Shashlik, a restaurant with Russo-Hainanese heritage, holds a special place in the hearts of many Singaporeans. A hidden gem in Orchard Road, it has been delighting generations of customers with Russian and European inspired cuisine, prepared by its Hainanese chefs.
Tracing its roots from the legendary Troika Restaurant, which operated from 1963 to 1986, Shashlik was born in April 1986 after nine former Troika employees pooled their life savings to keep the source of their livelihoods going with the interpretation of the timeless recipes of Troika Russian chef Mamochka Liber.
Since then, Shashlik Restaurant has gone on to serve generations of patrons. It has witnessed countless first-time customers becoming regulars and has been a part of their journeys as they became parents and grandparents.
Many of Shashlik’s employees have also worked at the restaurant for their lifetime.
Among them is 82-year-old Foo Sek Chuan, fondly known to colleagues and patrons as Uncle Foo. He is the grandfatherly figure dressed in a crisp red vest and starched white shirt and usually setting a pan of cherries aflamed. That is Cherry Jubilee, a dish he has served for over 30 years.
Uncle Foo started as a waiter at Troika and was 46 when he became a part of the Shashlik family from day one. Uncle Foo has been serving generations of patrons for 36 years and his routine has not changed since.
But in December 2015, news that the iconic Shashlik would be shuttered permanently made its rounds on the Internet, which meant Uncle Foo would be out of a job. But Messrs Derrick and Alan Tan, the two sons of former shareholder and restaurant captain Tan Niap Hin partnered with new investor Lee Say Yeow to reopen Shashlik.
So now every morning, Uncle Foo wakes up around 7am, has his regular cup of tea before he prepares for work. “I leave the house around 9am and reach the restaurant a little after 10am”, he says.
When Uncle Foo reaches the restaurant, the first thing he does is head to the kitchen to set up. “We have our meals around 11am before the customers come in for lunch around noon, and we serve the lunch crowd until past 2pm,” says Uncle Foo.
After the last customer leaves, Uncle Foo heads home to rest before returning to the restaurant around 5pm to prepare for the dinner crowd.
“That is when I will serve dinner to the guests until as late as 10pm before calling it a day,” he says, adding that he usually watches a bit of TV before retiring to bed.
Uncle Foo, who is also known as the fire maestro, specialises in flambéed desserts and creative Irish and Russian coffees that have since become the Shashlik’s classics.
He has learned how to make those classical favourites during his time at Troika during the 1970s by observing his seniors preparing the dishes. ThenUncle Foo would make them himself, he says.
Uncle Foo has since mastered his craft and has become the go-to person whenever customers order his specialties. He proudly says customers have all been very satisfied with all the dishes he has prepared for them.
Having dedicated close to five decades to the Troika/Shashlik family, Uncle Foo has never once thought of changing jobs or working at another restaurant. “The longer I stay here, the more they like me. So, I just carried on working here,” he says, adding that his daughter is concerned about him working at this age.
“She told me that despite my getting on in years, I can continue working if I want. But should I not be able to work anymore, I should just rest,” he says.
However, Uncle Foo is not entertaining the thought of retiring just yet.
“As long as I can still work, I will continue to do so,” he says.
Uncle Foo, a widower, says he now lives alone “so there is nothing else for me to do anyway”, and he would like to support himself. “So, it is not possible for me to just stop working. Also, if I stopped working and just sit around, I will become senile after some time,” he adds.
When asked what is the greatest challenge of working at his age, Uncle Foo replies that he does not see it as a “challenge”, but that things are now different.
“When I was younger, I could run around and do things more quickly. Now that I am old, I cannot run or walk as fast anymore”, he says.
With the newer generation of employees gradually taking over from the old guard, Uncle Foo hopes that they will be able to perform even better than his generation, because “we have imparted everything we know to the younger generation”.
“Thankfully, they learn very fast. That is good, because new employees should be keen to learn and more hardworking,” he adds.