Photo credit: Vernon Leow
Google Willin Low and the search engine throws up a list of write-ups about him. A lawyer-turned-chef/restaurateur, Willin left his cushy career as a lawyer after eight years to pursue his dream as a chef.
While most people know Willin as the chef/restaurateur behind Wild Rocket, his flagship restaurant that has not only hosted our Prime Minister, celebrities and dignitaries, he was also named one of three chefs to change the Singapore culinary scene by The New York Times.
He is the originator of “Mod Sin” or Modern Singaporean cuisine, a term coined by Willin when he was studying in the UK and describes his style of cuisine.
I understand you have not been officially diagnosed with dyslexia. It was your brother, a doctor, who suspected you could be dyslexic. Could you tell us what led to that suspicion?
I was getting the names of people wrong again. I usually only remember the first letter of the names. For example, if someone is called Andrew, I will always say that person’s name starts with the letter A. And on one such occasion, my brother, a doctor, said “I think you are dyslexic!” And proceeded to ask me a few other questions before concluding that I am. And it was at this point that everything suddenly made sense to me.
As a student, what struggles did you face?
There were three subjects that I just could not follow as a student:
1. Chemistry in Upper Secondary, especially the periodic table. It was just a nightmare and my Chemistry teacher kept picking on me and taunting me. She made life hell for me. I guess you can say we did not have much chemistry (smiles). I learnt that in life, not everyone will like you or make life a breeze for you.
2. Economics in JC. I just could not follow any of the concepts. It was as though everything was taught in a foreign language. Later on in life as I ran my own restaurants, I understand all the economic concepts so easily and wondered why I never did well in Economics.
3. Accounting. I did a module in accounts in university and it was the worst thing ever. All the numbers and tables just looked completely alien. I think my professor passed me out of pity (laughs).
How did you manage to do so well academically and ended up reading law in university? Given the heavy reading involved, how did you cope?
Reading isn’t a problem for me as much as writing is. Chinese characters and numbers are much more difficult for me. I recall being in tears in kindergarten as I kept writing the mirror image of the Chinese character for knife (刀). Spelling is also an issue. I tend to spell words as I hear them. My parents blamed my carelessness. Since I didn’t know I was dyslexic, I just assumed everyone else had the same problems as me. I kept calm and carried on.
What got you started on your journey to becoming a chef? Was cooking something you have always been passionate about? How was that passion cultivated?
I love eating and I am a very fussy eater. When I was a student in the UK, the food at the halls of residence was dismal and out of necessity, I started cooking and soon discovered another passion, that I love making people happy through food.
How was your flagship restaurant, Wild Rocket conceptualised and what was the creative process that went into the creation of the dishes? I read that you love taking apart what is a traditional dish, rehash them and change it into something different while retaining the spirit of the dish. Was it something very spontaneous and instinctive to you?
Again, it started when I was cooking in the UK. I missed Singapore food but could never find all the ingredients I needed so I had to improvise with whatever I could get my hands on. The result never looked like Singapore food but always tasted like home. I call this cuisine Mod Sin and it stuck. Yes, creating dishes come quite instinctively and most times, I taste the food in my head first before I cook it and taste it in my mouth. And all my food creations start with drawings.
Dyslexics are known to be strategic, big picture thinkers. How do you think that might have helped you in your role as a chef/restaurateur?
Ah, another piece of the puzzle (laughs). I did not realise it was linked to my dyslexia. Yes, I am always looking at the big picture of what I want to achieve, whether it’s the Mod Sin cuisine or more specifically my restaurants, and it serves as a guiding principle for the steps I take thereafter.
As an adult now, do you struggle with things that dyslexics tend to be weaker at, such as poor working memory, slow processing speed and organisation of thoughts. Can you give some examples?
In order for me to understand anything, I need to organise it in a way that I can understand. I draw mind maps to see the overall big picture in order to understand the small details.
I also cannot concentrate on just doing one thing. I need to do many things at the same time. I suspect I may have ADHD. I manage by doing three things at one time so I can concentrate. For example, I will study Japanese, exercise and watch tv at the same time.
I will think in my head the correct telephone or account number but when I type it out it’s wrong. This happens regularly and I manage by checking and rechecking when I do online banking.
Verbal directions are most stressful. I cannot follow after the second step. To manage, I take videos of demonstrations on how to operate electronic gadgets.
Lastly, you were part of a movement called Life Beyond Grades, where its aim is to remind parents and children alike that grades do not define us. How did your parents encourage you as a child/student?
On the eve of my Secondary 2 geography exams, I was panicking because I was ill prepared. Dad told me it’s ok to fail, but important to learn from the failure. He said failing isn’t the end of the world so don’t worry, keep calm and carry on.
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Christina has a Diploma in Disability Studies and is a licensed Davis Facilitator.