Heman’s Tan multifarious interests and talents transformed him from a rebel into a model of inspiration.
At 48 years old, Heman Tan is currently the chief culinary officer of the Soup Restaurant Group. He was previously executive chef of the JP Pepperdine Group, which owns and operates well-loved restaurants such as Jack’s Place. His position requires him to keep abreast of the latest culinary trends and developments, while ensuring that every effort is made to maintain the timeless appeal of the restaurants under his charge.
But delve a little deeper and it becomes readily apparent that this is a chef of varied talents and interests. And despite the diffident demeanour that defines him today, Heman was once altogether unrecognisable from his current image.
At 14, Heman dropped out of Bukit Merah Secondary School. A dyslexic, he found it excruciatingly difficult to keep up with his peers, but his parents and teachers, who were not aware of his condition, could not understand why he was so weak academically.
As a result of the dejection and frustration he faced in secondary school years, Heman became unruly and spent his time mixing with marginalised peers who too had problematic behaviours, many of whom were also delinquents.
Helpless and desperate, Heman’s parents realised that there wasn’t much that they could do, so they decided to send him to a boys’ home. But all this proved to have little effect on setting him back on track.
Among other things, Heman needed money for his drugs, so he took up part-time positions at restaurants to earn extra pocket money. Incidentally, the time he spent in the kitchen sparked his interest in culinary art. “My Teochew father was a vegetable merchant who was in and out of kitchens often, and I had friends and relatives who also ran restaurants,” he recollects.
When Heman completed his National Service in the mid-80s, his parents coughed up a sum of money to send him to London in a final attempt to cut him from his vices. But even that had little effect as drugs quickly caught up with him the third day he arrived in the UK. The sojourn, however, did yield some good. Heman spent a little over a year at Walker’s Inn as a kitchen helper and cook serving backpackers. The owner of the inn was a chef who built on Heman’s existing culinary experience he garnered from part-time stints and taught him the basics of classic English cuisine – this became the formation of Heman’s career into Western cooking.
After returning home, Heman spent most of his time at a halfway house, where he picked up woodcarving. A turning point in his life came when he was introduced to artist Ng Eng Teng, a pivotal figure of Singapore’s sculpture art. Heman recalls Dr Ng with great fondness and intimacy. “He was my spiritual father. It was he who encouraged me to move beyond wood to clay as the medium of my artistic expression. He mentored me throughout our time together, and the love and care that he showed instilled a desire in me to want to change my life.” Dr Ng and Heman seemed to share a special affinity, so much so that the former took Heman in as his student – the last that the artist accepted in his lifetime – despite having turned away countless others. “Once, I asked Dr Ng why he took me in as a student,” Heman relates. “He simply smiled and said, “Perhaps I owe you.”
With every piece of clay that he moulded, Heman’s own character was slowly being reshaped. Eventually, he found himself at a crossroads, whereupon he sought Dr Ng’s advice on whether he should continue on with sculpture art or go back to the kitchen and work as a chef. “Whichever you choose or wherever you go is not important,” came Dr Ng’s reply. “What’s important is that you do a proper job.” That piece of advice was a defining moment for Heman, who then made up his mind to pursue a successful career in culinary art. “Do a proper job – those words made me who I am today,” he asserts.
On his return, one of Heman’s first jobs was with Prima, which operated numerous food terraces at Gleneagles and the former Turf Club, among others. He went on to join Seoul Garden, where he met his wife Lydia Lim, who was then an employee with the company’s accounts department. The pair dated for a few years and, in spite of objections from her parents, tied the knot in 2001.
Shortly after, Heman left Seoul Garden with one goal in mind – to start a business and to prove himself and those around him that he could succeed as an entrepreneur. With shareholders providing most of the financial backing that he needed, Heman’s first restaurant Maxus opened its doors in 2003 at the International Business Park in Jurong East. The outfit was huge, comprising of a dining hall and lounge that catered to the executive crowd who worked in the vicinity. But Heman had bitten off more than he can chew – Maxus proved to be too big for him to manage, and he soon ran into problems with the shareholders. “It was terrible,” he sighs a little, seguing into a sombre mood as he remembers the moment he resigned himself to the fact the restaurant had to shutter. His difficult past seemed to have done little to prepare him for this. “It was a nightmare. Because of the profile and position that I enjoyed as an entrepreneur, I just couldn’t bring myself to go back to employment; I couldn’t bear the thought of ‘losing face’ in front of my family and friends. I even borrowed money from my parents and still I couldn’t make it work. We were in debt. Our second child had just been born and we could not even afford to buy milk. Every dollar meant so much to us.”
It was a wake-up call to Heman. He knew that he needed to get back on his feet and do something for the family. “My wife’s faith is stronger than mine. She helped me write résumé and sent out emails to hirers, sometimes without my knowing or permission,” he remembers. “One day, an interviewer called to say that there is an opening for a unit manager for a canteen operator. I wanted to withdraw my application, thinking to myself, ‘I am a chef and a businessman, why should I become a canteen supervisor?’ But the birth of my second daughter gave me the courage to tell myself it was time to put my pride aside, and put food on the table.”
Summoning all the courage and determination he could muster, Heman took up the position and started from the ground up. His role was to oversee the canteen at Regent Hotel, where he ran into friends from the industry. Many asked why he ended up as a canteen supervisor, but Heman was not perturbed. “The humility that I learned from it helped me grow to the next level,” he says on hindsight.
It was not long before Heman started participating in marathons and triathlons to take his mind off things. One of the races he participated in was the Iron Man Triathlon, from which he gets his “artist name” – he chooses to call himself “Iron Man Chef”, which he explains can be abbreviated with the letters I and M to say “I M Chef.”
His diverse talents and passions as a chef, ceramicist, cyclist and triathlete have occasionally left some people perplexed. He is often asked what exactly his profession is, and his reply is always clear and forthright: “I am a first and foremost a chef, then a ceramicist.”
Dedicating himself to the pursuit of these interests hasn’t merely helped Heman break free of substance abuse, but also moulded him into a well-rounded individual with a positive outlook in life.
Today, Heman is a father to three, two of whom are daughters 15 and 13 years of age, and an 11-year-old son who is also dyslexic. Putting his past behind him, he hopes to give back to society be inspiring others through his Iron Man Chef persona and books. “With these, I hope to showcase my culinary and ceramic arts in a health-focused framework so that everyone can share in the enjoyment. It’s a piece of me that I hope to present to the world.”
A passionate advocate of continuous learning, Executive Chef Heman Tan has been actively partnering NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) on various initiatives, including the Professional Conversion Programme (PCP) and Mater Classes since 2012.
Chef Heman was a recipient of the May Day Partnership Award 2016 for Advocate for Continuous Learning.
Story and photos was first published on a biography and cook book “Iron Man Chef” by Heman Tan
Editor’s Note: As of 2018, Heman Tan is the Chef Owner cum Co-Founder of the Iron Supper Club.