A conversation with Su-Lyn Tan, mompreneur and food author

12 September 2018 - interviews

Cover photo courtesy of Su-Lyn Tan.

Growing up in a family that loved to dine, it is no wonder that food became an essential part of mompreneur’s life, Su-Lyn Tan. Her venture into the culinary world began while she learnt to cook full-fledged meals while studying overseas, but took off when she became a food writer for a magazine. Turning her love for food into a career, Su-Lyn went on to publish several cookbooks and food guides including The Lonely Planet’s World Food Guide to Malaysia and Singapore.

These days, you can find the former food journalist juggling between running her communications agency, Ate Group, and caring for her three children. Despite her busy life, Su-Lyn continues to share her latest gastronomic delights on her Instagram and on popular food blog, The Chubby Hubby. Co-written with her husband, Su-Lyn pens easy to follow recipes on The Chubby Hubby that are sure to beef up any working parent’s cookbook.

For this busy working mum, self-care does not come easily but Su-Lyn recognises that self-care is a continuous work-in-progress. She lets us in on her life hack, “Extend the number of hours you utilise in a day by setting aside a few for yourself after everyone at work and at home have gone to bed. Those are the best pockets of time for self-care.” We couldn’t agree more.

We chat with Su-Lyn about her career, motherhood and how she balances all of it.

TMC: What did you want to be when you were a child?

Su-Lyn Tan (SL): I wanted to be an author. I was a bookish child and a pretty indiscriminate, voracious reader. I would read the text on the side of a cereal box if you gave one to me.

TMC: What’s the first thing you do when you wake up?

SL: See if I can steal a few more minutes of shuteye? Usually, one of my three children wakes me up. These days it’s most frequently my youngest son. He’s still an infant. I rarely wake up to an alarm and it’s all systems go from the moment I open my eyes.

TMC: If you came with a label, what would it say?

SL: Anti-social but loyal.

TMC: What trait do you most value in others?

SL: Empathy.

TMC: What does success mean to you?

The ability to acknowledge when you’ve done a good job, and yet still strive to do an even better job the next time around.

TMC: Name a fear that keeps you up at night.

SL: Leaving my kids without the skills to live independently and contribute positively to their communities.

TMC: What’s your go-to pick-me-up when you encounter self-doubt?

SL: I treat my Instagram community like a confessional. When I doubt myself, I present my anxieties to them. I find that the process of owning my doubt and working through it until I’m able to share it publicly gives me the capacity to rise above it.

TMC: Name a book that changed your life.

SL: At this point in my life, it’s difficult to credit just one title. But The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner, which I read as part of my undergraduate studies in communications, continues to inform the way I interpret people’s words and actions.

TMC: Share a quote that gives you strength or peace.

SL: I’m not religious, but it would be Ecclesiastes 3:1 from the Bible: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” It helps me to embrace my life as it is and is a reminder that nothing is permanent. There is a time for everything.

TMC: How do you practise self-care?

SL: I’m truly bad at it. I first need to work at teaching myself that I deserve it. I still tend to put work and family ahead of myself. What I’ve increasingly allowed myself is pockets of time to return to reading some fiction. I believe that reading allows me to subconsciously process whatever challenges I face in my life — mentally shifting pieces of the puzzle around until they somehow fit.

Above: Maman Handwritten Ring in rose gold vermeilPhoto credit: Su-Lyn Tan

TMC: What would you tell your 20-year-old self that you wish you knew then?

SL: You don’t know half of what life is about yet and long-term financial planning is not only a guy thing. The ability to make money doesn’t necessarily lead to financial security. While money isn’t everything, you need to be smart about how you make it and what you do with it.

TMC: What are 3 things you do to lead a purposeful life?

SL: - I resist the impulse to compare my life with that of others.
- I have decided that the current season of my life is to be devoted to work and family. These contribute to my personal happiness.
- I accept my flaws and limitations to focus on simply getting what’s at hand done to the best of my abilities.

TMC: What's your favourite
- Food

SL: Good French salted butter. It makes nearly everything taste better.

- Place of calm/rest in Singapore
SL: My kitchen after everyone else has gone to bed. It is a meditative space for me where I cook and bake alone.

- Family ritual
SL: Story time at 7.30pm before the kids go to bed. I love sharing our love for books with our children and discovering the books they enjoy most.

TMC: At what point in your life did you learn about food/cooking? What called you to it?

SL: It was the opportunity to write about food in my first job as a magazine writer that turned my love for food into a professional focus. Meeting my husband, who is as much a food lover and home cook, transformed it into an obsession.

TMC: What’s the best piece of advice you've received in your career?

SL: Probably to schedule family time and me-time like it’s work. It gets moved around just like work appointments do, but at least it’s IN my calendar.

TMC: What’s the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in your career?

SL: I stopped pursuing my doctorate to build the agency 12 years ago. It continues to haunt me as I hate leaving things unfinished. But I am consoled by the realisation that I have been applying the learnings from my years of research on the clients we work with.

TMC: What are your thoughts on balancing work and life? How do you go about it?

SL: It’s a tough one to achieve and unlike learning to ride a bike, it doesn’t stay with you. Sometimes we hit that sweet spot. Sometimes we don’t. I accept this and just keep working at achieving it again and again.

TMC: In your opinion, what are the top 3 things someone should consider if they’re thinking of pursuing a similar path?

SL: - Be sure you make the time to learn the ropes. There is no shortcut to get to where you want to be
- Remain true to yourself
- Be prepared to spend your life learning and reinventing yourself