Nicknamed the Iron Man Chef, Heman Tan is Singapore’s celebrity chef whose life story has inspired many. From humble beginnings, Chef Heman struggled in primary school due to dyslexia and an infection that left him mostly deaf in his left ear. In secondary school, he fell into bad company and joined a gang, which led him to experiment with drugs. At age 25, his former employer dismissed him upon learning that he was a former drug addict, and spread the story around the F&B industry so that others would not employ him. Nonetheless, Chef Heman has worked tirelessly to conquer his learning disability, slew his drug addiction to become a celebrated culinary artist, ceramist and triathlete.
15 years ago, Chef Heman had a close brush with cancer where he suffered headaches everyday for a long period of time. When it became intolerable, he consulted with a doctor and an MRI scan revealed a brain tumour. This news came at the same time as the birth of his second son, making this a tough period for him emotionally. Thankfully, the tumour has been removed through a successful operation and although Chef still experiences severe headaches from time to time, the 51-year-old is grateful to be alive.
We spoke to the prolific chef who has been involved in many charitable activities to help the disadvantaged, the needy and the underprivileged. True to his nickname “Iron Man Chef”, he has participated in many IronMan races and cycling competitions. This year, he will be racing in Run for Hope which supports the National Cancer Centre of Singapore (NCCS). We find out more about how he overcame his trials and tribulations as well as get some tips on how to eat healthily as well as meal prep for a race!
Q: Your story is truly inspiring and shows how you’ve really battled the odds. What would you say is the biggest lesson that you’ve learnt so far?
I think for me, life has to be balanced but I feel that it is an art in how to balance. We only have 24 hours a day, so we just have to manage our time properly. To me, as a person, I believe that you should eat properly and enjoy what they’re eating. Because I’m a chef, whenever I eat foie gras, people will ask me, “Foie gras is something very unhealthy, why are you eating foie gras?” I tell them, “I think life is short and we are created to enjoy.” I’m not telling you to eat foie gras everyday. For example, I only eat it once a year but I think a lot of people know that I tend to burnout a lot, so I exercise as I feel that this is something to help me to make sure that my lifestyle is balanced.
Q: Your health scare must’ve been very stressful. What helped you get through the whole ordeal as well as recovery?
At the end of the day, you shouldn’t be sitting down and cry when something bad happens as it does nothing. Like I always say, “In this world, life is imperfect.” It all depends on how you treat it, how you look at a situation. I think we should face it and move on. I like to quote another example – Nick Vujicic, he was born without hands and legs but then look at his life! He’s happy and blessed with who he is.
Q: Did your close brush with cancer affect your diet and therefore, your recipes?
I’m fortunate to be a chef so when it comes to cooking, I can plate myself and I can eat healthier. For example, you can pick up a very fresh chicken breast and a little bit of salt and pepper over it then pan sear it. I enjoy that kind of natural flavour – tasty, fresh chicken breast.
A lot of Asians don’t like chicken breast but I always tell a lot of people because they don’t understand the ingredients. Chicken breast cannot be overcooked as it will become tough. Another thing is that one needs to buy fresh chicken breasts and not frozen because the ice crystals in frozen chicken breasts will have already broken down the muscle tissues and juice, so when you cook it, it is already dried up. When you want to pick up a chicken breast, you pick up a fresh one.
I’m the person that doesn’t go really healthy in my cooking. I want to go moderate because I feel that healthy food for me has to be enjoyable. A lot of people like to say that “healthy food is like hospital food”. I think no, healthy food can be enjoyable. For example, I’m going to cook brown rice but brown rice is rather difficult to chew and eat. For a start, you can do 70-30% of a mixture which means you can start with 30% of brown rice and 70% white rice. Slowly you move into half and half, before slowly going into 100% brown rice. Human beings need to adapt, you can’t go straight into something. That’s why people always complain that brown rice is very difficult to swallow. Of course! You have been eating white rice since young and all of a sudden, you change your lifestyle. I think that’s very difficult. Let’s face the fact that we need time to change.
Q: Singaporeans are so used to eating out on the cheap but yet a lot of us also are getting more health-conscious. Any tips on how we can prepare quick, healthy meals or what we can swap to make healthier choices?
If you are eating out, nowadays we are very fortunate, a lot of hawkers sell healthier choices – for example, brown rice. You can always ask! If you think starch easily to makes you fat, I always say that you can always ask them to give you less rice or noodles. You cut down maybe 20% and you ask them to give you more vegetables, more taugeh (bean sprouts). These are the tips that can help you along.
Q: How are you involved with Run for Hope?
In Chinese, we say, “有钱出钱, 有力出力” (rough translation: give money if you have money, give your effort if you have the effort). As a society, I feel that we need each other’s presence and when we put our kind hearts together, we can try to make the imperfect world into a beautiful world. That is why I always want to support a cause like that. If I don’t do something and I’m going to wait for someone else to do something, it might take a lot of time. As such, rather than waiting for someone else to do, I think I shall start first so that I can then influence people and do it together. Influencing of doing good things – kindness and love are important. Nowadays, we are all very self-centered, which is nothing wrong but then how much you can take? While we take, I think it’s good to also give.
Q: What would be an ideal meal prep for runners?
Chicken breast is always good. Should you carbohydrate load yourself before a race? I would say you should eat a lot more brown rice or whole grains. Because when you start the race, you will burn your carbohydrates a little bit more than usual. I felt that you can pile up your carbohydrates a little bit and then, of course, protein. We burn our protein easily also. White meat such as chicken breast is good. Before a race, I will have one or half a bottle of isotonic drink to get myself prepared.
Some people easily lack salt while running, so along the way, I would recommend them to carry a bottle of isotonic drink just to prevent muscle cramps. After your race, you might want to take a little bit of red meat to replenish your iron. Of course, it is good to have seafood such as fish from time to time. I normally will have an isotonic drink after my race and I will not have more.
But I think the end of the day, I always say enjoy the race. You need to practice, you need to exercise before your race and then, secondly, I want to encourage beginner runners – don’t go fast, you go at a slow pace, once you reach 1km or 2km before the end line you run faster. And not the other way round! A lot of people go fast when they start they and then get tired when coming to the end. So that is not the right way.
We’d like to thank Chef Heman for his time and he also shared with us two cancer-fighting recipes which will be published tomorrow so do keep an eye out for them!
If you’d like to support cancer research through Run for Hope, which will be happening on 16 August 2020, do visit their website at www.runforhope.sg.
Photos: Chef Heman