75-year-old Foo Sek Chuan prepares a Baked Alaska by the table

Old-school fixture Shashlik Restaurant to close amid manpower shortage

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Shashlik Restaurant is the Singaporean’s secret. A quaint 100-seater on the sixth floor of the slightly-shabby Far East Shopping Centre on Orchard Road, its clientele is unlikely to come from foot traffic. Its neighbours on that floor are empty lots, tuition centres and recruitment agencies. In the evenings, Shashlik is pretty much the only sign of life on that floor.

One does not come upon Shashlik by accident. You’ve got to know it’s there.

This would be the death knell for many, if not most, businesses, but over the course of 30 years Shashlik has built up a reputation that has Singaporean families return again and again.

The restaurant has been such a fixture in the city-state that many were shocked to hear last week that it’ll be closing for good at the end of the year.

Setting food on fire at Shashlik.
Setting food on fire at Shashlik.

I first visited Shashlik as a child; my mother was (and still is) a dedicated fan of their Baked Alaska. She often rang the restaurant up in advance to find out if they were serving the dessert that day. We would only go if they had it.

That dessert probably also gave me my first taste of alcohol, although all I remember was that I got very excited about having my food set on fire.

Behind that fiery, creamy dessert – and also the many other dishes that has spoken to many a foodie’s heart – lies a history of local enterprise stretching back as far as Singapore’s independent history, beginning with Troika, a popular Russian restaurant that opened in 1963.

First located on Bras Basah Road, the restaurant later moved to Liat Towers at Orchard Road. A Russian woman had been employed as a chef, with locals hired to work with her. These Hainanese chefs gradually brought in their friends to work as both kitchen and serving staff, giving the restaurant the reputation of being a Hainanese establishment.

“At one point about 90 per cent of our staff were all Hainanese,” said 64-year-old B.T. Tan, who worked at Troika for seventeen years.

Mounting debts forced Troika to shut down in December 1985, and the staff found themselves out of work.

“The staff had difficulties finding a job because most were quite senior,” Tan, now Shashlik’s restaurant manager, told The Online Citizen. “And most of them only had hands-on experience, because they started working in the industry at a time when there was no such thing as certificates or qualifications.”

Russian/Ukranian borscht. Photo by liz west from Boxborough, MA Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Russian/Ukranian borscht. Photo by liz west from Boxborough, MA
Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The staff then decided to create their own jobs, pooling money together to open Shashlik. Like Troika before it, Russian dishes were modified to suit the local palate; for example, Shashlik’s borscht is nothing like the classic beetroot-heavy Russian soup, bearing more resemblance to the Chinese luo song tang (sometimes also known as Chinese borscht).

Shashlik looks every bit its age. The décor of the restaurant hasn’t changed in years, and retains a sort of charm that is genuine old-school (as opposed to the commodified “old-school” now sold to Singaporeans at premium prices by hipster cafes).

Shashlik's borsch
Shashlik’s borsch

Its staff, too, are old hands at the business. Meals are still served via wood-and-steel pushcarts; it’s probably a safety hazard to expect a 75-year-old waiter to burst out of the kitchen carrying multiple steaks on sizzling hotplates without help. The waiters’ uniforms – white shirt, black bowtie, maroon vests – are a throwback to a time when dining out was a much more lavish treat than it is today.

Dishes – like the famous Baked Alaska – are still prepared by the table, and the waiting staff are now thoroughly practised at positioning the dessert at the best angle for diners to snap photos as they pour the flaming alcohol over the dish.

The age of the workforce is beginning to take its toll. “I am happy when regular customers come to dine, and look for me because I am a familiar face. But we are old and we need to rest,” 75-year-old Foo Sek Chuan, who has been a waiter for the past three decades, told The Straits Times.

75-year-old Foo Sek Chuan prepares a Baked Alaska by the table
75-year-old Foo Sek Chuan prepares a Baked Alaska by the table

The difficulity with hiring new staff is one of the reasons why Shashlik has decided to wind up at the end of the year, almost exactly 30 years after Troika shut its doors for good. Visiting the restaurant over the weekend, I could still see the job vacancy advertisements stuck to the door.

“Most Singaporeans are better-educated, and I don’t think they want to stand in the kitchen in the heat and sweat,” Tan told TOC. “And not just in the kitchen, even as serving staff we cannot get Singaporeans.”

The quota imposed on the hiring of foreign workers has also proved to be a problem. “You have to hire nine Singaporeans before you can hire one foreigner,” Tan said, describing this quota as “unrealistic”.

“If I can find nine Singaporeans to work for me, why would I need the foreigner?” he asked. “I can just hire the Singaporeans.”

“The government is saying to automate, but how do you automate waiter service? Do you want to pay to eat at a restaurant and talk to a machine?” he added. “This is a person-to-person business, we cannot automate our service.”

Another reason for Shashlik’s impending closure is a slow-down in business. Orchard Road has developed by leaps and bounds since they first started operations – there’s no shortage of dining options for customers, and in far more modern malls like ION and 313 Somerset that are not only more trendy than Far East Shopping Centre but also connected to MRT stations for convenience.

“It’s best to cut our losses and move on, rather than wait till things get dire,” Tan said.

But business has been booming after news of the upcoming closure broke. My husband and I arrived at the restaurant just as they were opening for their dinner service on Friday evening, and staff were already turning people away at the door.

Tan chuckles when he talks about the “crazy crowd” that has descended upon the restaurant over the last few days. “There’s been a sudden influx of customers, to the point that we almost can’t cope, especially since we only had a skeleton crew,” he said. “I know we’re closing, but we’re not closing tomorrow! You can take your time to come and eat.”

There might still be a sliver of hope for the restaurant, though – its owners are still hoping that someone will come forward to invest in or buy over the business. But Tan doesn’t think they will want to sell to just anybody: the hope is that any potential investor will maintain the style and flavour of the cuisine.

“If you carry on the name of Shashlik you have to carry on the food,” he said. “Otherwise what’s the point? You can just go and open a new restaurant.”

Unless such a benevolent investor can be located, Tan estimates that the business will shut down in December, leaving Singaporeans five months to get their fill of the Russian-food-for-Asian-palate fare. Reservations are recommended, and the geriatric waiters will push their serving carts as fast as they can go to feed everyone.