Heman Tan, who is also known as Iron Man Chef for his participation in Ironman Triathlons, is learning how to see this crisis as a training ground in faith. All photos courtesy of Heman Tan.

Heman Tan, who is also known as Iron Man Chef for his participation in Ironman Triathlons, is learning how to see this crisis as a training ground in faith. All photos courtesy of Heman Tan.

When Covid-19 first dealt a sucker-punch to the food and beverage (F&B) industry earlier this year, businessman and celebrity chef Heman Tan, 51, felt a dreaded sense of deja vu. 

The founder and owner of IronMan Dine, which operates Thai and Western food stalls, was brought straight back to 2003 when another pandemic – the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) – had contributed to the failure of a huge business venture into which Tan had poured all his savings.

Tan is learning the gritty day-to-day work of exchanging self-reliance for absolute trust in his Heavenly Father.

His loss, which came up to six figures, had been made more devastating by the fact that his second child had just been born.

“We even had problems buying milk powder,” he said, adding that he became angry and disillusioned with God.

It was this sense of helplessness that hit him again this year, when revenue plunged by about 70%, forcing him to pull the shutters on three of his four stalls.

He has still been bleeding a few thousand dollars a month, said Tan, who is supporting three school-going teenaged children with his wife, an early childhood teacher.

However, his response this time is different.

Instead of regarding the crisis as evidence of God’s abandonment, Tan is choosing to see it as hands-on training in holiness, as he learns the gritty day-to-day work of exchanging self-reliance for absolute trust in his Heavenly Father.

“Knowing God is about building faith in Him. And faith is something we need to exercise,” he said. “If we don’t exercise it, we will never learn it.”

A simple life

This, he says from experience.

“What I want is just a simple life. Why can’t You give that to me?”

Tan, who has appeared in several local culinary reality shows, openly shared that he had struggled to exercise his faith in the Lord during the SARS crisis, when his restaurant-cum-lounge business folded just a year in.

Everything he had was “wiped out”, said Tan, who has 32 years of culinary experience. It was a heavy blow for him as he had spent years working hard in the kitchen, climbing the ranks and building up his capital.

He was so beaten down that he even struggled to fully rejoice in the birth of his second daughter as he worried about how he would provide for his young family.

“I started to blame God and asked why He was so cruel to me, why He would allow me to suffer like this,” he said.

“I also argued with Him. I said, why would You not give this to me when I prayed so hard, even fasted? I’m not asking for a big house. I’m not asking for a big car. I’m not asking for a luxurious life. What I want is just a simple life. Why can’t You give that to me?”

Tan has 32 years of culinary experience, specialising in Western and local Asian cuisine.

He added that in those times of lack, faced with the prospect of being unable to feed his newborn baby, Jesus’ command to not worry about tomorrow (Matthew 6:34) seemed absurd – offensive, even.

He refused to go back to church and also started withdrawing from his social circles, as he was afraid of others finding out that his business had failed.

“I had a lot of business pride,” said Tan, who had enjoyed professional success prior to this.

“I wanted to ask God, why me again?”

Though he found a new job as a canteen manager at a catering company, being an employee again was a hard pill to swallow. “That feeling was quite sour,” he said.

Tan remembers eating his dinners at 4pm, an hour before the staff cafeteria closed, so that he could take advantage of the free meal.

Once, a staff member casually asked him why he was eating so early.

“I tell you, at that point I teared,” he said. “I didn’t even dare to tell people that I needed to save those few dollars for my family.”

Eyes on Him

While Tan’s situation did not improve overnight, his life was slowly rebuilt over the years. He started to go back to church about a year later, where he “continued to build faith with God”, he said.

But his faith was tested once again when his business took a hit this year, just as profits were rolling in during the Chinese New Year period. “I wanted to ask God, why me again?” he said.

“I don’t know what to do, but my eyes are on God.”

However, during his quiet time with the Lord one morning, King Jehoshaphat’s response to an impending attack by a vast army spoke deeply to his heart.

“O our God, will you not execute judgment on them? For we are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” (2 Chronicles 20:12)

Tan said: “When trials come, people often ask me what my plan is. With these verses I have an answer – I don’t know what to do, but my eyes are on God.”

This verse encouraged him to press in deeper to the Lord, instead of running away from Him like before.

As a competitive sportsman who has participated in several Ironman triathlons, Tan values keeping fit and wakes up early in the morning for runs, which is also when he spends time with God.

Every morning at 4am, before the bustle of the day begins, he gets up to go for a run. In the solitude of the dawn, he listens to God’s Word and draws closer to Him in prayer.

“I love those quiet moments. It’s a time that I don’t dare to take away,” said Tan, who has competed in several Ironman triathlons.

Beloved child

During these sacred mornings, God has lovingly reminded Tan of His love and care for him.

Quoting Matthew 6:26, Tan said: “The birds of the air do not sow or reap, and yet our Heavenly Father feeds them. Are we not of more value than they?

“That really encourages me. We are so valued. We are children of God. If we tell the world that we are children of God, we need to exercise our faith and testify that the Lord will take care of us.”

In 2019, Tan published The Iron Man Chef’s Guide To Life, where he shares his past as a drug addict to encourage others. He has also published several other cookbooks.

Already he has seen evidence of God’s goodness to him in this crisis.

The process of closing his three stalls, though painful, was much smoother than he had expected, he noted.

“If we are children of God, we need to exercise our faith and testify that the Lord will take care of us.”

Right before Covid-19 hit, a staff member at the Jalan Sultan outlet – his remaining one – had also said he was going to resign.

“At first I worried that we might not have enough people to work, but because of the resignation, the store has been able to survive until now,” he said.

Additionally, the Lord also sent employment his way when a company providing food for migrant workers in their dormitories hired him for consultation services.

This has allowed him to continue paying his bills and providing for his family. “God has always been very gracious to me. He is really wonderful,” he said.

Faith and humility

Though worries still come to Tan daily, he chooses to faithfully do his part while entrusting everything else to God.

“Every day I just continue to do the work that I need to do, continue to have joy, continue to look upon Him, walk faithfully with Him, and believe that He will provide,” he said.

“The Bible says Jesus is Immanuel – God with us. He’s with me. He died for me. He went through the valley and that’s why He can say, look child, I’m with you. Hold my hand tight.”

Tan is also an award-winning ceramist who had his ceramic pieces displayed at the Singapore Sculpture Square and The Arts House.

But faith, he has learnt, must come with humility.

“Jesus went through the valley and that’s why He can say, look child, I’m with you. Hold my hand tight.”

“Like it says in Proverbs 16:3-4, I may have my plans, but I need to commit everything to the Lord in whatever I do. And God reminded me that He will establish my plans.

“It’s not I who is powerful, but Him. Many times I want to overtake Him. I think I’m clever. I think my talents are bigger than His. But I always need to remember that He is greater than I, not the other way around.”

He added that though humility is “very difficult” to learn, it is necessary to grow in it if he wants to walk closely with God. “When pride overtakes me, I tend to leave God further and further away,” he said.

Refiner’s fire

Humility also means continuing to trust in God’s sovereignty and love even when he does not see the outcomes he was hoping for, Tan added.

“When I pray for something, the situation might not change. But this is when I need to exercise my faith. I need to make sure I still trust Him with joy,” he said.

“I need to make sure I still trust Him with joy.”

Revealing that his name means “faithful” in Hebrew, he said: “God gave me this name. And faithfulness needs to be exercised.”

This crisis is just another training ground for the Lord to mould him in righteousness, he added. “Many times I’ve failed my test. But God is always very patient and loving with me. He wants to continue to grow and train me.”

He believes that whatever God chooses to do in his life – be it grant success or allow failure – is for the sole purpose of moulding him to love God wholeheartedly and above all else.

Quoting Ecclesiastes 3:14, he said: “Everything God does will endure forever … so that people will fear Him.

“So that Heman will continue to respect and fear God, because no matter what my life is like, failure or success, I need to realise it is all from Him.”

 

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About the author

Gracia Lee

Gracia is a journalism graduate who thoroughly enjoys people and words. Thankfully, she gets a satisfying dose of both as a writer at Salt&Light. When she's not working, you will probably find her admiring nature or playing Monopoly Deal with her little brother.