From addict to celebrated chef, ceramist and triathlete: Chef Heman Tan on being moulded by God
by Gracia Lee // February 23, 2022, 11:52 pm
"Till today, God is still moulding me," said Heman Tan. All photos courtesy of Heman Tan.
Heman Tan, head chef of modern European restaurant Moonbow, is a celebrated culinary artist who has spent years honing his skills in top positions at several food and beverage (F&B) businesses.
Before he was the co-owner and chef of Moonbow, a modern European restaurant in Dempsey, he was the executive chef of the JP Pepperdine Group, chief culinary officer of the Soup Restaurant Group and founder of a host of F&B start-ups.
A man of many passions, Heman is also an avid Ironman triathlete, as well as a ceramicist who was mentored by the late Dr Ng Eng Teng, better known as the “grandfather of Singapore sculpture”.
The 53-year-old, who is married with three teenagers, is today completely different from the self-described “useless” drug addict he was once was.
Yet, he told Salt&Light humbly: “Even today, God is still moulding and changing me. It’s a process, never a one-time thing.”
Growing up with dyslexia and partial hearing loss caused by a bad fever, Heman struggled as a child in school and was looked down on by his classmates.
As a result, he developed a deep sense of inferiority that led him to join a gang when he was just 12 years old. “I needed to make sure that I had somebody to back me up so I could fight back,” he said.
“As a child, what I understood were all the adult things: How to fight, how to earn money through gambling, horse-racing, being a loanshark.”
But it was a decision that cost him more than a decade of his life. “Whatever nonsense things you can name, I’ve done,” he said, declining to give more details on his past vices.
“It’s a very painful thing for me to share. I didn’t have a proper, innocent childhood. I mixed around with gangs and adults. What I thought, what I understood were all the adult things: How to fight, how to earn money through gambling, horse-racing, being a loanshark,” he said.
“It was all very evil and sinful. When I look back, I can’t believe I did that.”
The only detail he revealed was that the first puff he ever took – even before he smoked a cigarette – was heroin, after being influenced by his fellow gang members. At the time, he was only a child.
“That was when the terrible journey started,” he said.
Striking out alone
As he spent his days wrapped up in drug consumption and fighting, Heman’s heartbroken, helpless parents grew increasingly frustrated with the path that their once quiet and gentle son was going down.
In a last ditch effort to jolt their son from his senseless living, they offered to buy him a one-way ticket to a faraway country so he could start his life anew.
It was the depth of winter … With no money to buy a coat, he tried to withstand the cold.
He was enraged by the offer as it made him feel like his parents were abandoning him. But he was also eager to grab this chance at freedom.
So, with nothing more than the clothes on his back, Heman took a 16-hour flight to London and stepped out of the airport – only to realise that it was the depth of winter.
With no money to buy a coat, he tried to withstand the cold. But it was not long before his numb legs gave way, sending him sprawling in the snow.
Thankfully, a British couple spotted him, hauled him into their car and drove him back to their home, where they warmed him up with food and a bed. They kindly told him that he could stay until he found another place.
Though Heman has since lost touch with them, he said their simple act of kindness has stuck with him to this day.
Despite his rough start, Heman decided that he would quit drugs and make a name for himself as a world-renowned chef.
“I wanted to give God the chance to turn my life around.”
Growing up the son of a vegetable seller, he had spent many years in kitchens observing cooks and was fascinated by how raw vegetables and meat could be transformed into delectable meals.
He scored a job as a cook at a small hostel on the outskirts of Bath called Walker’s Inn, which also became his home.
There, he learnt from other chefs the tips and tricks of whipping up Western cuisine, from fish and chips to bread and butter pudding, though he barely understood the English language.
Occupied with work and propelled by his newfound dream, he successfully steered clear of the vice that had ensnared him for so many years.
Within 18 months, he had saved enough money to buy a plane ticket back to Singapore. Proud of the progress he had made, he planned to keep up his clean record and climb the ranks of the local culinary industry when he returned home.
When the high hit for the first time in months, he knew there was no going back.
“On the plane home, I dreamt of the culinary awards, the glamour of black-tie events and the beautiful dishes I would create,” he wrote in his book, Ironman Chef’s Guide to Life.
Hope glimmered in his eyes, and his family could see it too when he returned. He promised them that his life had changed for good.
To be polite, Heman decided to visit his old friends for the last time to bid them a proper farewell. He found them in their usual spot smoking weed.
Before he knew it, memories of the past he thought he had left behind hit him. When a friend thrust the drugs into his hand, “just one puff” became another, and another, and another.
When the high hit for the first time in months, he knew there was no going back.
A ridiculous message
It was as if his time in London had never happened.
When he heard about salvation through Jesus, he thought: “Come on, there is no such good thing. In this world, nothing is free.”
Time and again he would swear to change. He would check himself into a halfway house, only to find himself later taking the same drugs he had promised never to touch again.
He eventually lost count of how many times he checked in and out of halfway houses. But his failed attempts to kick his habit in these halfway houses were not entirely in vain.
When he was at Christian halfway house The Hiding Place, a group of former addicts visited and told him about a perfect man named Jesus who had died for his sins.
“As long as you believe in Jesus,” they told him, “you will be saved and you can go to heaven”.
Heman thought it was ridiculous. “Come on, there is no such good thing,” he recalled thinking. “In this world, nothing is free. There is a price to pay for everything.”
This message was not the only thing in the halfway house that struck him as strange.
“The big gangsters were looking at a thick book and singing praises to God. I was so confused.”
While he was enduring cold turkey in a cell, he heard people singing praises to this same Jesus. Every night as he sat in his isolation cell, he would hear these praises coming through the window.
When he peered outside, what he saw shocked him.
“I saw some big guys, full body of tattoos. Usually these gangsters will talk about nonsense. But they were not! They were looking at a thick book and singing praises to God. I was so confused,” he said.
When the unbearable symptoms of going cold turkey hit him at full force, he decided to cry out to Jesus for respite.
“If there is a God or if you are really a real God, you must help me to pull through,” he prayed.
Miraculously, after his prayer he began to feel less pain and discomfort. That night, he could sleep. “Who is this God?” Heman wondered.
As he listened more intently to the lessons about the Christian God that were shared at The Hiding Place, Heman found that God is not a distant and harsh boss whose favour he has to earn, but a personal God who loves him and has the power to change his life – as long as he let Him.
Desperate for hope, Heman decided to believe in Jesus. “I wanted to give God the chance to turn my life around,” he said.
Foundations of art and life
From then on, Heman began relying on God and prayer to endure the agony of withdrawal and the temptation of returning to his old habits.
It was during this time that he met the late Dr Ng Eng Teng, a prolific sculptor who was known as the “grandfather of Singapore sculpture”.
Heman believes that their meeting was orchestrated by God to give him the helping hand he needed to change his life for good.
Dr Ng, who won a Cultural Medallion award in 1981 for his outstanding achievements and contributions to the nation’s art scene, was volunteering at Agape Counselling and Training Centre when he noticed Heman’s ability to work with his hands.
Taking Heman under his wing, Dr Ng taught him the foundations and intricacies of working with clay and, in the process, imparted to him many life lessons that were formative in his journey on the straight and narrow.
“Heman, no matter what you do, just remember: Do a proper job.”
For the first six months of Heman’s learning, Dr Ng instructed him only to throw clay at the wheel and make basic shapes, patiently pointing out his errors and reprimanding him when he slacked off.
Though the work was monotonous and repetitive, Heman later realised that having the discipline to fix these seemingly small imperfections was crucial as it would ensure that each piece turns out properly.
While Heman went on to earn a diploma in ceramics at LaSalle College of the Arts, he eventually decided to forge a career for himself in the kitchen as it would provide him with a more stable income.
Afraid that Dr Ng would be disappointed with his choice after investing so much in him, Heman sought the older man’s advice.
Surprisingly, Dr Ng replied him kindly: “Heman, no matter what you do, just remember: Do a proper job.”
Till this day, Heman lives by this mantra. He said: “Whatever I do, whether I’m in my studio, in my kitchen, or I’m training for a race, I tell myself: Do a proper job.”
The exercise of faith
Today, Heman is a well-known chef in the culinary industry who has now been clean for almost 30 years.
All this, he attributes solely to the power of God, who has moulded him from “a useless lump of clay into something useful and beautiful”, he said.
Though he has walked out of his dark past, he continues to allow himself to be moulded by God through the challenges that he faces as a business owner, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic which has dealt many blows to food and beverage (F&B) businesses.
“It hasn’t been easy,” he said. Six of the F&B stalls he was running before the pandemic had to be shuttered due to insufficient sales.
But as he put his faith in God’s goodness, he saw how God provided for him and led him to set up Moonbow, which is named after the lunar rainbow which can only be seen at night.
“Moonbow is a promise from God that came in the dark,” he said.
Running Moonbow has not been easy either. But Heman is learning how to place his worries in the hands of the One who holds all things together.
“Moonbow is a promise from God that came in the dark.”
“When I read the book of Genesis, God reminded me that he built the entire heaven and earth in seven days. So who am I to worry?” he said.
Rather than being preoccupied with things he cannot control, he focuses on doing his best at what he can – like doing a proper job each day – and leaving the rest to God.
“I strongly believe that if it is God’s will, God will sustain the business. And if it is not His will, I have to learn to obey,” he added humbly.
It is much easier said than done, he admitted. “But faith needs to be exercised. I need to trust 100% that He will take care of me.”
Though Heman’s past gives him little to be proud of, he shares his story openly to show how God has changed his life. He also has a heart for those who have gone wayward, like he did in the past.
“God can mould you too, just like what He did for me. Trust Him. Believe in Him.”
He shared that at Moonbow, bread is served on broken plates sculpted by him. “The imperfections serve,” he said, referring to how God can use even the most broken and imperfect people for His Kingdom.
“God can mould you too, just like what He did for me. Trust Him. Believe in Him. Hold on to His promises. You will find that the journey will be eternally beautiful.”
However, Heman stressed that even though he has had some success, his life is not free of struggles – both in his business and spiritual life.
“The past two weeks in particular have been difficult for the business because of the rising Omicron numbers. Spiritually, there’s also always a struggle to keep the faith especially when there are challenges. I need to spend time with God every day, commit to obeying Him, trusting Him, seeking His will. There’s never a time I will stop struggling,” he said.
Encouraging those who are struggling like him, he added: “Maybe you feel that your life currently right now is broken, not beautiful, and you are very discouraged. Don’t give up because the journey is not over.
“As long as you come to God and believe that He has a better plan for us, as long as you continue to keep your faith in Him, that’s the most important thing.”
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