As far as chicken rice stalls go, Nat's Chicks is a pretty interesting one.
It's almost a parody of the traditional chicken rice eatery you'd find at a hawker centre. Its name is irreverent in a fashionable kind of way, and where you'd typically see chickens hanging in a window, here there are chicken plushies arranged in a neat row — a sly wink to its older and less cool counterparts.
"They're from Miniso," the store's millennial owner, 31-year-old Natalie Lee, informs me when I comment on them.
Lee is a second-generation hawker. There is a pattern to the demographic — second-generation hawkers, quite naturally, want to make their mark with their modern sensibilities and youthful ambition.
The playbook for this means sleek new signboards, trendy new menu items, and a social media push replacing faded newspaper clippings from 1984. Some open new branches; others go the franchise route.
All of them build on the names and successes of their predecessors. After all, F&B is a tough business.
Second-generation hawkers tend to want to forge their own paths. In that sense, Lee is no different.
The only difference is that she's chosen to go her own way entirely.
Boutique chicken rice
Nat's Chicks, Lee explains, is "more of a boutique chicken rice concept".
That word — boutique — sets off some alarm bells in my head. As I head down for the interview, I text my boss if I can put the chicken rice I'm hoping to try on the company card. "Hahahaha," he replies.
We turn the corner, and I'm half expecting something like a brunch cafe. Aesthetic and expensive.
But the first word that comes to mind when I see the small, open-air eatery at People's Park Centre is quirky.
Apart from the chicken plushies, it's actually a pretty classic coffee-shop setup, with handwritten signs and a random dried-grass fringe over the counter.
The whole effect is somewhat unpolished. But I like it.
The menu is where the "boutique" starts to show. Like the shop itself, it's a touch haphazard but bears unmistakable traces of that millennial influence.
Sure, there's the traditional kampung chicken rice — her dad's recipe, complete with kampung chicken and extra-spicy chili that's made in-house.
But what Lee seems particularly proud of is her "chill menu", where she transforms chicken rice into snack items like fries and tacos.
Despite being a devout chicken rice lover, Lee admits that she does like experimenting with new items.
"I'm a foodie, so I appreciate a lot of good food," she explains. "But you definitely cannot eat chicken rice every day...[that's why] I have this chill menu that I created."
No affiliation, not a second branch
Lee's pretty open about her special connection with chicken rice. After all, her dad founded Five Star Chicken Rice, a popular hawker store at East Coast Road.
"When we were kids, we did help out...we'd wash the plates, wipe the plates. But the kitchen was slippery so my dad would ask us to keep out of the area," Lee recalls. They were around primary school age at the time.
Some of her fondest memories from the time involved the car ride back home after work. "We rarely see him [at work] because he's so engaged in his job," Lee says.
"But when we took the car back, we'd chit-chat about what's going on today, what's interesting for the day.
So those were the enjoyable moments."
It was only when her dad retired and sold the business that she started missing his chicken rice. "I love chicken rice a lot, and those were my childhood memories," she says.
"So I was trying to find out like, where can I get these childhood days again? I was very sad that I couldn't find it anymore...so that's what ignited the passion."
That was why she and her brother Lex asked their dad for his famous recipe. He acquiesced, and the pair opened Ah Five Hainanese Chicken Rice in hopes of continuing their dad's legacy.
One year in, however, Lee decided to go solo.
"Everyone's business direction is different, and for me I wanted a very unique brand...more of a boutique chicken rice concept, instead of coffee shop only."
Although she's brought her dad's recipe over to her new eatery, she has been quick to clarify that it has no affiliation with her dad's or brother's brands.
"Nat's Chicks is a standalone eatery. Nothing associated with Ah Five Chicken Rice," she said in an 8Days interview.
Not really a chef
It's not immediately clear what drives her. Despite being heir apparent to her dad's success, the 31-year-old has never considered it a necessity to follow in his footsteps.
Prior to joining F&B, Lee, who has a Master's degree in intellectual property (IP) management, worked in the corporate sector for six years.
This isn't one of those stories where a high-powered career woman trades her nine-to-five in pursuit of her true passion however. She isn't a natural chef, the kind who enjoys cooking just for the act of it.
Neither is she looking for a quieter alternative to corporate life. "[IP] is definitely my passion as well," she says.
The reason why she chose to pursue F&B is simpler: she just really, really believes in chicken rice. And particularly in her dad's chicken rice.
"I'm here to keep the tradition as much as I can," she explains.
"I started this brand that follows the traditional recipes, so that people can remember all these traditional dishes...[while also] having a conducive environment for people to enjoy chicken rice, and giving more varieties for people."
Chicken rice is a "trade secret recipe," as Lee puts it. With rising costs and changing tastes, there's a real possibility that the hawker trade will someday come to an end; that traditional dishes, like chicken rice, will someday become more a novelty than status quo.
Perhaps this is inevitable. But Lee, at least, hopes to do her part to stave off that particular unhappy ending.
"I don't want to look back and think about why I didn't proceed back then.
So just leave no regrets, you know?"
Success on her own terms
It wasn't her hawker heritage or her mid-career change that really stood out to me though.
Rather, it was how she was so quick to deny any affiliation with her dad's brand — a name which might honestly have given her a step up or two, especially in the cutthroat world of F&B.
Prior to the 8Days interview, she'd never even told her parents about her new shop, adding that she'd only tell them "after [she] succeeds".
Lee explains that there are two steps to what she calls "success". The first is preserving tradition. The second is breaking even, a milestone that she has yet to hit.
So why not leverage on her parents' success to build her own, like most other second-gen hawkers?
I don't ask her this during the interview, but at the end of it, I have a pretty good guess as to why.
Lee takes pride in her food — but everything, right down to the condiments, are things that she herself enjoys.
She created the "chill menu" simply because she wanted to have her own favourite foods in the store. The chilli is extra-spicy because that's how she likes it; the rice, glossy with collagen. "Not oily," she specifies.
Plus, of course, there's the whole fact that she brought her dad's recipe to life simply because she missed her childhood dish.
And when I ask about the new steamboat item on the menu — I assume it's to supplement her revenue stream — she replies with a sheepish, "Uh...it's because I felt like eating steamboat."
I get the sense that more than her love for chicken rice alone, her going solo really stems from a desire to do what she wants, on her own terms.
While her dad is clearly an inspiration, she wants her own success — not a derivation of his.
At the end of the interview, I ask her about her creative process. How she comes up with new items on her menu, like her chicken-rice-flavoured fries dish (which, by the way, is delicious).
"Most of the menu items that come out...are sort of [my cravings]," she explains with a laugh.
"Cos this brand is called Nat's Chicks, you know. Listen to Nat."
Top image by Alfie Kwa