Dylan Ong: A Chef with an Edge

By Jon Lister | August 4, 2023

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In the diverse culinary world of Singapore, Dylan Ong has carved a niche.  His journey, from the son of a hawker to a recognized figure in the restaurant scene, is a narrative of impressive resilience and a deep-rooted passion for food. However, his path has not been without its share of challenges, reflecting the complex realities of the culinary world, and of poverty, in a country that rarely speaks about its underprivileged.

"My first memory was Hawker Food"

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Dylan’s earliest memories are steeped in the aromas and flavours of Singapore’s hawker community. His father was a hawker, and he spent his childhood in his family’s local hawker centre, a stone’s throw from his home. “My first memory was Hawker Food. My family were hawkers. So as a young kid, my dad would bring back food from the hawker every day,” Dylan recalls.

But Dylan’s childhood was far from idyllic. His father, though present, struggled with parenthood. Dylan found himself spending most of his time in the hawker community from a young age, seeking solace in the bustling food stalls and the kindness of the hawkers.

School was a challenge. “My grades were horrible. I guess the interest just wasn’t there because I enjoyed being in the hawker community so much,” Dylan admits.

His teenage years were marked by hardship and responsibility. He had to help his Dad in the hawker from a young age. “None of my brothers and sisters went to school, to be honest. We all grew up helping my Dad, in the hawker as well,” Dylan shares.

Dylan’s journey to becoming a renowned chef was in many ways shaped by his tough childhood. He recalls a time when his father had to run away from the police due to illegal hawking, which tragically resulted in his brother getting blinded from hot oil splashing into his eyes. This incident left a deep impact on Dylan and his family.

"There was only one option and I had to make it myself”

Dylan’s life took a significant turn when his father passed away. His father, a man with a complex relationship with fatherhood, had multiple health issues, including high cholesterol and high blood pressure. As his father’s health deteriorated, Dylan, aged just 16, found himself making tough decisions about his father’s treatment. His father’s leg had to be amputated due to gangrene, and finally, it was Dylan who had to make the most difficult decision of his life.

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At just 16 years old, as his father lay in hospital dying of kidney failure, Dylan was faced with three options: to go private, which was impossible due to their financial situation; to opt for a government route, which had a years-long waiting list; or to let his father go peacefully. Dylan recalls, “We didn’t have any money at all. We were so poor. There was only one option, and I had to make it myself”. 

"I saw how much he loved to cook, and that has made me who I am"

This decision, made in the face of financial constraints and emotional turmoil, was a defining moment in Dylan’s life, shaping his resilience and determination in the years to come.

Despite the hardships, his father’s passion for food was infectious. He would creatively use whatever ingredients they had at home to whip up delicious meals, sparking Dylan’s interest in the culinary world.  He recalls a time when he was harshly treated by his father while learning to cook, which seems to have shaped his determination. “I saw how much he loved to cook, and that has made me who I am.  He was very harsh, but I am thankful for that from him,” Dylan remembers.

Previous The Masses exterior from Medium

Today, Dylan is the proud owner of The Masses, a restaurant that reflects his unique culinary philosophy. It combines French cooking techniques with his Asian heritage and his perception of the local cuisine, a blend he refers to as “Franco Asian”. One of Dylan’s (and my) favourite dishes at The Masses is “The Cabbage,” a dish he created five years ago that has been a hit ever since. His love for various cuisines is evident in the diverse menu at The Masses

Despite the high-quality produce sourced from France and elsewhere, Dylan strives to keep the restaurant accessible, with the hope that people can dine there multiple times a week.

Current The Masses exterior from Trip.com

From his humble beginnings in the hawker community to his current status as a renowned chef, Dylan’s journey is a testament to his resilience, passion, and love for food. His story serves as an inspiration to many, reminding us that no matter where we come from, it’s our passion and determination that ultimately define our success.

Watch Shorts: Dylan Ong episode now.