Etiquette consultant Teo Ser Lee talks about food, cravings and dining etiquette. By Kenneth Goh
Ms Teo Ser Lee is a one-dish person at restaurants. She adheres to a light and wholesome diet of steamed and poached food. Photo: Lim Sin Thai
It can be intimidating to dine with etiquette consultant Teo Ser Lee.
The elegant 51-year-old says with a laugh: “I think most people, aside from my friends, are stressed when they eat with me as they think that I am always watching them and may tell them off.”
Though the founder and director of etiquette consultancy Protocol Academy says it is an “occupational hazard” to observe people, she does not critique them unless she is asked to do so.
“It is also good etiquette to ensure that the people around you are at ease so that they can enjoy their meal,” she says.
For the past 14 years, she has been training executives on etiquette and social interaction in myriad settings, ranging from corporate boardrooms to restaurants.
Her wealth of etiquette knowledge is apparent as she answers questions on dealing with sticky social scenarios almost effortlessly, when quizzed by The Sunday Times.
Weighing in on how people here use personal belongings to “chope” or reserve seats in hawker centres, she thinks that seats in public areas should be taken up on a first-come, first-served basis.
She says: “If people are dining in a group, have at least one person at the table to let other people know that the seats are taken and make sure that every seat is occupied. They should be considerate and give up the seats to those who need them more, like the elderly.”
Ms Teo made a splash in the late 1980s when she won three beauty pageants; including Miss Singapore World in 1988. The former auditor later worked in corporate roles in the hospitality industry for more than 12 years before setting up her etiquette consultancy in 2003.
Her father, 79, is a retired factory worker and her seamstress mother died six years ago at age 69. Her younger brother is Mr Teo Ser Luck, 49, an MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC.
These days, Ms Teo, who is a part-time actress and radio DJ, still has the genial charm and glamour from her beauty queen days. She shows up for this interview in a chic red jacket paired with pearl earrings and necklace, and perfectly styled hair.
With her love for food and wine, how does she maintain her svelte figure?
“I jog about 8km four to five times a week, and do 400 sit-ups after each time,” she says.
Ms Teo, who is in a relationship, has been avoiding deep-fried food for the past 20 years. Every three to four months, she indulges in one French fry or two. She adheres to a light and wholesome diet of steamed and poached food and likes soup.
HOW DO YOU COPE WITH YOUR FRIED FOOD CRAVINGS?
I would bring a bag of fries or you tiao (dough fritters) close to me and inhale deeply.
That is enough to satisfy my craving for a few months.
WHAT ARE SOME COMMON DINING ETIQUETTE MISTAKES PEOPLE MAKE?
Texting on mobile devices and not focusing on their dining companions during a meal. People should not put their mobile devices on the table. If it is an urgent matter, they should excuse themselves from the table.
Turning the Lazy Susan without checking if others have finished taking food and some people knock down glasses by turning the Lazy Susan too quickly.
WHAT ARE YOUR FONDEST MEMORIES OF FOOD?
I didn’t come from a well-to-do family, so we mostly ate at home and had to ration food.
I looked forward to when my mother braised a duck, once a month. It was a luxury and the whole family would eat the duck while watching television on a Sunday. I also remember having family picnics at East Coast Park, where we had luncheon meat sandwiches after a swim.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE DISHES AND WHERE DO YOU GO TO HAVE THEM?
I am a one-dish person at restaurants. I like Peach Garden Chinese Restaurant in Thomson Plaza for its comforting food and good service.
The staff automatically give me a big serving of chilli. I always have the double-boiled seafood soup in wintermelon. It is refreshingly light and contains a generous amount of ingredients.
I also like the seafood bee hoon in Pow Sing Restaurant in Serangoon Garden. The noodles are not too oily and have a little bit of wok hei. I also go to Pope Jai Thai, a social enterprise-restaurant in Serangoon Avenue 3 for its Thai seafood vermicelli salad. It is perked up with a sweet and sour sauce and lemongrass.
Be it bee hoon or tang hoon, I like any type of “hoon”.
WHAT IS THE BEST MEAL THAT YOU HAVE EATEN?
A degustation menu at Waku Ghin in Marina Bay Sands four years ago. I remembered that the tuna and salmon sashimi were so fresh and sweet. I also liked the steamed vegetables, which were so crunchy. Chef Tetsuya Wakuda happened to be in town then. I took a photo with him and he gave me one of his autographed cookbooks.
WHAT IS YOUR COMFORT FOOD?
I am a typical Teochew, so it is steamed pomfret. I can eat the entire fish including the bones, head and fins. If the fish is steamed well, the bones are brittle, so I can chew and swallow everything.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE OVERSEAS FOOD DESTINATION?
I visit Paris twice a year for holidays. I like the three Michelin-starred Arpege, which serves a vegetable-centric menu with produce grown from the restaurant’s garden. The broccoli and asparagus are so fresh and taste so good without any seasoning. I also like Le Comptoir du Relais in the Saint-Germain district for its hearty French food, such as beef stew, beef bone marrow topped with caviar and roast pigeon wrapped in cabbage.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE WINES?
I like Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron, a Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend, for its rich and multi- layered flavours and its long fruity finish. It pairs well with the goose meat that I eat whenever I am in Hong Kong. I also like the Ruinart rose, which is fragrant and is great with steamed lobster and oyster.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO COOK?
I cook only when I throw potluck parties for friends. My signature dishes include steamed glutinous rice with scallops, dried oysters, mushrooms, peanuts and pork belly. I learnt to make this dish from my mother’s friend, who was a hawker. I also make wontons filled with minced pork and prawns.
IF YOU COULD CHOOSE ANYONE TO HAVE A MEAL WITH, WHO WOULD IT BE AND WHY?
My late maternal grandmother. For Chinese New Year, she made a very good vegetarian ngoh hiang, which had julienned cabbage, turnips, carrots and mushrooms. I regretted not learning from her before she fell ill.
WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?
Everything that is deep-fried, such as chicken wings, wontons and curry puffs.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 21, 2017, with the headline ‘Inhaling a bag of fries’.