Exclusive Interview with Chef Bala: Singapore's Most Decorated Indian Chef

As part of the Guru Project, I have had the opportunity of meeting and interviewing people from all walks of life. While I treat each interview as an opportunity to meet and learn from someone's life experience, I do end up being disappointed as most of my interviewees would usually self-censor their answers and use this as an opportunity to publicise the face they want the world to see. Enter Chef Bala, who just calls it like he sees it. He bares it all, from success to failure without batting an eyelid. 
"The Greatest Barrier To Success is The Fear of Failure"
This was a quote that came to my mind during my conversation with Chef Bala. This interview is just not about food or entrepreneurship or the catering business. This is about a Man who did not fear failure.

How did your interest in cooking begin?
I actually was studying to be a teacher. However, because of my passion for cooking, I gave up my degree and came to the food industry. I started off as a hawker and then I owned restaurants. During the downturn, I lost quite a substantial amount of money and had to sell off all my restaurants. After that, I became a full-time chef and from there I groomed myself to be a consultant. I slowly learnt different kind of cuisines. So now, I am doing catering again after being absent in the market for 6 years. Before the downturn, catering was a good source of business but I had to stop due to the economic downturn. Now, we have started the business again and we are concentrating not only on Indian cuisine but also Western, Chinese and other local cuisines.

How did  the interest to start cooking happen?
It is probably in my blood. My grandfather came to Singapore to actually cook for the British. He had his own cow farm.  My father was from the marine industry. In the early 80s, he started his own restaurant and it was the biggest South Indian restaurant in Singapore. It was called Empire Curry. It was the most high-tech restaurant in Singapore at that point of time. The machinery was from Japan. They had all sorts of new equipment to develop food and other processes.

How old were you at that point of time?
I was about 8 or 9 years old. After school, I used to go to the restaurant and try the different kinds of food and see what the people were doing in the kitchen. That is probably what cultivated my interest in cooking. My father’s restaurant could not succeed so he had to sell off his restaurant. He lost his fortune because of the restaurant so he had to sell off all his businesses. Subsequently, he became a hawker. So, I grew up seeing my father being a hawker and I used to go and help out in the shop. It was through helping him in the hawker store that I learnt customer relationship.

What was the hawker store cooking?
Indian food. From one shop, he expanded and opened the next one. My mum was running one and my dad was running the other one. So I used to go to both shops to help during the holidays. That’s how I developed. So once I gave up teaching, I took up my first shop.

When you gave up teaching, were your parents unhappy?
My then girlfriend, now wife, was not happy. She is a teacher and all my sisters were teachers, so they were unhappy that I was going to be a cook.
My mother was against it. My father was the only one who supported me. Initially I didn’t go into the kitchen and hired someone to cook for me. I slowly picked it up and from there I opened up my first restaurant, called “K P Pillai”.

Why the name “K P Pillai”?
All our names finish with “Pillai” so it’s our family name. I used that name and started my first restaurant at Cuff Road. It was started because I wanted to do catering and I needed a bigger space. After a few months, I was enticed to do retail because I was in Little India and there is a crowd. Then when I started to do retail, with a little bit of advertisement I became popular. Business was going good. This was from 2001 to 2002. I was growing and I already had another six outlets in government buildings. I didn’t let go of the hawker stalls, which were all in government building cafeterias. Then, I moved to Race Course Road from Cuff Road because my lease was finishing. The owner saw that my business was very good so the rental had gone up in Cuff Road. I wanted to cut down on the cost and so I got a better deal at Race Course Road. At that time, Race Course Road only had Muthu’s Curry, Banana Leaf Apollo, Jaggi’s and Delhi. Only 4 restaurants were there so I went over to fight with the big guns.

It was still called K P Pillai?
Yes, it was still called K P Pillai. I was right beside Muthu’s Curry. I actually took over Muthu’s Curry’s function hall. It was doing very well for the first six months but after that I could not sustain the business because my cost increased. I stopped cooking and started managing. I had people to come and cook for the restaurant. The quality of the food went down due to that. People were so used to the taste of my cooking because back in Cuff Road, my dad and I will be challenging each other to cook. We will come up with new and very innovative things so people will keep seeing something new.

After that when we came here, because of health issues he stopped cooking. I could not manage the cooking because I had to run everywhere. I had to employ people to cook and food standards actually went down. I also didn’t have proper people to run the business for me and eventually I lost everything and became a bankrupt in 2005. I lost everything and had to sell my house. I was in debts for almost half a million dollars.  

We decided to sell our house and buy an after school care franchise. My wife who was a teacher had to quit her job to use her name to open the Company so that my family can sustain because I needed an income to settle my debts and run the family. I created another source of income for the family and started concentrating on settling all my debts. I sold off everything and started off as a hawker.

So you went back to square one?
I took up one shop, I developed the business and sold it away. Then I went to the next one. I was doing that to settle all the debts. My last shop was in Tai Seng. In 2010, I sold off everything and decided to leave the industry.
I had enough because I was working 18 to 19 hours a day. It is very tiring.

What are the types of challenges one faces in the F&B industry?
Basically, manpower is a challenge. Secondly, you need sustainability. You need a lot of cash backup. If you are new, you want to start a business and you want it to prolong. If you go into the food business you do not make money everyday. It’s over a long process. It takes at least one year or one and a half years for you to actually see the process. So if you rush into things, you run into your operations and you diversify very quickly you will not be able to sustain. You need to build a base slowly and then sustain. These are the lessons I learnt over the years.

In the food business, being a chef alone is not enough. You need to be a smart businessman as well. What do you think?
Exactly. So you see I was a chef then I became a businessman and then I became a chef again.  Eventually, I failed in the business part because when I could not concentrate on the food, the quality dropped. I could not go back to the kitchen again because I didn’t have proper people to run the business for me. I didn’t have brothers or someone trustworthy who can actually run business for me. All transactions were in cash money so there were a lot of problems because of that.

Due to all this reasons, I had to be stationed there for 18 to 19 hours as a hawker and it was very tiring. At that point of time, I told myself that I don’t want to be in this business. That was when I took a break for one year. I was jobless and just helping my wife run the centre. Then this TV program called “Samayal Saval” came out in Vasantham. Without my knowledge, my cousin wrote in my name and sent it. The day came when I had to go for the interview and I only knew the day before when they sent me an email. I was wondering what it was for and when I asked my wife, she actually knew about this. She told me to go for it. I didn’t want to but they convinced me to go for it. 116 people auditioned for this.

There are 116 Indian chefs?
There are more chefs than that. Now I have 372 chefs under me under the association. At that time, the association wasn’t formed yet. There was only Chinese Chefs Association and Singapore Chefs Association. There were no associations for Malay chefs, Muslim chefs or Indian chefs. So when I went into the competition, they streamlined the candidates and I came in the last four after a couple of cook offs. We went to India to do a challenge and after the challenge, we came back to Singapore and I came in third. I didn’t win the competition. I came in third. When I came in third, Singapore Tourism Board noticed me. That’s when they gave me my first opportunity to go overseas to promote local cuisine. That’s how it started. Because of the competition, I got recognition in India as well. In one of the competitions in India, I cooked biryani. They gave me an award and called me Biryani Bala in GRT Group.

How did "Biryani Bala" happen?
There was a competition in India. The competition was held in  the GRT Group. We had to cook something. They gave us the whole lamb and it was fresh. We need to cut and take out the meat then prepare something out of it. I did Singa Josh Biryani. “Singa” for Singaporean and “Josh” meaning mutton. I also made a very typical sweet and sour eggplant dish. I used baby eggplants. In India, they have these small eggplants, which I used. That was the winning dish for the round.

Did the competition help you?
I became quite popular in South India as well. I came back and started doing a lot of food festivals and in 2012, I was featured by the Indian Restaurants Association. STB sent me to Thailand at the beginning of 2012. That was the year when the Indian Restaurants Association roped me in and used me as the face to attempt the Guinness World Record for 2012 Fish Head Curries. They wanted somebody to curate the whole event and run it for them. That’s how I came in to the Singapore Food Festival to help them. I did that and got the experience of running a food festival.

The following year, there was another food festival and I became the festival director for that year. During the course of that event, I had the opportunity to go to Copenhagen to do cooking for Singapore. It was well received and I got a lot of recognition there as well. In 2014, I embarked on my own food festival. I did an international chef competition, inviting countries like Germany, Japan and South Korea. Before that, I formed the association in 2012 and I formed an association called Indian Chefs and Culinary Association.

Why did you decide to form it?
There was no support for Indian chefs like me. There was no direction. I had a passion for cooking but there was no one to guide me. There was no guidance or exposure. I was lucky to receive some. The only reason I excelled was cause I could speak. When I go to places, I can converse and talk about the cuisine. That was the only reason I could move fast and further. A lot of people can’t do that. So I formed the association with ten renowned chefs. When we started moving, we moved very fast. The industry recognized us and the World Association for Chefs Society actually roped us in as a member of the World Association. I was then invited to various countries to attend the Presidents’ Meet.

All the chef associations’ presidents from all over the world will come. That’s how I got all these countries in my network and I started doing the international chefs competition. In 2014, I did my own festival and in 2015, to bring in more chefs into the association we decided to do a Guinness world record. Eventually, we started on one Guinness world record but during the course of the process it became two Guinness world records.

What were the records?
The first Guinness world record was the construction of the largest cooking vessel in the world. The cooking vessel was 12m long, 2m wide and 1.2m high. We cooked 15.4 tons of curry in it.

You started off with Indian cuisine. How did you learn the other cuisines?
When I was organizing the food festival, I invited a lot of chefs to come and participate. Communicating with them and seeing the kind of food they do made me realize there was no one doing such things. In 2012, I started doing all these things. When I started travelling I saw that when you go to Australia, there’s no Australian cuisine. It’s all taken from Thai cuisine, Indonesia and other various cuisines. Australian cuisine just means BBQ. So it is all derived from other cuisines and Indian cuisine was playing a very important part. Wherever I went, the Indian spices were very predominant and they were using all these things.

The Indians were not using their technique to do our food. That is when I realized we could use their technique to cook our food and make our food different as well. That’s when I started doing this and now STB recognizes my work for doing fusion Indian food.  Whenever I travel, I do different things like beetroot idiyappam. I create new things like that such as cendol ice cream, roti john sliders and masala tea jelly.

Masala Tea Jelly? Are you always curious to see what you can do with food?
I always keep thinking about how to give food differently. Now for catering, we are promoting a lot of tapas items. How we can change Indian food to mini stuff? It can be a starter or an entrée. How do we eat this kind of food? We are putting a lot of these kinds of things into our catering.

What is different about X Empire Catering?
The setup is different. One of the caterings we did was the Indian Explosion. It was vegetarian. It is on cream crackers with mango acar and oma podi. When you eat, you get a wholesome flavor in it. Its very Singaporean and very Singapore Indian. There’s no direction about Indian cuisine right now.

A lot of people don’t know what Indian cuisine is. They don’t know if it is Singaporean Indian or India Indian. What you get here in Singapore, you won’t be able to find in India. People are bringing their India Indian cuisine into Singapore to make it Singaporean Indian cuisine but can the Chinese and non-Indians accept it or not? Yes, they do accept the North Indian cuisine but not the South Indian cuisine. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to change the South Indian cuisine. We serve roti john in a different way or chicken tikka but with Parmesan cheese and rosemary. We’re basically looking at ways to make it different. This (indicating picture) is chapathi and keema (minced lamb). You just take it and pop it into your mouth.

After such a long break, you decided to come back to catering? Was there something lacking in the market?
To be very honest, catering is a mass volume kind of thing. Retail is very saturated right now. With the rental and manpower crunch, it is going to be very difficult. To develop a restaurant will take at least two years. The sustainability of running a restaurant and catering is totally different. In a restaurant, you have daily purchases but in catering you have purchases when you have orders. You have fixed costs for both but in a restaurant you have to produce everyday. So the variable cost rises in restaurants.

For catering, the variable cost is controlled by you. These are the differences.  When I lost my business, it was because of sustainability. I could not be in the market and I lost money. So the fear of making the same mistake is there and that’s why we are doing this.

So compared to so many other companies offering catering, is there anything different in yours?
Firstly, we offer different cuisines. So it’s not only for the Indian market. Secondly, the industry knows me now. They know that I can make Indian food and other food as well. So, I am using my name to sell the brand. Thirdly, I made money then I lost money and then I made a name for myself. So without any money, I made a name for myself. Now it’s about time I make use of my name to make money for the company.

Catering companies usually face a problem with consistency in taste. How do you make sure that doesn’t happen?
The first thing is that everyone wants to do mass catering because of economies of scale. Whether, you are cooking for a hundred people or a thousand people, the fixed cost remains the same and only the variable cost changes. So, what happens is that some people cook in batches. It might be due to space constraints, lack of central kitchens or the lack of big cooking equipment. So for 1000 people, they tend to cook in three to four batches. That is when taste is compromised. Every time you cook the taste is different. Lets say you cook a pot of curry and the same curry in another pot, there will be a slight difference between the pots of curries. When you mix both together and serve it, the taste becomes different. That is why when you do mass cooking the taste differs a lot because there is no consistency. Now, we have equipment in our kitchen where you can cook for 1000 people one time. I can do biryani for 1000 people at one time. So there is no difference in the taste.

I suppose with Empire, you personally  do the cooking?
For a start, yes I am doing all the cooking. Of course, in the long term I need to be there to supervise. I cannot work long hours unlike the last time. My knee is already aching.

What credentials and certifications has your cooking earned you?
I am currently the President of the Indian Chefs and Culinary Association. I am a world- accredited judge for cooking competitions, certified by the World Association of Chefs Society. I am the honorary member for the South Indian Culinary Association of Tamil Nadu. 

Out of curiosity, you are doing a lot of fusion food right now right? Isn’t it a big risk not knowing if our Indians will actually accept this kind of food?
It is a big risk but you see there are a lot of changes happening right now. The younger generation is willing to try because of the Internet and so much of exposure. I think things are changing now and people are exploring. It is just a matter of time. If I were unknown in the market, I wouldn’t dare try this. But I know people know me, they trust me and I have a following, so why not? People, who dare to eat my food will tell others about it if they like it. It was the only advantage I had over the rest.


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