Entrepreneur

This S'porean Self-Taught Chef Went From Selling Economic Bee Hoon To Crafting Wagyu Beef Bowls

Regardless of your budget, there’s a beef bowl out there for you.

From affordable options like Gyu Nami‘s $10 bowl which is piled high with beef, to the more indulgent $98 Premium Donburi from Fat Cow which includes wagyu beef, foie gras, uni, and caviar; it’s truly a great time to be a beef lover.

While some might think it’s ridiculous to pay exorbitant amounts for a few slices of meat topped over rice, the prices make sense for those who are particular about the grade, cut, and origin of the beef.

The beef used in the Yoshinoya outlet at your nearby mall is extremely different from the one used at, let’s say, CUT by Wolfgang Puck.

But perhaps one of the most well-known ‘premium’ beef is wagyu.

It’s not difficult to see why – tender and rich in flavour, wagyu has inevitably soared in popularity in recent years as more restaurants add it to their menu.

TOKIDON is a relatively new kid on the gyudon (beef rice bowl) block, and specialises in wagyu beef bowls.

Using Grade 6 and 9 Australian grass-fed wagyu beef (with 9 having the best marbling) in their rice bowls, many would be surprised that their offerings don’t surpass the $25 mark.

TOKIDON’s Truffle Tenderloin Bowl

Chef Rio Neo is the brains behind the bowl, and has a clear mission with TOKIDON – to create affordable wagyu beef bowls that do not compromise on quality.

He is also the co-founder of sake gastrobar Kabuke, so I was definitely surprised to find out that Japanese cuisine was actually something he stumbled upon rather than chose to pursue!

Curious about the serendipitous encounter that eventually led him to set up 2 Japanese restaurants, I headed down to TOKIDON on a quiet weekday mid-afternoon to find out more.

Japanese Cooking Show ‘Iron Chef’ Served As A Big Influence

Chef Rio

Growing up, Chef Rio used to help out at his parents’ economic fried bee hoon stall.

Starting out with simpler chores like washing and cutting up the ingredients, he soon moved on to food preparation, like marinating the chicken wings, to even “adding flavours and creating textures in the food”.

“Working in the economic fried bee hoon stall is a lot of hard work, not just for me but also for my parents,” he recalled.

It cultivated the respect that I have for people who work in the kitchen. It also taught me the importance of details, no matter how big and small, when we prepare food for our guests’ enjoyment.

Helping his parents also gave him a head-start on what to look out for in terms of operations when he eventually ran his own establishments.

He quipped, “Both restaurants and hawker stores are very similar. You need to cover all aspects like costing, staffing, wastage control and how to deal with difficult customers!”

Host of Iron Chef Japan, Takeshi Kaga

Apart from his very hands-on experience with F&B, Chef Rio added that watching popular Japanese cooking show ‘Iron Chef’ was also a “big influence” which “played a key role in shaping [his] career”.

He Did Not Attend Culinary School, And “Fell Into” Japanese Cuisine

I was surprised to find out that Chef Rio didn’t attend culinary school.

I learnt cooking from observing my parents and grandma, as well as from cooking shows on TV.

“One of my favourite memories from those times was making egg cake with my grandmother, and having sore arms from whisking all the eggs and flour manually! It was fun times, and I really appreciated spending time with my grandmother.”

Another thing that caught me by surprise was how, in spite of being selected as a finalist for the World Washoku Challenge in Japan in 2015 and 2016, Japanese cuisine wasn’t something he consciously set out to pursue at the beginning.

Chef Rio / Image Credit: Vulcan Post

“Japanese cuisine was something that I fell into,” he laughed.

“My first professional kitchen job was at a Japanese restaurant, and I worked my way through a few other traditional Japanese restaurants before Kinki Restaurant & Bar and Fat Cow.”

It was through these stints, however, that he slowly fell in love with Japanese cuisine.

“What I respect most in the art of Japanese culinary is the importance place on fresh, quality ingredients, and bringing out their natural flavours.”

Opening Two Restaurants In Just 1 Year

But more than just working at esteemed restaurants, Chef Rio wanted to create and curate a menu of his own.

Coincidentally, he came across Kabuke co-founder Keiji Heng on Facebook, where the latter was looking for a chef for his new restaurant.

Keiji Heng

Keiji was previously the bar manager of Bar Ippudo (the first sake bar by ramen chain Ippudo), and was looking to launch a sake gastrobar that lets Singapore sake lovers learn about the different regions where the drink is produced, and also “acquaint themselves with the complex flavours in fuller-bodied, price-friendly sake, to the more refined palate of the high-end ones”.

Chef Rio reached out to Keiji, and they bonded over a common vision to “create the perfect marriage and balance between sake and good food”.

As they always say – “the rest is history”, and Kabuke was launched in August 2017.

The Kabuke Team

Kabuke was also where Chef Rio first crafted the beef bowls that customers fell in love with, and it was so well-received that bowls used to sell out even before the lunch hour was over.

“It was here where we saw the opportunity for quality beef bowls at affordable prices and hence, TOKIDON was born.”

Kabuke’s ‘Pleasure Bowl’ with Wagyu beef, foie gras, ikura, and uni

In contrast to Kabuke’s focus on sake, TOKIDON was launched in May this year to “educate customers in the appreciation of the different cuts of beef”.

“The interior at TOKIDON pays tribute to the easy, electrifying energy of night fall in a cosmopolitan city,” explained Chef Rio.

TOKIDON’s interior

“With our location at Hong Leong Building right in the CBD, most of our customers are office workers who are here for lunch,” shared Chef Rio.

“We also have customers who order our beef sliders from the ‘Sunnaku’ (snack) menu for their afternoon tea and meetings.”

Image Credit: TOKIDON

As for future plans, he shared that their aim is to “bring TOKIDON all over Singapore and be the best purveyor of gourmet beef bowls”.

They have recently launched islandwide delivery on their website, in a bid to let “more people enjoy [their] beef bowls”.

To end off the interview, I asked Chef Rio what his favourite Japanese dish is (spoiler: it’s not gyudon):

“Proper donburi with well-prepared rice and miso soup, anytime. It is the one of my favourite comfort foods.”

TOKIDON
16 Raffles Quay, Hong Leong Building, #B1-33
Singapore 048581

Kabuke
200A Telok Ayer Street
Singapore 068638

 

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