Ellen Chew is a leading restaurateur in London who first made her mark on the capital when she founded Chinatown’s Malaysian and Singaporean restaurant, Rasa Sayang, back in 2008.
Since then, Ellen has formed the expanding Chew On This collection of restaurants, with a passion to show the UK the wonders of dynamic, exciting, and nuanced East and Southeast Asian cooking.
We sat down with the leading restaurateur to find out more.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, including where you are today, professionally, and what got you here?
I was born and raised in Singapore where I spent most of my life. I’ve always been involved in the food industry one way or another since I was young, whether it’s working as a hawker in my younger years, or curating food stall mix for food court giants in Singapore.
In 2007 I moved from Singapore to London with just £5,000 in my pocket, which is when my restaurateur instinct kicked in. I was left totally inspired by the bustling hawker scene of Singapore and Malaysia, and immediately noticed the lack of food offerings from the Straits in London, which is how Rasa Sayang was born in 2008.
The Chew On This restaurant group now comprises Rasa Sayang in Chinatown; Mrs Chew’s Chinese Kitchen in Birmingham and Westfield White City; Shan Shui in Bicester Village; Lotus Leaf in Westfield Stratford. I’ve also opened Lobos Tapas in London Bridge with several partners in 2015 and have since expanded operations into Soho, Frith Street as well.
What or who inspired you to become a restaurateur?
Where I come from, in Singapore, food is a national pastime and passion for 99 per cent of the population – we live to eat and everything is revolved around what is good to eat and where is the best place to dine. As I’ve mentioned, my life has always been intertwined with the food industry, so I guess you could say that it’s my life’s calling.
Who has been your biggest influence to get you to where you are today?
Since I was a child, my grandmother and mother have both always been great cooks and I’ve spent much of my childhood in the kitchen watching, assisting and learning traditional Asian cooking and family recipes from my mother. So it’s safe to say that both of them have been a huge influence on me. In fact, my family has been such an influence to me that I’ve paid homage to them in Shan Shui Bicester Village, which boasts old pictures and wallpapers of my mother and father when they were young.
What are some of the signature dishes in your sites?
Rasa Sayang: One of the signature dishes of Rasa Sayang has always been Beef Rendang. The amount of love and time it takes to create the dish makes this one of the most popular dishes in our restaurant. It’s made from about 10 different spices and takes about six to eight hours of standing in front of the stove and stirring to make sure the beef is infused with all the flavours and cooked until its tender without being burnt. It’s truly a labour of love.
Shan Shui: Inspired by the glitz and glamour of Shanghai in the 30s, the menu at Shan Shui celebrates the gastronomic delights of both China and Southeast Asia. Signature dishes include Chef Li’s Spring Onion Prawn Noodles – a menu staple topped with charred spring onions and sesame oil. And Crispy Szechuan Mala Chicken – an iconic Sichuan delicacy originating from China which combines wok-fried crispy bite-sized chicken with a generous amount of dried chilies and Sichuan pepper.
Mrs Chew’s Chinese Kitchen: Signature dishes at Mrs Chew’s Kitchen are all about big personality and vibrant flavours. One of the most popular dishes in our restaurant has got to be our signature Halal Cantonese Roast Duck which we serve as a Sunday lunch option. All of our ducks are three-day dry aged, lovingly marinated and cooked fresh each day.
What is your favourite dish to cook at home?
There is a dish that I cook every year without fail and it’s a real labour of love. It’s called Bak Zhang and it’s a glutinous rice dumpling that is eaten every year during the Chinese Dragonboat Festival. I will invite family and friends over to the home and we will spend the whole day preparing and cooking the rice dumplings while chatting about life and listening to music. These rice dumplings are filled with braised pork belly, dried shrimps, salted egg yolks, mushrooms, Chinese sausage and chestnuts. They are then hand-wrapped with bamboo leaves and boiled, so, as you can imagine, it’s a lot of work and takes a long time to prepare!
When you’re not at your restaurants, where can you be found?
Collecting old Southeast Asian and Chinese records from the 1950s – 70s. I love old Chinese jazz and curating my collection brings me on a journey into the past. I can also be found in the galaxies as I’ve discovered a new joy in astronomy and stargazing – the vastness of the unknown is very intriguing, and on clear nights, it’s truly gorgeous and breath-taking.
What do your future plans entail?
We are planning to open one of our biggest projects yet under the Chew On This Group in December at Heathrow Airport Terminal 2 Airside. Shan Shui Heathrow will boast its own private viewing gallery of the runway and will also have a retail section selling items that range from tea leaves, exquisite chocolate and Shan Shui branded tea sets and tumblers. Keep an eye out for it next time you fly!
What is the USP of Chew On This?
We pride ourselves on our diverse team and the ability to conceptualise exciting F&B concepts and brands for the UK in a new way. I truly believe that the way we have evolved and shaped the company is a direct result of this diversity and the dynamism that it brings.