Growing up, John Paul’s family was unlike most of ours. Their family dinners were at the coffee shop tables where his dad peddled their famous beef noodles, and John pretty much grew up there.
“I was that small boy at Siglap who carried like three, four bowls of hot soup all at once.”
At 11 years old, John was already known by regulars as “Gubak Kia” (Hokkien for “beef boy”), an endearing nickname for the son of ‘Gubak’, which is what they called John’s dad.
It was a name that John hated, but grew to embrace as he continued helping out at his father’s stall. In fact, this name now brands the hawker stall John runs at Timbre+, where he sells the same traditional bowls of Empress Place Teochew Beef Kway Teow along with his modern creations.
The Cooking Life Chose Him
Now 25, John is a full-time hawker. But this was not exactly his plan at the start.
As someone who always wanted to be out-and-about, John had lofty dreams of making a living off travel photography and writing. This led him to pursue a Mass Communication course in Kaplan.
However, the more he helped at his dad’s stall, the more he felt pulled into the trade. He began observing the way his dad prepared orders, noting details like how long his dad would cook the kuay teow for or how to portion the meat.
His first attempts at cooking came about when his dad left him alone at the stall.
“I started making my own bowls of noodles when my dad went on breaks. Then, my dad would tell me what I did right or wrong when he came back.”
With time and practice, John developed a better understanding of cooking, and this sparked his deeper interest in the culinary world.
Scouted By The Boss Of A Gourmet Burger Joint
John’s ‘big break’ came when the boss of Wolf Burgers saw his resume on a job portal. In disbelief that a 19-year-old kid could have nine years of hawker experience, he paid a visit to the stall covertly.
“He came with his wife, ordered a bowl, sat outside and watched me,” John recalled.
That day, John was offered a job in the Wolf Burgers kitchen. It was a golden opportunity, but John hesitated.
“I was really scared that I would mess up, because I had never worked in a professional kitchen or had any proper training,”
He gave it a shot in the end, and it was also through this stint that John realised his true passion in cooking. He went on to work at Camp Kilo and Kilo Lounge, where he was trained in more diverse types of cooking and cuisines.
Then, his dad got into an incident.
“I saw how bad my dad’s hand injury was. I also saw that he was getting older, and I knew I had to do something.”
Retaining And Recreating Traditions
Coming full circle, John brought years of culinary expertise in different kitchens and cuisines back to the beef noodle stall.
He started experimenting with the various ingredients he could find around the stall during lull periods.
As luck would have it, he met an old friend, Lincoln, who saw the potential in the beef noodles and John’s desire to build the brand. The duo drew up business plans and sought investors, but “who in the world would entrust such a big amount of money to two 24-year-olds to run a shop?”
Instead of giving up, the pair took the leap themselves. Lincoln forked out the capital and with some help from John’s former boss, their stall Gubak Kia came to fruition in May 2019.
In a way, Gubak Kia is John’s homage to his family legacy, which traces back to his great-grandfather’s time at Hock Lam street in 1921. Despite this history, John’s dad never asked for John or his siblings to take over. But for John, he naturally saw it as his duty to preserve their name.
“If it stops at my dad, I don’t know if I can live with that.”
“I love the food,” he explained, “and if I don’t cook it, I won’t get to eat it ever again.”
Carving His Path As A 4th-Gen Hawker
Starting Gubak Kia is also John’s way of showing appreciation to his dad.
“My dad toiled so hard to build this name up, and I don’t want to see it go to waste.”
While John retains most of the foundations of his dad’s dishes, he also creates modern twists to these traditional dishes, like introducing Beef Short Ribs to their classic bowls of Beef Kway Teow, and Gubak Bao.
No doubt, being a young hawker has its challenges. Whether it’s the worry of an inconsistent cash flow or the physical strain of working in a hawker kitchen, these are all part of pursuing a business venture or an unconventional career. But for John, the food always comes first.
“I don’t really care about the money part as much, I just hope that we can make rent. The only important thing is that people are happy with the food, and they know about my father, about Empress Place.”
“It’s tiring but fun,” John mused. After all, the kitchen is where he comes alive. The best part of it all is that he toils, knowing that people will get to eat what he loves.
Reflecting on his journey, John talked about many fears he had, but his persistence and determination paid off.
“If you know you’re working towards something and you are humble about it, there will always be a way to make it work.”
Always Had A Passion You Wanted To Pursue?
Like Gubak Kia and many others, we all have dreams we wished we were brave enough to pursue.
Check out a series of workshops done in collaboration with Spark The Next here for more inspirational passion stories, and how you can chart your own path to success!
(This article was written in collaboration with Spark The Next by the Ministry of Culture, Community & Youth.)