Panda Peeks – 101 Hawker Food House
For Rex Chua, owner and chef of 101 Hawker Food House, it’s never too late to chase your dreams and start over. And with the right amount of hard work and determination, success will always be within reach.
A few days ago, I was reading an article by Francis Kong entitled Whether Young or Old. He said that people are never too young nor too old to go after what they want and it makes perfect sense because it requires a big deal of courage in taking that leap of faith and pursuing the things that you’ve always wanted and you can’t just put a deadline on that.
Take the owner and chef of the famous Singaporean restaurant 101 Hawkers in Makati, Rex Chua, for example. The guy is now at his mid-30, has a loving family, and recently just branched out at Tower 2 of The Beacon Tower, Pasong Tamo.
He was 23 when he decided to quit his job and change lanes. Chef Rex used to work in a bank where he found himself in a career path facing a dead end, admitting that he was not happy with it at all. While reading the newspaper one day, he bumped into an ad offering a culinary scholarship (work & study program) abroad not knowing that his life is bound to change from thereon. Once everything was settled, he dropped his job, left his family, and gambled on the promised opportunity and exposure in Singapore.
After gaining enough experience and knowledge from the program, Chef Rex went back to Manila to practice his craft. He taught culinary courses in higher education institutions and even served as a Head Chef in one of the 5 star hotels here. With his knowledge and background in restaurant management, he knew he could do something to change how things are being done here. He later on felt the need to offer the Filipinos quality yet affordable meals. That was when he decided to put up his very first branch at Urban Avenue near Makati Medical Centre. The business was doing unbelievably well when the building where it was located was threatened to be demolished and replaced by a residential condominium. Chef Rex then looked for a new relocation spot for 101 Hawkers and ended up at The Beacon Tower.
While chatting with the banker turned chef, he asked me to try his new brewed coffee that he steeped himself. I have long been a coffee addict and I know a good coffee when I taste one. I asked him where does his beans come from and he said that what matters more is how the coffee was prepared.
The façade of the new branch is made of clear glass walls which makes it easy for pedestrians to see what’s inside the store. The interiors resemble a common scenery in the streets of Singapore where stores and restaurants pretty much make up a whole stretch. Chef Rex admitted that he designed most of the sections of the new branch. He even showed me his doodle pad where he first drew the walls and posts of the new store. And I guess even a professional architect or designer would agree with me when I say that Chef did an amazing job with the interiors. It’s dominantly brown with dramatic and unintimidating lighting. Looking at the entirety of it, it seems like I’m going to be extending my stay here for a while.
I ordered one of their best sellers as suggested also by Chef Rex, the Nasi Goreng. It’s basically a savoury fried rice that originated in Indonesia and was adapted by neighbouring countries like Malaysia and Singapore. Be ready for a generous serving of Nasi Goreng for this one can even be shared by two. Unlike the common brown Nasi Goreng, their version is a bit orangey because of the sambal tomat sauce concocted personally by Chef Rex. It also has seafood in it for some bonus treat! Order online and you can have it delivered to your doorstep in a chic and clear plastic bowl that preserves the goodness of the dish.
While I was trying the dishes, he continued to tell me about his motivations while juggling a culinary program and work, thousands of miles away from home about a decade ago. Chef Rex’s ultimate goal was to have a family and be a good provider for them. This pushed him to succeed and finish the course with flying colours.
I also ordered their Hainanese Chicken that comes with a special ginger sauce. Their commissary in Paco, Manila is producing 15 different sauces each morning to be delivered to their two branches. So if there’s one thing that they can really be proud about, it’s their home-made, delectable sauces. All orders of Hainanese Chicken are also only in leg and thigh so you can be assured of the natural flavours from this most requested chicken part.
101 hawkers also has a portion in their menu for vegans. The idea came about when more and more customers started asking for healthier versions of their best sellers. I’m no vegan as you all know but I was still able to appreciate their Vegan Mapo Tofu which, by the way, tastes as good if not better than your usual tofu. As Chef Rex shares more about his inspiring stories, I can already smell the Singapore Laksa coming out of the kitchen. It’s known to be a spicy dish and will really get you hot in a minute or two.
Laksa is always the test of a good Singaporean restaurant for me. This meal dictates the fate of the rest of the pieces in the menu. You can request for your Laksa to be very spicy or just mild, depending on how you want and how much spiciness you can tolerate. Chef Rex said that even though Laksa is traditionally very spicy, they also have to consider that it is being served to the Filipino consumers hence, spiciness should be adjustable. You can also tell that the sauce doesn’t have any ready-mixed/ powdered ingredient. Everything was just smooth with the al dente noodles.
After all that, I don’t think I can still eat something aside from a piece of candy because of their overwhelmingly large serving. It was, indeed, a Singaporean indulging experience. As I walk back to my car, after knowing Chef Rex’s story and how he started in the culinary industry, I realized that it is something that you can hold on to as an inspiration. Francis Kong was right, we are never too young nor too old to achieve greatness and that real success and happiness come to those who are bold enough to take that big leap.
Pop culture connoisseur, minimalist, and a picky eater, he brainstorms with himself on Sunday nights obsessing about his existential dilemmas then regrets all of it the following day. He is finally done ghost writing for other people and now decided to have a byline of his own.