Profile: Jack the Spice Artisan

Profile: Jack the Spice Artisan

Anthony the Spice Maker | 335 Smith Street B1-169 | 
160 Ang Mo Kio Ave 4 01-77/78 | 9117 7573

“You know how the older generation will tell you to dry fry the spices before blending? This is a myth. It might apply to the situation at that time because our grandparents don’t use the blender. Using a pestle and mortar means the spices have to bone dry for it to be pounded correctly.” And with that nugget of knowledge, I left this interview so satiated with information through my one-hour conversation with Jack the Spice Artisan, also son to Anthony the Spice Maker, a moniker that now graces the name of this Spice mecca.

Let’s start from the top. Jack beeped red on my F&B entrepreneur radar through the interview he did with Our Grandfather Story. It always intrigues me when a person defies or redefine all outward expectations I have of how an artisan would look like. I admit I wouldn’t know how a spice artisan should look like, but I hardly imagined that he would look the way Jack did; tattoos peeking out of his crisp white t-shirt with a smirk I considered just momentarily tinged with rebellion.

I was understandably excited having been experimenting with spices and getting to know better the taste profiles of each spice I come across. On a humid Friday afternoon, I traipsed over to 160 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4 which turns out to be Mayflower Market, now quiet as the activities begin to dwindle as the afternoon wore on. At three pm, it is not hard to spot this retail outlet, being one of the few stalls still operating, its light aglow against the shaded interior of the market.

Like a hummingbird, Jack fleets around the two shop units at Mayflower Market with dazzling speed, almost as if being chased by someone or something; perhaps time, perhaps age, possibly sheer expectations. Or maybe he's just deeply motivated by a heightened sense of purpose. The wings of a hummingbird have only recently been captured on slow-motion camera, allowing us to revel in the wonder of mother nature. For Jack, I'd like to think that this interview is the slow-motion camera that requires him to pause for a mere moment (in actuality, exactly an hour) to reflect on life, passion, and pursuits.

As with all origin stories, this one lives up to the dream of every raptured audience. Since young, Jack has always wanted to be an artist. He enjoyed sketching, acrylic painting, and photography and thought how wonderful it would be if he could provide for the rigors of life through the one thing he loved: Art. Having hailed from a family of the F&B persuasion, naturally, his brush with food also started young. “I started cooking when I was 12 due to circumstances; because I used up all my money for cigarettes,” Jack explains with a laugh. “So I had to look for whatever food is in my kitchen cabinets to cook. That was the first time I was in touch with food and spices.”

Growing up, Jack did not see much of his parents, partly due to their busy schedules and that they were divorced. His mum was a hairstylist and his dad is a businessman so he was taught to be very independent of young and inadvertently pushed into the position of the man of the house. It was also in his youth that Jack discovered his competitive streak. “I was a competitive swimmer, basketball, rugby, table tennis and track and field. My goal was always to be number one. Somehow all these traits follow me till today. But more importantly, I am very defiant, as you can see,” he explained pointing to his tattoos. “They say this is art, no. This is Ah Beng,” Jack laughed, his eyes glinting with slight mischief. “I was also somebody with a fighting spirit and a survivor. I don’t always follow instructions. So maybe my way of thinking was too artistic for people, even for my family member.”

Six years ago, after completing his National Service obligations, Jack was hit with the realisation that he now had to make a living. “That’s when my dad told me he wanted me to join the business. At that time I was contemplating being a tattoo artist. But I was also suffering from a persistent backache. And my dad, knowing this, asked me “Are you sure this is what you want to do? Are you sure you can sit down for hours at a stretch to do tattoos?”

“After my conversation with my dad, I immediately went online to look for vacant lots at wet markets,” Jack enthused as we spoke at his spice boutique, surrounded by the loveliest of spices. “I tendered my first bid at Bendemeer market and I lost that bid. I was lucky. I placed that bid quite hastily without much thought. I just wanted any store to start with. But I managed to get this Ang Mo Kio unit eventually and was lucky that it was available and situated right the current unit I already had.”

Inevitably, our conversation took on a personal tone when Jack generously shared with me the personal struggles he had to go through to get to where he is today. “I got engaged at a very young age, about 18 or 19,” he reminisced. “But something happened and we broke up. I fell into depression. It was just pure sadness and I nearly committed suicide. I wanted to numb myself and escape what I have now come to realise is a reality. Fast forward to 2014, I got married to my current partner, had a son and suddenly my life turned around. But I was still very lost but more importantly, I didn’t realise I was lost.”

He thought that being a family man meant that he had to live up to certain societal expectations required of him. “I had to grow up and be a good father, be a good businessman. I gave myself that immense pressure and started behaving out of character. I started being totally somebody else; I dressed differently, spoke differently, I quit smoking, quit joking. I was suffering. I was burned out.”

Unfortunately, being part owner of Anthony the Spice Maker did not make things better, neither did it come with immediate gratification. “I gave up ownership six months ago. To be honest, these past six years have been hell for me. Initially, it was fun until it started becoming extremely mundane. I felt bored because there were no challenges. Sales come easily for me and after conquering sale, everything went downhill for me.”

Jack started out being equal share owner with his father but soon realised the emotional perils that came with the title of co-owner. There were moments where father and son disagreed on their approach to the business which inevitably causes tensions in the relationship.

“The funny thing about being in business is that there’s no right or wrong. It’s just that doing things my way instead of yours would merely have very different results. It was vexing because I just couldn’t get my dad to see things my way. So a few months ago, I told my dad that I don’t want to be the boss anymore. You be the boss. I will do the work. I will still suggest things, but if you don’t want to do it, it’s alright with me. I’m now taking on the role of best man helping you achieve your dreams. Now, finally, I can sleep better at night.”

If anything, what Jack really wanted me to know is that one does not simply wake up and become the heir apparent to a Spice empire. Along the way, he has had to overcome his personal demons that threatened to destroy both the family and business foundations his father had worked so tirelessly to build up.

“When I told my father that I wanted to give up ownership, my father was of course understandably very disappointed. It wasn’t easy for me to tell him I didn’t want to be the owner. Since young, he told me that eventually, he would want me to carry on the business. But I believe that business and families run best when there’s only one leader. People can say anything they want to say, but at the end of the day, what the leader says goes. I’ve seen so many businesses fail and closing down because shareholders fight with no clear leader in sight.”

I wanted to know, now that he himself is a father to a young son, how has this experience with fatherhood changed him and what does he fear most for his child. “Having a child made me less crazy and behave in a more practical way. But actually, I don’t fear anything much about his future because right now I don’t see gains and losses as absolutes. If a gain is not really a gain or a loss is not really a loss, what’s there to fear? If a bad experience makes you into somebody strong, or a good experience make you have unrealistic expectations then what is there to fear?”

He explained further: “It’s not that these practical thoughts don’t go through my mind, but when they do come, I will acknowledge it and I will manage it rather than let these fears decide my next course of action. This is something I hope my son would also learn as he grows up.”

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