Chef Tamara Chavez: Ceviche, Hokkien Noodles and Her Love for Southeast Asia

The head chef of Singapore's TONO spearheads the growth of Latin food in the region. 
Wednesday 18 December 2019

It’s not everyday you find a Mexican top chef who enjoys a hearty serving of Singaporean hokkien noodles. But Tamara Chavez is not your ordinary talent, as she decided to take the leap from Latin America to the buzzing streets of Southeast Asia.

We had the pleasure of meeting her during San Pellegrino’s Guest Chef Series, at Horizon Grill, Banyan Tree Kuala Lumpur.

Familiar flavours: Burgers, music and grandma’s masterclass

“Truth is I came to Singapore because the opportunities in my country were limited. My uncle who is a musician and has been residing in Singapore for over 25 years told me about a job opening in the kitchen, to which I applied and secured the job of a cook,” said Chavez.

Tamara’s love for South American flavours dates back to her teenage years. She learned her way around her family restaurant when she was 12 and quit school four years later.

“It’s funny because I started in a fast food chain. On the first day, I felt the adrenaline to finish the burgers when all the staff moved their hands to incomparable rhythms. I knew that this was my world and I would cook for the rest of my life,” said Chavez.

Like most chefs, she owes her passion for cooking to her family, most notably, her grandmother. “My family definitely had a lot of influence in my career because I grew up in an environment of music and food,” she said.

“I learned the basics of the kitchen from taking orders, working with products, transforming ingredients and serving the customer. My first mentor in the kitchen was my grandmother,” added Chavez.

Latin cuisine in Southeast Asia

Several years after moving to Singapore, and Chavez has never looked back. She has contributed to the growth of Latin food in the region, with her time as a station chef in Singapore’s Mexican and French-inspired El Mero Mero being the first step in this direction. Now, Chavez can be found running the kitchen at TONO, Asia’s first authentic Peruvian cevicheria.

For most people, taking a leap to Southeast Asia from a different background would naturally be daunting. For Chavez, she saw this as an opportunity to promote South American delicacies.

“I want to become part of a change where Latin gastronomy is recognised in Asia. When you visit us in TONO, you feel you are travelling to Latin America, especially Peru. It is not easy, but it is amazing,” she added.

But it hasn’t been all plain sailing for Latin cuisine in this region. According to Chavez, Mexican flavours have been previously misjudged as Texas-Mexican treats. Thankfully, with people now travelling to different parts of South America, their palates are more open to receiving a dose of Peruvian, Argentinian, Brazilian and even Venezuelan delicacies, as offered by TONO in their Latin brunch menu.

When ceviche met Singaporean hokkien noodles

Despite the above mentioned challenges faced by Latin food in Southeast Asia, Chavez believes there are several similarities that fuels her passion for promoting these flavours in a new environment.

She is a strong advocate of the two cuisines sharing the same set of base ingredients, like chilli, lemon, coriander and rice. But above all else, “The most important thing is we enjoy eating like Asians,” added Chavez.

The growth of South American food in this continent is also put down to two other reasons. “I think Latin America has started to export talented chefs to Asia and I’m seeing more restaurants that offer products and dishes from our region,” said Chavez.

Additionally, “We celebrated Latinada last year, the first Latin gastronomy festival in Asia and we also saw an increase in the attendees. I think our job as Latinos is to spread the knowledge on our cuisine because if you’d want to get to know a country better, you have to try their food,” said TONO’s head chef.

But Chavez isn’t just about all the work and no play. She also knows how to let her hair down with salsa, especially since her family admitted she learned how to dance before walking.

Lastly, if you can’t find her in the kitchen or at the bar, keep an eye out for the Mexican-born chef enjoying her favourite treat, Singaporean hokkien noodles, of course!

Related: Best Places to Eat and Drink in Southeast Asia