Evelyn Chen May Have Recommended Your Last Meal and You Didn’t Even Know ItMarch 14, 2018
For those that consider themselves food nerds, Evelyn Chen is one of those people who has probably influenced your decision on where or what to eat in one way or another. A prolific food writer, editor, consultant, food event organizer, and Regional Chair of World’s 50 Best (Southeast Asia, South) since 2015, Chen is a tastemaker who is deeply entrenched in the international scene of food.
You may have read her works in Time Out Singapore, Destin Asian, Travel & Leisure SEA, South China Morning Post, Time Magazine, New York Times, CNN Travel, or Conde Nast Traveller. Chen is also a former Editor at Zagat Singapore, a current Contributing Editor for 12Forward’s Singapore Guide, and recently signed on to be a Contributing Editor for the 2018 edition of Where Chefs Eat.
Despite her impressive resumé, or perhaps because of the experience that comes with it, Chen is one of the most humble people we’ve had the opportunity to speak with, approaching her history matter-of-factly and with no airs. She tells us, in fact, that how people have reacted to her articles has taught her much about the human ego, relaying a story of a man who demanded an explanation for her exclusion of him in an article of hers that had been very well-received by the community (the article was based on interviews, and none of her interviewees mentioned him).
And regardless of her wide influence, Chen brushes off the term food expert. Instead, she emphasizes her own personal passion for cuisine, and shows us what it is to be a food writer by making her story about the chefs that shape the zeitgeist. She tells us how her role in publishing can support them: “I think when someone of influence works on something very passionately (like in the case of Massimo Bottura on using food waste to cook for the homeless), it rubs off on other chefs in a positive way and they start to consciously think of minimising wastages in the kitchen. Journalists who read about the initiative want to support Bottura and when they write about it, they help to grow the topic even more. Passion, in my opinion, is an essential element.”
Chen can’t help but speak of Bottura with the deepest esteem, looking up to him for his humility, compassion and dedication, and showing us just how indeed there is little room for ego in the lives of people who want to make a difference. “[Bottura] has made me, and many other people, realise the impact of food waste but instead of just talking about it, he has opened up shelters in several cities serving meals prepped with near-expiry food for the less-fortunate. That, to me, is gold.”
For a writer as prolific as Chen, it’s surprising to learn that it was a field she merely “stumbled upon.” Though she admits to being a foodie since a child, “influenced by my food-loving father who would take us to his favourite hawker stalls, ‘tze char‘ (stir fry) eateries as well as restaurants”, she tells us she had “never thought of becoming a food writer.” Though her previous jobs paved the way for it, as they allowed her to travel all over the world, and it was for her own personal enjoyment that she sought out good restaurants and unique dining experiences.
After she retired from the jet-setting life when her first child was born, she was approached by a website associated with Gault Millau to recommend and review 30 Singapore-based restaurants, a project that marks the beginning of her career in food writing. “At that time, Singapore’s F&B scene was becoming more vibrant and the assignments started flowing in. Having said that, my life in freelance writing did not start out easy. I do think that passion and a lot of hard work helped.”
I like to write for nice people and while I have written for many different publications, I’ve chosen to continue working with publications that treat their writers with respect, with no unreasonable demands.”
“Years later,” she goes on, “my big break arrived by way of Zagat Singapore editorial work. However, Google had purchased Zagat by then and they did not see the Singapore launch to completion although the project was successfully completed.”
Though Chen juggles many roles, she is first and foremost a family woman, with a husband and children. She tells us, “I think women are naturally gifted jugglers and what I juggle is no different to what most women have to manage in life.” Though she makes it sound simple, her day is filled with the routine that builds the character of the most respected writers, starting her day at 6AM with family tasks and a leisurely breakfast with her husband before a morning filled with writing and perhaps meetings in the afternoon. When asked how she manages it all, she says that she relies on her family for support, and on days that need extra support, she says, “Chinese tea also helps to get me through the day, it calms me down particularly on tough days.”