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52 Weeks of #ExcitingSG: Week 52 with Alexander Pang, chef and CEO of New Ubin Group

Alexander Pang New Ubin
Photo by: Wesley Loh

Welcome to Time Out Singapore's 52 Weeks of #ExcitingSG – our commitment to showing you the best of what's going on in the city. Every Monday, a guest writer who's "in" with the scene shares a recommendation on what to see, eat, do or buy in the city. For our last ever run of #ExcitingSG, we have Alexander Pang, the chef and CEO of New Ubin Group, a former lawyer that now helps run his family business that serves up kampong-style zi char with a twist.

What excites you about Singapore?

There are so many sides of Singapore that I find attractive and exciting – most stem from the fact that for a young nation, we are developed beyond our years. While most countries already have defining characteristics, Singapore is unique as despite being years ahead in today’s economy, our shared national and cultural identities are still in their stages of infancy. Why this excites my team and I at New Ubin Seafood, is that we are now privileged to play a role in further discovering and developing the Singapore identity, especially what this means on the global stage. We do this through the medium of food, our hearty brand of zi char that we proudly lay claim to as "Truly Singaporean". The term "racial melting pot" has been used ad nauseam, but when it comes to appreciating and cooking food – we are singularly privileged by the unique blend of cultures, spices, techniques and influences that stem from our heritage as a nation of immigrants.

What does Singapore cuisine mean to you? 

Singapore cuisine to me is simply what Singaporeans like to eat. This is the fundamental idea upon which New Ubin Seafood’s "Truly Singaporean" zi char was founded and developed. The fact that we do not have a defined culinary identity by virtue of the wealth of culinary influences in our society, we can carve out what Singapore cuisine means to each and every one of us. We are able to take all the gifts that we have been given and produce something that is just the right degree of “Singapore”. By way of example, Italian cuisine has a huge penetration rate in Singapore. Imagine having an aglio olio that uses thinly sliced chilli padi rather than chilli flakes? That is not fusion cooking – that is putting a bit of what we love into something else we love and having an end product that is "Truly Singaporean".

What do you like to eat? 

EVERYTHING. As a chef, I think one cannot cook well if one does not eat well. Samy’s Curry, Rendezvous, Imperial Treasure, Jade Palace, JB Ah Meng, Hainanese Delicacy Chicken Rice at Far East Plaza, Lee Hong Kee Cantonese Roasted (at the second level of Tiong Bahru market), Wah Kee Big Prawn Noodle at Pek Kio Market, Huat Kee at the RELC, Soon Li Yong Tau Fu in Bukit Merah… the list goes on.

What are some differences between running a zi char joint compared to a restaurant?

When we first began at Sin Ming (and now at Hillview), the main difference is customer expectation. At a zi char joint, they don’t particularly expect spotless cleanliness, but they do expect strong food aromas and familial dining. All we did to revolutionise zi char dining was to give guests more options such as bringing in wine labels charged at reasonable prices, not having a corkage policy and yet providing top end Riedel glassware upon request. With the third outlet, expectations now continue to rise as what was perhaps a pleasant surprise is now an expectation. We have to aspire to greater heights. That means giving guests a dining experience showcasing the best of Singapore zi char cuisine alongside contemporary European and American food, as well as certain Indian and Japanese dishes, all in the same familial environment.

What's the story behind deciding to sell steak and heart attack fried rice at a zi char joint?

When we opened at Sin Ming, we were not very busy. We would host family dinners there and tried to replicate our dinners at home. My father would purchase a good cut of beef and have the kitchen grill it and, as with all Chinese households of that generation, take the drippings and fry it with rice! We ate this as a family but several customers wanted to order the same thing we were eating. The rest, as they say, is history.

And why did New Ubin decide to create other non-traditional zi char dishes?

Our menu grew from two main sources, namely where we saw opportunities to add dishes to the menu, and where our guests provided insight that eluded us. It is often true that people do not know what they want until you show it to them. We decided to try and show our guests that they could enjoy their crispy har cheong gai after a round of foie gras satay. We are lucky that our guests agreed with us.

What are your thoughts on Singapore's F&B scene?

My personal view is that F&B industry is traditionally (and incorrectly, I might add) viewed as “blue collar”. This social stigma has effectively stunted the development of the F&B industry as people opt for other career paths socially considered safe or prestigious. That, matched with a shrinking pool willing to bear the grind associated with the industry, creates a lack of sustainability. To change this, we need to change the way the industry is perceived – and that starts with employers first. Raise the average pay, but demand higher standards. Create and chart career paths while providing genuine skill-upgrading courses. Provide long-serving employees with a stake in the business, so that they, too, become the brand’s best ambassadors.

What are your future plans for New Ubin?

In 2019, we are focusing on consolidating our businesses, having opened two restaurants in 2018 (CHIJMES in February 2018 and Zhongshan Park in December 2018). We are exploring the idea of opening a central kitchen to pave the way for catering and entering the online FMCG market. We may also open another restaurant or eatery later in the year, although this may be a separate brand. For now, our immediate concern is relocating our Hillview outlet to Tampines in the second quarter of 2019 as our Hillview lease is set to expire.