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Ken-do spirit

Being deaf didn’t stop bistro-bar Pen & Inc’s head chef, Ken Tan, 36, from following his dreams. Interviewing him through Alvin Chua, a translator using sign language, Derek Rodriguez is bowled over by his inspiring story

Chef Ken Tan sitting on a bar stool at Pen & Inc

Who taught you to cook?

My mum cooks in a canteen on Jurong Island. I learnt the ropes from her when I was young. My first dishes were onion rings and fried calamari. When I dropped out of school at 16, I decided to be a chef like my mum.

And now you’re head chef at Pen & Inc.

It has been a long journey. Culinary schools refused to accept me because I’m deaf. I started by washing dishes in a ramen restaurant and observing the chef. One day, he asked me to slice vegetables and was surprised I was able to do it so fast. I was given more chances to prepare food after that and I picked things up quickly. I have been working in the kitchen for 17 years, at restaurants like 1-TwentySix, Stellar and Blackbird Bistro & Bar, where I was head chef. I’ve been at Pen & Inc since we opened at NTU last October.

Tell us about the first big break in your career.

I came in third in a culinary challenge early in my career, and it gave me the confidence to continue pursuing my goal.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

Communicating with my team, especially with new members. I use gestures or write on a piece of paper to get my message across. I teach them some signs too so after a while, we can even converse in sign language. In meetings, my assistant helps me keep up with the discussion by typing on a laptop.

  • Chef Ken Tan working over a stove in Pen & Inc’s kitchen
  • Chef Ken Tan sitting on a bar stool at Pen & Inc
  • A portion of Pen & Inc’s salmon with asparagus, fried lotus and puree dish
    Pen Salmon Steak
  • Pen & Inc’s signature burger of charcoal buns and a prawn patty
    Salted Egg Yolk Prawn Burger

What are your favourite dishes at Pen & Inc?

Grilled Pork Ribs, Salmon Mentaiko Pasta, Salted Egg Yolk Prawn Burger and Pen Salmon Steak. I created these dishes based on ingredients and tastes that are currently trending. I love Japanese, Spanish and local food, and that’s often reflected in my penchant for fusion cuisine.

What are some ingredients or seasonings you cannot do without?

Sea salt, chicken stock and garden cress.

Who is the most famous person you have cooked for?

Ms Ho Ching, the CEO of Temasek Holdings and wife of Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong. I was invited to cook at a senior management meeting for her and some guests three years ago.

What do you typically eat after work?

I’m usually quite tired by then, so I either make instant noodles or buy something from the coffee shop. I only cook at home on special occasions like Chinese New Year, when I will make special dishes for my family, such as seared Hokkaido scallops with caviar.

We hear you just got hitched! What will you cook for your wife on your wedding anniversary?

Yes, we got married in June. My wife, who is a graphic designer, loves a good ribeye steak, so that’s what I’ll cook.