It takes both tenacity and talent to make it in Singapore’s ever-changing culinary world, and keep a healthy lifestyle – local chef and restaurateur Petrina Loh show us how it’s done
Those who are already acquainted with Singapore’s food and beverage industry will know that while the scene’s teeming with celebrity chef restaurants, trendy dining spots and big-name chains, it’s still a high-pressure and extremely competitive environment that few thrive in.
For chef-owner Petrina Loh of Morsels, a small plates, progressive Asian-fusion restaurant on Dempsey Hill, this trial is ever constant. This self-confessed “late bloomer” has even made the switch from banking to learning the ropes of the kitchen at 29. Not one to shy away from a good challenge, Petrina’s always pushing the boundaries in the culinary world with inventive recipes that feature produce driven ingredients – efforts that have led to Morsels and Petrina garnering an award each at the World Gourmet Summit this year. But as she’s juggling day-to-day errands and a packed schedule, Petrina still finds the time to keep her health and fitness goals in check with a little motivation from her Fitbit.
Here, she speaks to us about her “secret” to staying ahead of the game, the challenges of running a restaurant in Singapore, and how she still finds time for an active lifestyle. Hint: it’s all about staying “zen”.
Being a chef and owner of a restaurant is definitely no cakewalk. What’s your secret to staying ahead of the game?
I love what I do. In the F&B industry, most of us tend to lead very unhealthy lifestyles because of odd working hours. We get very little in terms of sleep and eat irregular meals. I try to weave in exercise into my schedule whenever I can as it helps me de-stress.
A wise lady once told me, you need to build a ‘garden’ of happy things to look forward to when you are off work, stressed or having a bad day. It’s important to have that. For me, my ‘garden’ is setting my week right on Sundays. I go to church every Sunday before coming into work. During my off days (which are Sunday nights and Monday), I make sure I eat something I like. I also like to read, going on short beach getaways, taking care of my garden, doing Pilates, spending time in nature, and having hotpot with my buddies. So these are things that form my ‘garden’. Once my happiness level goes up, then I’m all set for the week.
Can you share the biggest challenges of running a restaurant in Singapore’s competitive dining scene?
In any urban and fast-paced society, it’s always a dog-eat-dog world. Coming from a corporate background, it’s something I’m familiar with. The biggest challenge is, of course, manpower – building an effective and efficient team who understands your mindset, standards and ideals is very difficult. I’m almost there with my kitchen team but not a 100 percent. The front-of-house staff is definitely equally important but we always struggled with hiring and retaining them. Building a good corporate culture is important in any business, and it’s not done overnight, so I’m constantly striving to establish a solid culture at Morsels.
It’s a very competitive market, but for me, I don’t chase or follow trends. I go with what I started out to do, and then do it without wavering. I’m also inquisitive and am always on a quest to learn from my contemporaries, seniors and mentors. It’s about finding your niche and building on it.
What’s a typical workday like for you?
My days are crazy. I’m super nocturnal – I sleep between 3am to 5am on any given workday, before getting up at 8am to check my emails and social media channels. Recently, I’ve been trying a new routine where I go straight to the gym at least two times a week before starting work. I’m still getting used to it, but stepping up my workouts has certainly improved the quality of my sleep.
Once I’m in the office, I’ll have to deal with administrative matters first, and then pop into the kitchen before lunch service. At 3pm, I either deal with more admin work, or make myself available for interviews and filming. We start service again at 6pm, working all the way till 11pm. When the kitchen is closed, I head back to the office to do some research, check my emails, or more paperwork until the wee hours of the morning. I’m doing HR, accounts and marketing, so there’s a lot that I have to deal with.
Do you set personal goals for yourself throughout the day?
I never used to, but since getting my Fitbit, I love how it keeps track of how much I’m doing and how many steps I take everyday. For example, when I’m sitting in my office for too long, it vibrates and tells me to get moving so I almost always hit my step goal for the day. It’s awesome. My friends and I also challenge each other to step offs through the Fitbit app. Being a competitive person; it really gets me moving.
What are some of your favourite ways to start and wind down before or after a busy day?
I don’t really like to work out at night – my job can be physically taxing and I won’t be able to sleep. During the lull period, I like to exercise before coming to work, and I used to do some pilates and aerial yoga. Now, I’m trying to get back into a dance routine, which I really like. Depending on my mood, I’ll either have a drink with my guests or just by myself to wind down. When I get home, I try to stretch myself out on the foam roller or dharma wheel. I had a slipped disc last year and was out of commission with exercise for a good year, so I’m slowly trying to get back into it and tracking my progress through the Fitbit app keeps me motivated.
Lastly, do you have any advice for those who find it hard to maintain an active lifestyle because of work?
I won’t deny that it’s really difficult, but I’ll try to do something on Mondays when I’m not working. Even if you can’t go to a gym, you can just head out for a stroll. Walking is a great way to burn some calories and to also maintain that vigor – I can burn up to 100 calories in 10 minutes! Instead of driving, I’ll sometimes take the bus on Sundays and walk. When I was living in San Francisco I walked a lot – the temperate weather played a huge role in my choice of commute. It’s really humid in Singapore, but you can still always try to get out.
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This article is sponsored by Fitbit