Even with the blistering heat in our way, it doesn’t stop Singaporeans from lapping up the comforts of a hot bowl of fish soup.
Everyone knows their go-to order by heart, whether it’s sliced fish or fried fish; thick bee hoon or rice on the side.
But if you think asking for milk in your soup is just another innocent preference, one Singapore eatery would like to rewire the way you think about fish soup, and hopefully convince you to only have it clear.
Good fish soup doesn’t need milk. When you add milk to it, that’s all you’re really drinking. You don’t taste the hard work that has gone into the soup.
This belief, that co-owner Marcus Liow shares with us in our interview, is proudly cemented in the business’ name: No Milk Bistro.
Run by a quartet of dedicated young men all under 30, No Milk is relentless about the art of preparing traditional Teochew-style broth, that packs just the right balance of flavour and lightness.
It’s with this serious commitment to cooking quality soup that they were able to open their second outlet within less than a year.
Don’t mistake them for purists, though, because they have their own special touches—switching out the usual seaweed to Japanese nori, upgrading their fish to mackerel (sliced) and sea bass (fried).
Not to mention they’re now serving a whole menu of fusion dishes and bar drinks in their newest two-storey bistro.
Four Students, One Fish Soup Master
No Milk is still fairly fresh with only one year in business, but its history has been brewing for longer than you think.
Its four co-owners and good friends Hoe Gern, Marcus, Kevin and Cheuk Tung (Bon) began learning since as young as 10-years-old, under the wing of their shi fu (master) who has been running a well known fish soup stall in Bedok since the 1990s.
When most primary school students would only have games on their mind, helping out at a hawker stall was their idea of fun.
Marcus tells us that all four of them got to know the fish soup uncle (whom they requested not to name) as he was one of their mutual friends’ father.
“We would just work part-time for him, then leave to do our own things. We earned maybe a few dollars, and last time a few dollars was a lot of money to us,” he says.
But working to earn their keep wasn’t the driving factor behind their uncommon childhood.
Rather, the young boys were drawn by a pure interest, and their parents were supportive as long as they only worked on weekends or school holidays.
“To us, it was more like a fun experience [instead of a job], and we could learn something as well,” Marcus adds.
Born With The Blood For F&B
Nearly two decades since they were inducted to the world of F&B, the No Milk owners are certain about being in this line. In fact, they’ve never quite been swayed by the allure of more ‘cushy’ careers.
Hoe Gern, who now heads the kitchen and fronts the business, says the path was always clear to him since his family owned a chng tng stall while he was growing up.
Before starting their own establishment, he has cooked for a few restaurants on Dempsey Hill, and also served as a private dining chef.
On the other hand, Marcus kept his horizons wide and tried out all kinds of jobs, before coming full circle.
“My first few jobs were door-to-door sales, selling ice-cream and pineapple tarts. Then I did retail, followed by working some admin jobs [where I realised] I hated working in an office,” he says.
I tried a lot of jobs, but the only ones [where] I looked forward to going to work and didn’t take MC were actually the F&B jobs.
Later, Marcus started to take up waitering and bartending jobs, and discovered it was his passion.
His first taste of business was when he managed a bar together with his father for a few years.
The ‘Sold Out’ Method
Besides culinary knowledge, their shi fu also imparted some tricks of the trade to help them attract customers.
When their brand new fish soup business just opened at Clifford Centre in May 2018, he taught them to employ the ‘sold out’ method.
Instead of eagerly selling us much as they could, they only prepared for a limited amount, like 20 to 40 bowls a day.
By the lunchtime peak hour, people come in and we tell them, “mai wan liao” (we’re sold out). Then they would think, “Why are they sold out so fast? I must come back again.”
As this curiosity stirred up, coupled with the high traffic in the CBD, they gradually served more and more bowls to meet demand.
Singaporeans don’t keep good food to themselves, and soon customers came back with groups of friends—some even asked the owners to give them free food because they “brought so many people”.
Till now, No Milk’s first outlet is packed every weekday “from 11.30am to 1.45pm”, with a constant string of people queueing for dine-in and take-away.
Cooking Without A Proper Kitchen
Operating their first outlet wasn’t as simple as just cooking and serving up piping hot bowls of soup.
The owners tell us they faced a pretty significant issue—they couldn’t prepare food using an open flame on location because the outlet didn’t have an exhaust.
While they used induction cookers to get around the problem, their mentor was also kind enough to let them use the equipment in his hawker stall after opening hours.
“When he closes his stall, we go over and [prepare our soup]. Then we bring it back to Clifford Centre,” says Hoe Gern.
The 29-year-old chef admits it was a lot of hard work, but they knew it was worth it when customers came back three to five times a week just to have their fish soup.
Their second outlet, which opened at 18 Pahang Street in December 2018, finally became a permanent solution as their central kitchen.
It was also where the business was renamed to No Milk, from its previous Chinese name.
“[Every day at the first outlet] we get customers asking us to add milk into the fish soup. So after explaining to them regularly, we decided to rebrand,” says Marcus.
Rising To The Next ‘Level’
Through their own networks, the new outlet came to them at a good deal and they didn’t waste the opportunity.
“When we looked at the two floors plus outdoor seating, we realised it was [too much space] to do just fish soup,” Marcus tells us.
As a bunch of bros themselves, they saw how great the shophouse would be as a “drinking and chilling out place”, and Marcus’ bartending expertise fit the bill to make it happen.
The team worked together to develop a new fusion concept, which resulted in one menu for their fish soup bistro downstairs, and another menu serving drinks and bar snacks upstairs.
Patrons who had supported them at Clifford Centre were excited to visit Pahang Street, especially to try Hoe Gern’s new additions like spicy ‘mala’ noodles, and beef rendang pasta.
As always, the four return to let their respected mentor test their new dishes every time, and he never went easy on his students.
“The first time we made our black char siew, he said ‘this is not char siew at all’,” Hoe Gern recalls.
“We had to make it again and again, six or seven times before he approved.”
After levelling up from 20 seats to 70 in total, the four friends now have their focus fixed on building success at their second outlet.
They share with us a lesson they’ve taken away from business so far:
You must be patient. Businesses are always very difficult at the start, but we know that our hard work will pay off.
Find out more about No Milk Bistro here.
No Milk Fish Soup
24 Raffles Place, #01-15
No Milk Bistro
18 Pahang Street
Featured Image Credit: Vulcan Post