15 Mar 2016
On a regular day, it’s unlikely that you’ll find yourself at the industrial building in MacPherson where Truly Test Kitchen is located. Unless you work at one of the vintage furniture shops dotting the lobby, or you’re a cubicle rat from one of the factories and offices nearby.
Despite its fashionable name, Truly Test Kitchen is truly just a humble kopitiam. It’s run by three young hawker-preneurs, Deniece Tan, 26, and brothers Joel and Joshua Chia, 30 and 24 respectively. Deniece and Joel left their lucrative six-figure-a-year broker and trader jobs in 2013 to become hawkers. They took over Truly Curry Rice, a Hainanese curry rice stall in Telok Blangah that Deniece’s dad owned before he retired, and roped in Joshua to help out full-time after he completed NS.
There are four stalls at this 100-seat kopitiam, each offering a different cuisine. There’s the breakfast-friendly Hand-Made Meatball Porridge stall which also serves “artisanal” Chinese kueh, a hearty Mian (noodle) stall, a Truly Western stall and of course, Truly Curry Rice, which moved here from Telok Blangah. There’s even a little dessert nook serving up simple Chinese-style desserts like Green Bean Soup and beverages like kopi.
The trio invested $150,000 in this set-up. “We’re burning around $10,000 a month just to run this place now,” Joel shares. They don't take a salary from running their coffeeshop. "All the money we make goes back into the business," says Deniece with a laugh. They have not turned a profit yet, but say that business is picking up.
(Pictured above) Like a boss: (From left) Joel Chia, Deniece Tan, and Joel’s brother Joshua.
15 Mar 2016
“We have a clear vision of where we want to go, which is to offer both modern and traditional food, all cooked by the same team. We wanted a place where we have enough space to execute our vision,” Joel says. That’s why they relocated their curry rice stall from Telok Blangah to this bigger industrial space. The name came about as they like to “test recipes before adding them to the menu”. The towkays, all self-taught cooks, started out tweaking curry rice recipes from Deniece’s dad. They later experimented with online recipes for the new dishes here.
They chose to set up shop in this ulu area because of their limited budget. Joel admits, “This place is not fantastic, but we start by being humble.” Deniece reckons that their ultimate goal is to represent the future of local hawker food, though they do not actively see themselves as the next generation of hawkers.
“We believe that the heritage brands [in the local hawker scene] will always remain, as they’re well-established and shouldn’t have much problems attracting younger generations to take over,” she says. But Deniece concedes that the life of a hawker “comes with tremendous financial sacrifices as it takes years to establish a customer base and profit,” in addition to working long hours in a cramped, hot environment. “We typically wake up at 3am and are at work
by 4am. We cook everything ourselves. We wash up the entire premises ourselves as well, so our day ends around 6pm,” explains Deniece, who adds that it was “worth it” trading her cushy finance career to become a hawker. “We’re driven by our passion and love for hawker food, and we want to create a meaningful business that adds value to society.”
Joel adds: “We’re always one step ahead when it comes to what the younger generation wants while retaining the flavour that the older generation likes.” While he’s open to the idea of extending the current breakfast-and-lunch-only opening hours till evening (they start at 7am daily to cater to the factory workers), he’s hesitant about serving dinner. He quips, “We begin our day at 3am. If we offer dinner service, I’d need a mattress to sleep here!”
But good news: they’re planning to open on Sundays next month. Joel juggles the Porridge and Noodles stalls, while Deniece runs the Western stall. Joshua helms the signature Curry Rice stall. They personally make everything from scratch, relying on a team of four full-timers and four part-timers to assemble and serve food.
15 Mar 2016
A typical clean kopitiam, except with some hipster touches like menus written on chalkboards. As it’s located on the seventh floor, we find the ambience here more serene than that of a chaotic void deck coffeeshop. During our visit, the crowd comprises mostly office workers and some youngsters. Deniece says her Western dishes are also a hit with elderly folk and factory workers. “There’s a pair of grandmothers who fell in love with our Chicken ‘n’ Waffles, and ate it for almost 10 consecutive days!” The ventilation here is not great, though. We left the place smelling of lethal Eau de Kopitiam.
15 Mar 2016
The food: Hand-Made Meatball Porridge Stall
(Left) Pork Ball Porridge, $3
This Cantonese-style chok boiled with jasmine rice is silky smooth and milky white, topped with fried shallots, spring onions and a bulbous half-raw egg. We slurp up the flavourful porridge, dotted with chunks of savoury minced pork. Comforting, delish and as good as those from more upmarket Chinese restaurants.
(Right) Pumpkin Kueh, $2 for five pieces
The posh-sounding ‘artisanal kueh’ here comes in three flavours: radish (chai tow kway, lah), yam and pumpkin. Instead of pre-sliced chunks, the steamed kueh is displayed in large metal trays and scooped out upon order, then pan-fried. “[The kueh] doesn’t look fantastic but it’s our gem,” Joel beams. We like his pumpkin kueh the best, it’s chewy and generously studded with pumpkin cubes. Fried shallots give it extra crunch, while the house-made hae bee sambal chilli adds kick. Also yum: yam kueh made with Thai yams, which has a more distinctive yam flavour. “It’s the most tedious dish to make here,” says Joel. “We coat it in breadcrumbs and fry it fresh upon order. We experimented with various recipes online and made 200 trays over six months to get it right. This dish really brings out the philosophy of Truly Test Kitchen,” he adds.
15 Mar 2016
The food: Truly Western Stall
(Left) Chicken ‘n’ Waffles, $4.50
A hipster cafe staple for under $5? We almost couldn’t believe it either. “The value-for-money [dining] here is insane. I don’t mind earning less [profit],” Joel says. A delicately crunchy piece of crumbed chicken thigh fillet perched on a waffle. The waffle is pleasantly crackly on the outside and fluffy within, but it also tastes bizarrely salty. We prefer the moreish fried chook, drizzled in the accompanying maple syrup. It also comes with a side of pretty yummy fries in case you need extra carbs. It’s evidently the most popular dish here; almost every table ordered it. The trio plans to roll out more ang moh eats like a Big Breakfast with scrambled eggs and hash browns.
(Right) Curry Chicken Pasta, $3.50
This is not your typical curry noodles. The pasta sauce here is made from curry powder, cream, ketchup and mushroom sauce. It’s full-bodied and tastes rather like a spicy Bolognese, though the sauce itself contains no meat. The accompanying tender chicken chunks and tubular penne pasta, cooked al dente, soak up the sauce well. We’d happily gobble up the whole plate.
15 Mar 2016
The food: Mian
(Right) Homely Noodles, $3.50
A build-your-own-bowl concept that’s all the rage these days. Choose from four types of noodles (including kway teow and instant noodles). Add a soup base like Assam or Ikan Bilis-Soy Stock, all made from scratch. Then pick from the Chicken, Pork or Beef toppings to round up. Our Assam and Chicken bowl is rich and flavourful, with a well-proportioned chicken to noodle ratio. Quite tasty and very filling. If you’re a small eater, you may want to share it with a pal.
(Left) Chicken Chop HK-Style Maggi, $3.50
Other than Homely Noodles and curry Yong Tau Foo, there’s also the perennial Hongkong fave of ‘Doll Noodles’, aka this Chicken Chop HK-Style Maggi mee. It’s served dry with a slab of (also rather dry) chicken chop and a fried egg. It’s surely a nod to Joel’s previous career as a trader in Hongkong for three years, but we think it’s his Singaporean fare that, well, fares better.
15 Mar 2016
The food: Truly Curry Rice
Curry Rice, from $2 for pork chop, cabbage and rice
They still have the same ole good curry rice here, with new side dishes like an excellent Braised Radish ($1). The curry gravy here remains piquant and wonderfully homely, the pork chop lightly crispy. Get a wobbly-yolked fried egg to go with the fragrant curry-drenched grains.
BOTTOM LINE: Hearty food cooked by sincere young hawkers with skill and love. The towkays hope to open another coffeeshop in a more accessible heartland area. But for now, it’s worth making the trek to MacPherson for a taste of quality chow at almost unbelievably low prices. Show your support for these next-gen hawkers who gave up glamorous jobs to, no, not open yet another hipster café, but contribute to our fading hawker scene. They’re a rare breed.
#07-05 Jun Jie Industrial Building, 153 Kampong Ampat, S368326. Tel: 9008-3285.
Open daily except Sun. 7am-2.30pm. Last orders at closing. Find TRULY TEST KITCHEN on Facebook.