Chef Ian Tan, Winner Of The World Young Chef Award, Says Army Food Isn’t Bad At All

A young chef’s sage advice to others who want to follow in his footsteps. 

By Sasha Gonzales        26 February 2024

He’s a young culinary star who quite fancies army food – meet Chef Ian Tan, who was recently named World Young Chef at the prestigious World Young Chef Young Waiter and Young Mixologist 2023 Awards in Monaco. 

Chef Tan is a rising talent at the nose-to-tail steakhouse, Bottega Di Carna at Mondrian Singapore Duxton. He was one-third of the victorious Singapore team, which also included waiter Belle Torres (from Restaurant Zen) and mixologist Zana Mohlmann (from Manhattan Singapore). Team Singapore beat finalists from other places like England, Ireland, Hong Kong, the USA and Monaco to take home the top prize of US$15,000. 

His winning entry focused on homecooked, Asian, family-inspired cuisine. 

Of winning the award, Chef Tan says it “shows that no matter where you come from and whatever food you love, be it from the street or the home kitchen, it all deserves to be celebrated.”

Chef Tan discovered cooking at age five, when he learnt to prepare meals alongside his family’s helper. At 14, he got a part-time job at Ramen Champion, and a few years later, he pursued a Diploma in Culinary Science at Temasek Polytechnic.

He then worked at a selection of Singapore’s most awarded and starred restaurants before joining the team at Mondrian Singapore Duxton. At Bottega Di Carna, his focus is on pasta. 

Now 27 years old, Chef Tan is looking ahead to an even more fulfilling career in the culinary arts, but he will never forget how his time as a National Serviceman – he was a sniper-trained weapons man from the 1st Commando battalion – shaped his work ethic and inspired him to always strive for the best.

Here, he opens up about his culinary journey and NS (National Service) experiences, shares his advice for aspiring chefs, and tells us what he likes about army food.

Chef Ian Tan, waiter Belle Torres and mixologist Zana Mohlmann
(L-R) Chef Ian Tan, waiter Belle Torres and mixologist Zana Mohlmann.

Q: How do you feel having won the World Young Chef award for Singapore?

Chef Tan: Extremely grateful. This award wouldn’t have been possible without my team members, waiter Belle Torres and mixologist Zana Mohlmann. My chefs at Bottega di Carna, Chefs Alastair Clayton and Kenny Huang, have aways emphasised that food needs to be cooked from the heart, so winning this award with home-cooked and family-inspired cuisine means a lot to me and is a game changer for me professionally.

Q: What made you decide to be a chef?

Chef Tan: I love having the opportunity to make someone else’s day with food. Food to me isn’t just sustenance; it’s a language of love. It has a way of bringing people together and I find great satisfaction in dedicating extra time to preparing meals for others. 

The Singapore team at the World Young Chef Young Waiter and Young Mixologist 2023 Awards in Monaco.

Q: How would you describe your culinary style?

Chef Tan: It’s gone through various phases throughout my career. At one point, I was all about experimenting with unusual ingredients and modernist techniques. But now, I see food as a way to connect with different cultures.

I don’t have a fixed culinary style. I can cook Italian or French dishes at home, or whip up something local like nasi briyani for staff meals. It’s all about the ingredients and what I can do with them.

I approach food with a sense of adventure. It’s not about a particular style; it’s about exploring the potential of each ingredient. Food, for me, is an ongoing journey of flavours and techniques, and I’m passionate about creating memorable dining experiences.

Q: Can you share how some of your mentors have guided and inspired you?

Chef Tan: When I worked at Cloud Street, I discovered Southeast Asian and Sri Lankan flavours alongside Chef Rishi. Then, under the mentorship of Chefs Kevin Wong and Andrew Ou at Seroja, where I was part of the team that earned the restaurant’s first Michelin Star, I realised the potential of putting Southeast Asian cuisine on the culinary map, transforming familiar street food into a gourmet experience. 

Now, at Bottega di Carna with Chefs Alastair and Kenny, my focus has shifted to craftsmanship and cooking from the heart and soul.

I also look up to chefs like Paul Longworth from Rhubarb, Magdalene Tang from Mag’s Wine and Kitchen, and Alan Chan from Rempapa. They’ve been incredibly encouraging mentors. Instead of just pointing out flaws, they see our individual personalities and help us grow.

Chefs Paul and Magdalene were my mentors for the competition. In competitions, people often end up replicating their mentors’ dishes, but with their guidance, I was able to refine my Singapore prelim dishes. They’re open-minded and dedicated to teaching and coaching, and I’m truly grateful for their influence.

Chef Ian Tan of Bottega di Carna at the competition in Monaco

Q: The culinary business can be quite competitive. What do you think makes a chef and a restaurant successful?

Chef Tan: What matters most is putting customers, not profits, first. When restaurants prioritise money over everything else, it often leads to problems, but when you focus on making customers happy and delivering a great dining experience, success tends to follow naturally.

Q: What’s in your future, career-wise?

Chef Tan: I’d love to travel and eat more, but instead of going to big cities, I want to visit small towns to discover hidden gems and unique produce. I want to experience the heart and soul of local cuisines and share those discoveries with others through my cooking. 

Q: You love celebrating Asian flavours. What are your favourite Asian ingredients to work with, and why?

Chef Tan: Rice is incredibly versatile. The possibilities for this humble ingredient are endless. Rice is the base for so many other Asian foods like rice noodles, mochi, and so on. 

Q: What’s your advice for readers who want to get into this line of work?

Chef Tan: The key is to genuinely love what you do. Even if the job doesn’t feel like work, it’s also important to find a work-life balance. 

When you’re starting out, don’t overthink the job. Be willing to help out and learn from your superiors, even if it means doing things for free sometimes. Those experiences are priceless – you won’t regret them. 

Stay open-minded and embrace new challenges. The culinary world is vast, and there’s always something new to discover. So, never stop learning.

Chef Ian Tan (in front) with his unit in the army
Chef Ian Tan (in front) with his unit in the army

Q: What was NS like for you?

Chef Tan: I had a blast! I ended up in the toughest infantry unit, which was a dream come true as my dad had always told me about the Commandos (he was an Officer Cadet Trainee). 

During NS, I got to do some incredible things like jumping out of a plane and travelling overseas to places like Taiwan and Brunei. It was tough but absolutely thrilling. I mean, I was getting paid to jump out of a plane – what’s not to love? My time in green was short but packed with excitement.

Q: How did your time in the army shape you?

Chef Tan: It taught me to strive for the best. One of the unspoken core values of the unit is that failure is not an option. I find myself in similar high-pressure situations in the kitchen now. Your teammates are on medical leave, you’re alone, facing a crowd of diners, and there’s no option but to just do the best job you can.

My NS experience also taught me mental fortitude. Instead of complaining – which I still do sometimes – my focus is solely on getting things done. I’ve become more solutions-focused than problem-focused, which is valuable in the culinary world and life in general.

Chef Ian Tan during his time in the army

Q: What’s an important lesson you took away from serving NS?

Chef Tan: I learnt a big lesson during a gruelling 72km road march. I remember our OC asking us how we’d conquer it, and we gave all sorts of suggestions, like applying plasters to our feet. At the end, he gave us a simple yet powerful answer: “Put your left foot in front of your right foot and keep going”. It sounds basic, but it’s true – you have to keep moving forward until you reach your goal.

This lesson has stuck with me. Whenever I face challenges or fear something, I think back to my NS experience. If I can be pushed out of a plane and complete a 72km march with a 30kg load on my back, then I can do anything. It’s a reminder that most things are more achievable than we think. 

Q: Just for fun – what do you think of army food?

Chef Tan: It may not be gourmet but it’s definitely improved over the years. When I went for reservist, it wasn’t that bad at all. Having been to Germany for an exchange, I can say that Singaporeans are pretty pampered.

Some of our rations are interesting, like “lao gan ma” (chilli oil-based condiment) with sliced pork, preserved mustard greens with pickled pepper, and so on. The German ration was simple – just bread and soup.

I can’t complain about army food. They even measure our macros and micros. It’s come a long way.

Find out what was the best and worst food some NSmen ate during their army days!

Want more articles like this, and other lifestyle content right in your inbox? Download the new SAFRA mobile app and opt in for the eNSman Newsletter – you don’t need to be a SAFRA member to subscribe – and never miss another story!