Sushi Chef remembers

David Tay, as a boy with his family's car
at Jalan Siu Nam

David Tay Siew Meng, 53, sushi chef extraordinaire and his wife, Alice, now own and operate Sushi Monzta in Taman Pelangi.

I was just a boy when my father told me that he and grandfather came to Johor from Szechuan, China, and they used to own large tracts of properties here.  Due to family disputes, we were left with nothing and for almost 25 years, our family lived in the rented upstairs unit of No. 12 Jalan Siu Nam.  My father operated a sundry shop while my mother had her own business as a tailor and gave tailoring classes in Cheng Choo Ladies Tailor & Tuition Centre at No. 22-A Jalan Siu Nam.

I attended the Holy Light Church kindergarten and then Ngee Heng Primary School.  After completing secondary studies in English College, I went to the Sixth Form in a private institution and later graduated as an Architectural Technician from the Singapore Polytechnic.  I remember receiving a letter from the Polytechnic informing me that the graduation ceremony would be held at the Singapore World Trade Centre.  That same year my father passed away.


David and the Tay family lived upstairs of
Imperial Electric at No. 12 Jalan Siu Nam for 25 years

My mother, a Malaysian, had a very successful business in tailoring baju kurung and cheong sam and some regular customers who had migrated to Los Angeles, would return to tailor clothes with her.  When we had to move from our home in Jalan Siu Nam because it was to be demolished to make way for development, I remember seeing tears in my mother’s eyes.  Mother is aged 80 now.

After graduation, I got a job with an architectural firm and with my savings I bought a second-hand car from a relative.  One day as I was driving my Subaru 1.6 on Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, the car broke down and as I tried in vain to fix the fan-belt, I got my hands all dirty.  The car stalled in front of Johor Rubber Stamp, the company where Alice used to work with and when I went in to borrow the office telephone (there were no mobile phones in those days), she thought I was a mechanic.  That was how I met Alice Low Yeng Hua, who is now my wife and we have two sons, Thomas, 15 and Shawn, 14.


David working in the kitchen, New York
In 1986 Alice’s brother who was studying and working part-time in New York City, asked us to join him and his wife there.  After giving it serious thought, we started to process our travel documents and registered our marriage.  In 1988, we left for a holiday in Disneyland before settling down in New York City. 

At that time, Chef Hirotakaida of Okura Japanese Restaurant on Third Avenue between 33rd and 34th Streets was ready to train a sushi chef.  He observed that my stature suited the job and accepted me as an apprentice.  In the next two to three months, I only mopped floors, washed dishes and chopped food.  One day he asked me, “David-san, do you know why you were asked to do odd jobs?” 

I was quite clueless so he went on to explain that as a chef, I have to know every aspect of kitchen operations so that in the event, any one was absent or quit, I can just step in to do his job.  He also taught me the discipline to make use of slow times to clean and maintain every area of the business so that everything always looked spotlessly clean.


David serving up fresh sushi at Sushi Monzta, Johor Baru

I remember father usually did the cooking at home probably because mother had her own business.  From young, I observed how he would gut and fillet fish and I also learnt from him, the art of skinning and cleaning a frog and tortoise. 

In the same way, I watched and learnt a great deal from Hiro-san who trained me in the fine art of sushi making, first in the role as cook, then as assistant chef and finally as sushi chef.

In Malaysia, fresh fish and poultry are often supplied to restaurants in parts but in New York City, fish and poultry were supplied whole.  Everyone likes to eat fresh and quickly so I learnt to fillet different sizes of fish with great dexterity.  I remember having to de-bone forty-eight birds at one time and after doing it countless times, I became rather skilled with the knife.


In Mishima Japanese Restaurant on Lexington Avenue 23rd Street, I learnt the art of preparing Kyodo style food from Chef Toshi.  In addition to new skills, Toshi-san instilled in me the principles of using no garlic, no oil and no monosodium glutamate (MSG).

I remember it was Halloween of 1996 when my family and I left New York and returned to Johor Baru.  Armed with skills and experience, I went to Tokugawa Japanese Restaurant, the second Japanese restaurant in Johor Baru and the late Soo Bee Soo offered me a job.  I was assistant chef for one and a half years before being promoted to chef.  After 13 years with Tokugawa, my wife and I decided that we should start our own venture and in July 2010 we opened Sushi Monzta at Jalan Perang, Taman Pelangi.

It’s encouraging that former Tokugawa customers found their way to Sushi Monzta and it’s almost like old times when I serve these friends.  My wife and I often reminisce with old friends about the Johor Baru of yester-years and we often miss those days when people were honest and friendlier.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets in March 2011

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