Profile: Xinde Yap, Chug Chug SG
Chug Chug SG
114 Tanjong Pagar Road, Singapore 088529
Monday-Saturday: 1200-1530, 1730-midnight
Starting at the foot of Keppel Road and ending at Maxwell Road, lies Tanjong Pagar Road; home to excellent dining institutions like Ginza Tendon Itsuki, Cake Spade, and The Tippling Club. The name ‘Tanjong Pagar’ translates to ‘Cape of Stakes’ and has seen much developments popping up in the vicinity: from The Pinnacle@Duxton, Maxwell MRT Station and Guoco Tower, a S$3.2 billion mixed-use development completed in 2016.
Here is where one Xinde Yap, 22 years of age, chose to plant his F&B dreams, at 114 Tanjong Pagar Road, as co-founder of Chug Chug SG. Chug Chug prides itself as a place where strangers become friends, where friends become family. It is a philosophy that Xinde enthused over many times throughout the course of this interview, held at the second floor of Chug Chug, one rainy afternoon.
We first spoke about identity. Everyone has an identity that they relate to strongly with regards to the work that they do. One can wax lyrical about the various aspects of their profession, some even revelling in the fact that they wear different hats and is comfortable with the variety. The same can be said about Xinde whom, upon opening Chug Chug was adamant about learning every minute aspect of being a restaurateur; from putting his culinary interest to work in the kitchen to sharpening his business acumen while pouring over finances, plans and marketing.
But I pushed for more. I wanted Xinde to choose just one word to explain the work he does at Chug Chug. He regarded the question carefully. “It’s like I’m the Dad of the place. Whatever job I do here, at the end of the day it’s to make everyone happy like we’re a family here, to make them feel at home.”
There are two types of restaurateur: The one who owns the place as a business but has no hand in the running or the one who is both owner and chef. Both brings its own challenges but when vulnerability is presented on a plate for everyone to critique, especially for a first time chef-owner, the experience can be nail-biting. “The hardest thing about being a food creator, is that I can never satisfy everyone. That is the toughest. You always want to give your best. I really want to satisfy everyone, but I can’t do that. The food that I serve, if I don’t really like it, I will take it off the menu. I’d rather serve something I myself would eat and just hope that others will like it too.”
Xinde grew up in a home that regards food with the same respect one accords family. His father owns Jing Long Seafood and Jin Hock Seafood, the latter a Zi Char stall where he and his siblings spent much of their childhood learning, observing and helping out with food preparation. “My family was in F&B since I was born. My dad is a chef and he is really good at it. I was exposed to the food business since primary school. We all started helping my parents out at the shop since young. We will help with prep work and see how the operation is like. Everytime we go out to eat, my dad will ask me; what’s wrong with this, what’s missing, how can it be better? The same way people critic my food, I will do it with other people’s food as well so that I know what’s wrong. You understand more also when you voice it out and when you process that thought, you’ll know what’s wrong with the dish. Then you learn how to recreate a better version of the dish without watching the chef cook it.”
Food memories form an integral part of our psyche as we traverse the experience of growing up. Our triggers from the past manifest itself through a simple whiff or a mere fleeting thought about the food we ate as a child. Mine, was Indian Mee Goreng from a hawker centre in Clementi, the thought of which brought back memories of the family huddled around the table, eating directly from the brown paper packaging, synonymous with take-away dishes from the past.
“The one dish I remember eating when I was young is this very rare dish in Singapore called Hong Jiu Mian Xian (Red Wine Noodles),” Xinde shares wistfully as we broached the topic of food and memories.
“When I was very young, I didn’t like the taste of it. I hated it. But my dad taught me how to appreciate it and I grew to like it. As I got older, I started to eat more of the foods I used to hate and appreciate them more and more. It began from that bowl of noodles; I tried to learn how to appreciate food in different ways. A lot of people are used to what is served to them. They think it’s good but they don’t know why it tastes good.”
On a separate visit, I tried Chug’s Tom Yam Paste, which came as a Lunch set at an extremely competitive cost of $9.90++. The biggest challenge facing Tom Yam Pasta is in its familiarity. We form a strong impression of the taste of Tom Yam that we prefer based on its many iterations whether eaten in Singapore or in Thailand. In Thai, ‘Tom’ means to boil whereas ‘Yam’ is a spicy and sour salad. The amalgamation of taste creates what we have come to know as Tom Yam.
At Chug Chug, Chug’s Tom Yam is prepared with Linguine and served with Tiger Prawns. While it is unexpected to describe a Tom Yam Pasta as textural, this version eludes normalcy with surprising slivers of lemongrass, chewy squid, crunchy fried sakura shrimp and a Tom Yam paste that has a kick of delightful heat that has been lovingly made from scratch. If the Tom Yam paste is the diva of the dish, surely the Tiger Prawns serves as an element that elevates the pasta further. Such freshness, such buoyancy of flesh and such clarity of taste.
I asked Xinde what he is most proudest of since he started his journey as owner at Chug Chug. “My proudest achievement is how fast we adapted to the changes we needed to implement,” he shares without skipping a beat. “For example, within one month, we completely changed our menu to something more stable.”
His is truly a story of culinary trial and error with the humility to accept when his food ideas don’t turn out the way he expected and the courage to make creative changes when it is required. “If you tell me something is not nice, you must tell me what is wrong with it. Now, if I serve you a plate of food, I’m less worried that you won’t like it. I understand you have your personal preference, but if there’s something you don’t like about the dish, I will try my best to accede to the request.”
There is a pronounced sense of pride in the food selections Xinde made for Chug Chug. But I cannot help wondering out loud if the name of the establishment lends itself more as a watering hole than a place where one goes to for a full and hearty meal. “Our place, food is 50% (of the experience). Drinks are equally emphasised as food. We’re always trying to improve on our drinks-it’s nothing fancy. It’s good, solid drinks. Our food we try to keep it solid also. You don’t come here just to drink. You can come here to eat AND Drink.”
“We’re not a full fledged restaurant because we are also a bar. We bring in quite a variety of alcohol. From soju to craft beer. It’s pretty much a place where there is a drink for everyone. I like the bar concept because of the social aspect of it. The food is just a bonus.”
Indeed it is. Beneath its shiny new interiors, at the heart of Chug Chug is simple a brave, young entrepreneur, ready to share his gift of taste with the world. Here, within its walls lies an establishment that warms the heart with its sincerity and honesty, traits many would be remiss to see if glossed over with a cursory glance. Raise your glasses; here’s to family, friends and courage.