Chef Tan Loon Liang has fruit for breakfast every day. Working with dietitians to plan menus for patients is a central part of his job and eating healthily has become second nature to him. Before he joined SGH in September 2002, he had worked in the kitchens of a culinary school and a few restaurants. He chose to come to SGH because he wanted a change of environment.
His eyes widen as he shares his first impressions: ‘At my previous job, I was cooking a lot. I wanted to try something different. But after I started at SGH, I got a shock. I had to think about policy, procedures, and fill in lots of forms; a lot more paperwork compared to my previous job at a hotel. The other thing is that over here, every day, there will be some new problems to solve.’
Chef Tan shrugs good-naturedly and says: ‘We just completed an audit and today, I have this interview.’
Everyone laughs, except for Chef Tan who has the look of someone who genuinely doesn’t understand why he is being interviewed. It is clear that he likes his job very much. He isn’t a man of many words but he tries his best to explain his reasons for staying at SGH all these years: ‘I like that it’s fresh. It’s good for my mind, this everyday-changing situation kind of routine. For our kind of menu, there are a lot of factors to take into consideration, like nutritional value and cost. Luckily, the senior management is very understanding.
Sometimes I wake up early in the morning, thinking, yes, that’s the solution.’
In August 2020, SGH Food Services moved from Block 8 to the basement of SingHealth Tower where the second half of this interview is taking place. The planning of the move and the fitting-out of this 4,500-square-metres facility took five to six years.
‘We are still getting used to this new kitchen,’ Chef Tan says as he leads the way through the holding area towards the first set of doors opening into the food storage and preparation zones. On the floor, there is a fitted metallic rectangular sheet, the size of a dining able. This turns out to be a weighing scale for bulk orders of fruit and vegetables. The next area is the dry storage space with stacked cartons of sundries like Milo and crackers. The estimated monthly consumption of Milo is 740 tins of 1.8kg each. Not the standard 1.4kg tin found in supermarkets. Everywhere there are labelsdistinguishing the halal stock from the non-halal.
After the storage space comes the Recipe Room. This is where measurements of seasoning and spices are made. A white board on the wall has the ingredients for Eight Treasures Porridge and Thick Bee Hoon Soup inscribed neatly in black marker ink. There are sinks, trolleys and shelves laden with condiments, mixing bowls and digital scales. In a corner, large tin containers of soya bean cooking oil are piled on top of pallets.
The food preparation areas are flanked by the chiller storage facilities. It is five o’clock in the late afternoon and a thorough cleaning operation is underway. There will be no more cooking today. The equipment is either shiny and dry, or in the process of beingsoaped, rinsed and wiped down.
1,800 cookies were baked for patients in celebration of the Bicentenary in January 2021. All baked goods, apart from bread, are produced in-house.
‘We have the capacity to p rovide 2,700 meals,’ Chef Tan says. There are gigantic mixers and a machine that looks like a modified washing machine that can handle up to 2 0 kilos of laundry. It’s used to stir-fry dishes.
‘We bake our cookies so that we know what goes into them,’ Chef Tan says. The mention of cookies is a reminder of a happy event a few months ago. On 4 January 2021, to commemorate the start of the SGH Bicentenary, 1,800 cranberry macadamia nut cookies were baked and distributed to inpatients at SGH, Outram Community Hospital (OCH) and the National Heart Centre Singapore.
The kitchen staff close by are engrossed in their cleaning tasks. There are a total of around 120 staff in the department, including 40 cleaners from an external service provider.
Chef Tan speaks highly of his team. When he is asked about staff turnover, he says that it is rare for anyone to leave: ‘I try my best to make them feel safe and comfortable. I take note of their needs. Our longest-serving staff has been with us since he was 20. He is now 60 plus.’
Chef Tan is, himself, a beneficiary of this supportive environment. He overcame his initial difficulties and culture shock with the guidance of his former head of department, Ms Koay Saw Lan. She retired two years ago after working for over 30 years at SGH.
Every aspect of his work requires meticulous planning and implementation. There is no room for error. As the guided tour of Food Services leads to the area where the largest number of personnel are seen, huddled around three separate conveyor belts, Chef Tan explains that the three belts keep halal meals separate from the non-halal. The subject of menu-planning comes up. Chef Tan’s brows furrow slightly before he speaks: ‘Compared to airline and other industries, the hospital menu is the most complicated. We get the dietitians, chefs, food and beverage staff and the senior manager in. Everyone sits down and scrutinises the menu.
Some patients have difficulty swallowing, so you have to modify the texture of the food. We work with speech therapists on such things. Stroke patients and patients who have problems chewing may not be able to eat solid food or food that’s in big chunks, so their food is chopped up or blended. We always think about patient safety.’
He stops to allow this writer and her chaperone from SingHealth to observe his staff. The line begins with the first person putting a tray onto the belt as he or she scans a card containing a patient’s meal plan. Crockery in different colours, codes for food types, are then added to the tray which moves on to the next member of staff. As it moves down the line, pre-packed and pre-heated food items are inserted into the containers.
Chef Tan in the 4,500 square-meters kitchen that can prepare up to 2,700
meals daily for SGH Campus
Everyone moves deftly. There is no chatter. The only sounds in the air are of plastic bowls, plates and trays being moved.
SGH is Singapore’s largest hospital. There must be a myriad of menu permutations for its patients. Chef Tan rattles off the categories: ‘Low salt, low fat, low cholesterol. Chinese, Muslim, Western. Vegetarian, which can be Chinese or Indian. We also have patients who have special requests due to things like allergies.’
The trolleys are pushed towards the underground tunnels that connect the entire Campus. As the tour draws to an end, Chef Tan is asked about the feedback he’s received over the years.
‘From young, we have all heard things about hospital food, army food, airline food. It’s not an easy mindset to change.’ Has he received compliments?
‘Sometimes, we do get patients who ask for more food, which we take as a sign that they like it. Some patients also ask for our recipes.
But we don’t expect those kinds of things,’ he adds, affable and upbeat. ‘We are too busy solving problems. This being a new kitchen, we have issues sometimes with the equipment.
Last night at 8:30 pm, some of my cooks were still experimenting with a yam cake recipe.’ One of the automated trolleys trundles towards the lifts that will take it up to the wards of OCH. Chef Tan’s work day isn’t over yet. He gives a friendly wave and heads back to join his staff.
Tan Loon Liang helms the daily food service operations on SGH Campus. He holds a Diploma in Culinary Skills from SHATEC. He has been working in the food and beverage industry for 30 years, 19 of which have been at SGH. His current projects include planning the new satellite kitchen in the new SGH Elective Care Centre and the National Dysphagia Diet Standardisation initiative.
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