Back to food nostalgia. My family has been a regular patron of the Hillman restaurant since it’s outlet at Cantonment Road. Let’s say that I been there since I was a kid just a wee bid above the knee. So my memories of the place are filled with yummilious claypot dishes, grilled pork slices and lettuce wrapped egg sharkfin. Always liked the name of the restaurant because of the impression that the food was made by a man from the hills. Definitely got that one wrong. The restaurant is pretty popular with the Japanese community here in Singapore. Now for some history on the restaurant and how it came about.
Hillman Restaurant was founded in 1963 by, Mr. Wong Ling Onn and co-founder Madam Chan Ah Chee at Blk 1, Cantonment Road. Both founders first arrived in Singapore in early 1930s as migrant workers from China, Guandong Province. Mr. Wong and Madam Chan later got married in Singapore and had 9 children from the marriage. Mr. Wong operated 3 restaurants namely, Fong Seng at Jalan Besar, Yow Kee at Bugis Street, and Sun Sang restaurant inside Great World Amusement Park at Kim Seng Road.
The World War II broke out not long after that, and with the Japanese invasion in 1942, Mr. Wong returned to China but Madam Chan remained in Singapore with the rest of the family; faced with a big family to feed, she set up a hawker stall along Jalan Besar road selling Roast Duck and Char Siew rice; enjoying a brisk business and providing a livelihood for the big family throughout the war.
After the war ended, Mr. Wong returned to Singapore and he set up a hawker stall in Chinatown Smith Street selling cook-to-order Chee Cheong Fun (stuffed rice roll with char siew, liver and prawns, etc.). He was nicknamed the “Gou Loh Wong” (The Tall Wong) in Chinatown.
He opened the first Hillman Restaurant in 1963, situated along Cantonment Road, serving Cantonese Claypot cuisines which he had mastered in his ShunTak (Guangdong Province) hometown.
Cooking in a Claypot is an alternative way of cooking, besides using the wok(kuali); the temperature of the food is being kept warm in the Claypot for an extended period of time, making it suitable for consumption during the cold winter in Guangdong. On top of that , the flavor of the food is retained in the porous walls of the claypot, seasoning the claypots each time a meal is cooked. The more seasoned a pot is, the better the flavor of the food will be produced.
The restaurant proved to be a hit with the locals as well as the foreign expatriates; and 10 years later, in 1973, Mr. Wong and his family opened a branch restaurant, Manhill Restaurant at 99, Pasir Panjang Road. Then in 1995, a third Hillman Seafood Garden was opened at Albert Court Hotel.
His sons, Sang Kiong, kwok kiong took charge of the kitchens of Hillman and Manhill, while his daughters Kit Sum,Teng Sum and Chai Sum, son Mun Keon and his wife Madam Ho Siow Ying, helped out with the service and waitering.
What made them famous? Everyone deserves a break and their big break came in 1978, when the restaurant was invited to participate in the first Asian Salon Culinaire, which is the equivalent of today’s World Gourmet Challenge (Food and Hotel Asia); held in the then Hyatt Hotel. The Chief Judge of the competition was Mr. Paul Bocuse, the legendary French Chef who has a medal of Commdeur de la d’honneur (National Order of the Legion of Honour) and the Meilleur Ouvier de France (The best food craftsman of his lifetime); and he owns a 3 Michelin stars restaurant in Lyon, France. The restaurant won a gold medal for the Boneless Chicken Dish, a Silver for Claypot Prawns, and a bronze for the Cold dish. It was a moment of glory and achievement for Mr. Wong who was presented a signed picture by Mr Bocuse presented, quoting in French: Excellent cuisine and good relationship between the food and the people. Sometimes the purpose of food can be that simple. Try the place out.
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