Singapore’s Michelin Guide has an amazing story about Chan Hon Meng, a street food hawker, whose stall, Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle is now the world’s first Michelin-starred street food hawker. This is a really inspiring story, with a lot of lessons for all chefs and all Restaurant owners all over the world.
Very few chefs start a restaurant with the goal of getting a Michelin star, which is good, because very few will achieve it. But there are lessons for everyone about what can happen when your passion for your business shines through.
A lifelong commitment to excellence has paid off. When he received the invitation to the Michelin Guide awards night, his reply was, “Are you joking? Why would Michelin come to my stall?” The answer was that Michelin hands out stars for food, not the location.
Here is the Michelin Guide video telling the inspiring story of Chan Hon Meng.
A Passion for Food
His parents were farmers raising pigs and ducks, and that was the start of a lifelong obsession with food. He left school at the age of 15 and wanted to grow the skills that he had learnt, helping to prepare meals for his family. After leaving school, his first choice for a job was to work as a chef. Originally from Ipoh, Malaysia, he learnt to cook from a Hong Kong chef. There, he started to hone his skills and developed what was to be a lifelong journey to produce the best food possible. That passion is what has sustained over the last 30 years, and that passion is what creates the unstated unique selling proposition for Hong Kong Soya Sauce Rice Chicken and Noodle.
“With food, you can never stop learning.”
During his training, Mr. Chan was told that, “the highest honour to get Michelin star. For us chefs, we long for the day we get international recognition.”
“My dream is to have more cuisine from Singapore and more of the undiscovered local hawker talent not just for myself, but everyone else. I dream that our [Singaporean] food can be enjoyed on an international stage.” Despite all of his success, Mr. Chan is still humble and keen to promote other talented street food hawkers.
Too many times, I feel as business owners, we let the mundane get in the way of creating great businesses. Mr. Chan said, “Whether you are a Restaurant chef or a hawker, I hope that every chef will put in their best effort as if he (the Michelin inspector) is tasting your food at every moment. That is our most important takeaway and only then will your food display your passion… I believe it’s the skill of a chef that makes his food outstanding.”
Running a Successful Restaurant is Hard Work
He starts before sunrise and doesn’t leave until 150 chickens are sold every day. He says that he never sees the sun, leaving after dark. He has been doing this for 30 years, continually refining his techniques.
After all of the excitement of the Michelin Restaurant Awards night, Chan Hon Meng was back work the very next day, highlighting his commitment to hard work.
The menu at Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle is very simple, allowing Mr. Chan to really understand the food that he is cooking. He has been constantly experimenting with the nuances of the flavours and textures and to develop his product over many years. This repetitive approach to a small menu has allowed him to become a master of the noodles and chickens that he serves. It also makes costing his business very simple, allowing him to focus on what is important: the food, knowing that the business is profitable. Increasing the number of items on the menu makes it increasingly difficult to become an expert in any of them. This is one secret of profitable hospitality businesses that is forced on food truck and street food hawkers. The limited amount of space and burners precludes a large laundry list of menu items, so they focus on a couple of items and they try to do them as well as possible.
Nothing gets a Queue Like a Queue
So how exactly would a Michelin recommendation have come about for a street food hawker? It may be a cunning marketing ploy for Michelin to expand their demographic by starting to award food that is more accessible. But there is no doubt that the food at Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle is nothing short of amazing. The queue starts forming before the restaurant is open and day in, day out he is able to sell 150 chickens worth of food.
What does this mean for your Restaurant?
The key message from Mr. Chan for all Restaurant owners is that he has been able to achieve success with Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle with very little resources.
- He is not a TV chef
- He is not a celebratory chef
- He has not published a book
- He did not train in a Michelin-starred Restaurant
- He doesn’t even own a Restaurant
He did all of this without many of the benefits that thousands of other chefs enjoy.
What he did do, and what you can do is:
- Focus on the food
- Continually strive for the best
- Continually strive to improve yourself
- Continually strive to improve your food
- Work hard
The Restaurant industry is changing and I doubt that this would have happened before the age of the internet and social media. These forces have come together to create these kind of opportunities. Not everyone can be a Michelin-starred chef, but social media can drastically help Restaurants with outstanding food stand out.
What is the future for Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle?
Becoming the first Michelin-starred street hawker in the world is a massive achievement. Mr. Chan already had a queue before he opened his restaurant. That queue will now be a lot longer and the fame and recognition that he has achieved will not be short-lived. He is one of the extremely rare Restaurants does not need to market his restaurant – his food will do that for him; and already the quality of his food had created a name for his business. He will now be easily able to increase his prices, but I suspect that–if he does, the increases will be modest, because he is an old-school chef, who cooks to provide great food for others and that is what he genuinely loves doing.
Mr. Chan’s stall is at Chinatown Food Complex, Blk 335, Smith Street #02-126.