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My Life My Way Straits Times Series

Love of food stirs ‘gastronaut’ David Yip’s imagination

Earlier this year, David Yip flew to Hong Kong for an interesting assignment.

Over four hours, the 57-year-old introduced Mr Ido Leffler and his wife to interesting street food in the former British colony.

Based in the United States, Mr Leffler is a wealthy Australian serial entrepreneur who founded several successful businesses, including global natural beauty brand Yes To Inc and school supplies company Yoobi.

For his efforts, Mr Yip was given a business-class ticket, put up in a five-star hotel and rewarded with a handsome hongbao.

The youthful and energetic man calls himself a "gastronaut". After a colourful career which included stints as fashion merchandiser, magazine editor and publisher, he now devotes his time to his passion: food.

A chef, culinary researcher and food consultant, he writes regularly for publications such as The Business Times and Lianhe Zaobao, gives talks and cooking classes, and conducts food tours for journalists, industry professionals and foodies in Singapore, Hong Kong and China.

He is also the founder of Jumping Table, an informal group which organises unique private dinners for foodies. Tomorrow, it will host a banquet showcasing fine-dining Foshan cuisine at Lucky8 Restaurant in Scotts Road.

The event is helmed by Chef Xu Jingye, a graduate of the Culinary Facility of Foshan School of Higher Learning and chef-owner of 102 Private Kitchen, a famous restaurant in Foshan, one of four ancient towns in China.

Bubbly with a flamboyant sartorial style, Mr Yip is the only son of a businessman and his homemaker wife. His early years were peripatetic, spent in the US and the United Kingdom.

After completing his national service, he cut his professional teeth as a junior administrative employee for credit card company Diners Club.

When he saw an ad for a fashion buyer for Daimaru in Liang Court a couple of years later, he went for it despite his lack of experience.

"I went to the interview with a storyboard about how I saw fashion. The Japanese boss liked it and I was hired. When I first started, I didn't even know how to do budgets. But I learnt fast," says Mr Yip, who was soon negotiating with local designers over their collections, displaying merchandise and managing profits and loss like a veteran.

Restlessness, however, kicked in after three years. A voracious reader who also loves to write, he decided to become a fashion writer for Signature, the in-house magazine for Diners Club credit card members.

Over the next decade, he climbed the editorial ladder in the magazine business. Thanks to a good head for numbers and a good nose for business, he rose to become group publisher for Panpac Media in the 1990s, overseeing more than 10 lifestyle titles including Wine&Dine, Home Concepts and Today's Parents.

A new chapter in his life began when he gave up magazines for books and joined Times Publishing Group as an associate publisher in the early 2000s.

One of the first publishers to recognise local culinary talents, he came up with a series of cookbooks by Emmanuel Stroobant (Saint Pierre), Sam Leong (Forest) and Chan Chen Hei (Chef Chan's Restaurant) and revamped old titles by cooking matriarchs Leong Yee Soo and Lee Chin Koon, the mother of Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

Hit perhaps by the proverbial mid-life crisis, he quit in 2002 and decided to head out to Hong Kong.

"I wanted to do something I'd never done before. I was in my 40s and I told myself I needed to get out of my comfort zone. If I didn't, I'd become complacent," says Mr Yip, who started a small eatery Bar Of Soup and an underground bar 37+ in Central, Hong Kong's financial hub, with a few friends.

The foodie who has been cooking and collecting recipes since he was seven helmed the 16-seat Bar Of Soup himself, whipping up Western soups with an Asian twist.

Before long, he was a regular in Hong Kong food magazines and on TV shows, talking about food and recipes. The exposure even led to cooking demonstrations in supermarkets.

"It was a great learning experience. You had to develop some showmanship and a larger-than- life personality because you would not get people's attention otherwise," he says.

Two years later, he closed Bar Of Soup to open a bigger 50-seat restaurant Shiok serving Singapore and Chinese cuisine. The restaurant had four chefs including Mr Yip, who cooked for private dining guests.

When the rent became too astronomical, he decided to call it a day and moved to Hangzhou with his long-time partner, a freelance writer, in 2012. There, he worked on food and hospitality projects, including one for a resort in Xixi Wetland Park, a picturesque area in the west of Hangzhou.

In 2014, he came home.

There was no pressure to start another business or to find another nine-to-five job because of the nest egg he had built from savings, shares and smart flipping during the property boom.

He continued pursuing his culinary passions instead.

By then, his knowledge, especially of heritage and disappearing cuisine, had made him one of the top 40 food personalities on Ctrip's food portal. Ctrip is the biggest travel website in China with 120 million subscribers.

His culinary musings have also earned him more than 10,000 followers - including chefs and food industry professionals - on Sina Weibo, one of China's most popular microblogging websites.

"I am curious about food and I am very serious when I engage on social media. I ask, and answer, a lot of questions."

Pursuing his passion not only gives him "pocket money" but has opened many doors for him, he says. Last month, the owner of DaGe, a popular restaurant in Guangzhou, asked Mr Yip to cook a Singaporean meal for 40 Chinese journalists and food personalities. Dishes he whipped up included babi assam, cereal prawns and chilli crab.

In Singapore, the tourism board taps his expertise to host foreign food journalists. Local restaurants including Labyrinth - which earned a Michelin star this year - also seek him out for food ideas and concepts.

Mr Yip started Jumping Table in Singapore a few years ago to curate unique meals for foodie friends. Last year, he worked with Mr Sin Leong and Mr Hooi Kok Wai - the two surviving members of the Four Heavenly Kings of Singapore Cuisine - to recreate popular wedding dishes from the 1960s and 1970s.

"I don't make money from this. In fact, I lose money when people don't show up. I just want to share my love for food," says Mr Yip.

Tomorrow's event - which showcases the fine-dining heritage of Foshan - will be the last edition of Jumping Table. But he has other culinary dreams including starting a one-week food festival, focusing on chefs from different parts of China.

"Food connects us, to each other, the world around us and our history. I've found out so much about my heritage, and my past on my journey. And I want to share this with as many people as I can."

This is the second of a six-part series on individuals, aged 55 and above, who lead active and meaningful lives. For more information on the MyWay Programme, click here.

Photo credits to Desmond Wee.