Photo: Desmond Tan / Instagram
People may gawk and whip out their mobile phones to take photos of him, but that does not stop television actor Desmond Tan from tucking heartily into a meal at hawker centres.
The 30-year-old hunk proclaims that he is a local food boy at heart and rattles off a list of his hawker favourites, including chicken chop from Tanglin Halt Food Centre and fried carrot cake from West Coast Market Square.
He says: “I wasn’t comfortable with the attention when I first entered the industry, but I have learnt to deal with people watching me eat. I keep going to hawker centres as the best local food is there.”
He also loves zi char fare and often orders a take-away dinner from a shop on his way home.
Photo: Chopsuey Cafe / Facebook
For this interview, though, he picked Chopsuey Cafe in Dempsey Hill, which serves American-Chinese dishes, as it is one of his favourite dining spots with friends.
He hosts potluck parties for them twice a year, for which he whips up dishes such as lobster rolls and prawn noodle soup.
He recently tried his hand at baking – a skill he picked up while filming an upcoming military drama series, When Duty Calls. He plays the lead role of a reservist sergeant who runs a bakery in the show, which debuts on Channel 8 on July 31.
Photo: Desmond Tan / Instagram
He learnt to knead dough and bake white bread while filming in an old-school bakery in Bukit Batok over two weeks.
The toughest part of baking? Bearing with the heat in the kitchen.
Tan, who was an army commando during his national service, perspired as much in the kitchen as he did in the outfield camp scenes.
He says: “I don’t know how bakers can survive the high temperature in the kitchen. As the ventilators had to be switched off during filming, I was dripping with perspiration.”
The avid cook is planning to use his new baking skills at home and try his hand at baking bread with nuts and spices.
His father, 72, used to run a fire-protection business, while his mother, 62, is a housewife. He has an older brother, 34, who is an insurance agent.
Tan, whose girlfriend is “not in the entertainment industry”, says: “Having an interest in cooking opens up opportunities for me to go on cooking shows and see how chefs reverse-engineer cooking processes.”
How did your interest in food start?
When I was young, I would volunteer to help my mum cut ingredients and stir-fry dishes. Over the years, I picked up more cooking techniques and learnt how much seasoning to add by trial and error. I was also a fan of cooking series Yan Can Cook during my primary school days.
What is the first dish you learnt to cook?
Fried rice. It is interesting that you can fry rice with any combination of ingredients – from seafood to kimchi.
What are some of your favourite dishes to cook?
I cook whenever I host potluck parties at home or when I have consecutive days off. I usually get recipe ideas online. Some of my party dishes are prawn noodle soup, for which I cook prawn shells in a broth in a pressure cooker for at least two hours.
I serve it buffet-style, so that friends can help themselves to the ingredients. An easy-to-impress party dish is Boston lobster rolls. My friends are quite impressed when I shell the lobster in front of them. I also like making cold soba noodles on a hot day.
Tell us about a kitchen disaster you have had.
When I was 13 years old, I cut my finger badly when I was slicing a watermelon. I was afraid to tell my mum that I was bleeding and continued cutting, but I couldn’t cover it up after a while.
What are your favourite local dishes?
Fried carrot cake from a stall at West Coast Market Square. The carrot cake chunks are moist and fried with the right amount of egg. The carrot cake is wrapped in banana leaves, which add fragrance to the dish.I also go to New Lucky Claypot Rice in Holland Drive Food Centre as I like the old-school flavours of the dish.
I like Chopsuey Cafe in Dempsey Hill for its Crispy Orange Beef as it has the rare combination of beef with citrus flavours. And the Sichuan string beans with minced chicken has good wok hei.
What is the best thing you have eaten overseas?
A sashimi and sushi platter at Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo 10 years ago, when I was crazy about Japanese culture and had manga- style long hair. My friends and I joined the queue in the market at 4am. I can still remember the taste of the aburi salmon belly.
Are you an adventurous eater?
I have eaten fried creepy crawlies such as worms and crickets as snacks. But I cannot eat bittergourd and celery. I find the taste of celery too pungent.
Where do you like to take your girlfriend for meals?
It depends on our mood. If we feel like dressing up, we go to restaurants such as Whitegrass in Chijmes. A romantic spot that I take her to is The Lighthouse Restaurant in The Fullerton Hotel, which has a beautiful view of the Marina Bay area. If we don’t feel like dressing up, we eat at hawker centres.
What was one memorable fan encounter with food?
Last year, a friend and I shared a table with two other diners at Paik’s Bibim in VivoCity. We were seated quite close to one another and they stared at me as I ate. The boy then pretended to text on his mobile phone when it was obvious that he was secretly taking a photo of me eating. I was irritated and turned sideways.
If you could choose anyone to have a meal with, who would it be and why?
My late grandmother, who was a good cook. She used to run a bak chor mee stall in a school canteen. When I was younger, I didn’t talk much to her as I couldn’t speak Teochew.
I have picked up the dialect after working in the entertainment industry and would like the opportunity to converse more with her.
What would your last meal be?
Kueh tutu and Teochew porridge with side dishes such as steamed pomfret, soya beancurd skin (tau kee) and fried soya bean puffs (tau kwa)
This story was originally published in The Straits Times, May 7, 2017.