Wizard of the wok


People throw curious glances at Devid Retnasamy when they pass by 7 Wonders seafood restaurant on Upper Thomson Road.

Clad in a dark-blue double-breasted jacket with red buttons and apron, Devid is usually busy preparing Chinese dishes in the open kitchen.

"People wonder how an Indian is a cook in a Chinese restaurant," said the 37-year-old. "Sometimes they walk up to me and talk to me in English or Tamil.

"They are pleasantly surprised when I tell them that I cannot understand either language. I tell them to wait and get a translator to help out.

"They look at me in amazement. I then tell them that I can make any Chinese dish they want - and most of them will support me."

Devid, a Malaysian, is of Tamil descent, but he cannot speak the language. Neither can he speak any other Indian language.

He can speak a smattering of English and Malay. However, surprisingly, he is fluent in Mandarin.

"People are amazed that I can speak Chinese so well," he said. "They do not understand my background," he added with a touch of mystery.

The peculiar situation he grew up in also made him an accomplished cook of Chinese dishes.

Devid has earned fame for his preparations such as curry fish cake, prawn paste chicken, buttermilk cheese prawn, curry fish head, fried garlic pork belly, chilli crab and home-made beancurd.

He revealed that he uses varied ingredients and sauces and has his own recipes.

"His dishes are special," said Mr Shaun Lek, a marketing executive with Hashtag Holding who is a regular at 7 Wonders. "He has the ability to incorporate what the customers want.

"He introduced a new dish, dried shrimps with French beans, which is very popular. His home-made beancurd is also a hit. The seasoning he does is awesome."

Nanyang Technological University undergraduates Ling Shan and Yong Han turned up at 7 Wonders to taste Devid's food after they saw a video of his cooking skills on Facebook.

"We ordered quite a bit to check him out," said Yong. "It is very good.

"He gives a personal touch to the dishes. They were of a quality much higher than our expectations."

Ling praised the sauces and ingredients that Devid uses. "These are rarely found in other Chinese restaurants in Singapore," she said. "His mala (the spicy and numbing flavour in Chinese cuisine) is also very good."

Indians have also taken a liking to Devid's preparations. They often look for him at 7 Wonders. "Some of them will try to talk to me in Tamil, but I will tell them that I don't understand the language," he said. "They are very surprised, but they will regularly come to support me."

Mrs Revathy Shanmugham, who lives in the Upper Thomson area, has taken a liking to the hotplate beancurd that Devid makes.

"The flavours are so special," she said. "He has some special skills. My family members all love his beancurd."

Mr Kaldip Singh, who is in the hospitality business and lives in Punggol, discovered Devid's food by chance while visiting a friend at Upper Thomson Road. "I immediately liked what he made," said Mr Singh. "He can switch his style to suit Indian palates. He is very accommodating.

"I especially like his prawn paste chicken. I now go there regularly to have his food."

Devid revealed that he picked up skills in Chinese cooking because of the circumstances he grew up in.

He was given away by his parents when he was four years old to an orphanage in Ipoh, where he was born. "Subsequently, I was adopted by a Chinese family with whom I lived till I was 12 years old," he said.

Devid dropped out of school at age 12 and decided to forge a career of his own. "I had a very difficult childhood," he said. "I don't know who my parents are. Neither am I aware of the existence of any relative.

"The Chinese family in Ipoh took me in. But I left them when I realised they were into some shady business.

"I had no choice but to find work and make a living of my own when I was a boy."

Devid started by washing dishes at a Chinese food stall. Gradually, he mastered the art of cooking and became an assistant cook. Thereafter, he began to branch out on his own and worked at several Chinese restaurants in Ipoh. He also owned his own food stall there for nearly three years.

"Life was tough," he said "But I managed to survive because I love cooking. Customers began to like my style and soon I began to make a name for myself."

His dishes became so popular that in 2002 he got an offer to work at a Chinese restaurant in Singapore.

"I grabbed it as I would be earning more money," he said. "From 2002 to 2014 I worked at several Chinese restaurants and food stalls in places like Hougang, Yishun, Choa Chu Kang and Sengkang. I would travel between Malaysia and Singapore."

In 2014, Devid decided to go back to Malaysia to set up his own restaurant. He ran his own business in Johor Bahru, until he got an offer to work at 7 Wonders in August last year.

"The owners said that, apart from good pay, they will give me free accommodation and meals," said Devid. "I found it very attractive. I could go back to JB at least once a week."

He has a house in JB, where his wife Qi Yana, 37, lives with their three children, daughters Zi Yi, 11, and Zi Han, 7, and son Liang Yu, 4.

Devid married Qi, a Chinese national from Shandong, in 2008, after they met while working at adjacent food stalls in Singapore.

The chef said he wants to learn Indian cuisine but has no time. He works from 11am to 9pm six days a week at 7 Wonders. His aim is to help 7 Wonders expand and open more outlets in Singapore - like the new one coming up in Tampines on Aug 1.

"His skills are good," said Mr Jeremy Foo, who started 7 Wonders in December 2018 along with a partner. "I believe that when it comes to good skills, race doesn't play a part.

"Devid stands out in a Chinese restaurant where the other two cooks are Chinese. People ask for his preparations and they like what he makes. Many of them have become repeat customers and we are happy and proud of what Devid has achieved."



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