the chef, but the hawker tradition has a newfound prestige in the world of fine dining and Neo says he “wanted to preserve hawker culture”.
“Nowadays there are fewer and fewer hawkers. After the old hawkers retire, there won’t be anyone [to carry on the tradition] anymore,” he says.
“The job is not easy, it’s very tiring. I do miss being a fine-dining chef, but the people around here like my Hokkien mee, so I don’t feel so tired (laughs). My aim is to open more Hokkien Man Hokkien Mee outlets eventually.”
Xavier is joined in his business venture by his wife, and together they do everything. Whereas before the chef was used to working 10 hour days in the kitchen, he now has to work 14 hour days. He says he didn’t have to take a pay cut for his new career, but instead he sacrifices his time.
“There aren’t many Hokkien mee stalls in this area, so we don’t have much competition. A lot of old folks live around here, and they prefer to eat traditional dishes like our Hokkien mee. We cook our noodles with a mix of pork lard and vegetable oil instead of the traditional 100% pork lard so that it’s less oily for the modern palate, but some of our elderly customers actually asked for more pork lard,” he laughs.
If you want to eat at Xavier’s Hokkien mee stall, you’re looking at a wait of 30-45 minutes, especially at lunch time. However, if you phone you’re order in ahead, it will be ready when you arrive.
What is Singaporean-style Hokkien Mee?
Singaporean-style Hokkien Mee is made with fish stock, usually prawn heads for a flavoursome broth. Egg noodles and rice noodles are added and it is most commonly garnished with prawns, fish cake, pork ribs, squid, spring onions or chives. Lard cubes were traditionally added but in recent times, due to health concerns, that practice has subsided.