We had the good fortune of connecting with Emily Lim and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Emily, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
Risk. Risk or recklessness? What is life without them?

They’re the only way I’ve propelled myself forward.

About 10 years ago, I had pivoted from doing marketing and mass communications to diving into a completely unrelated field. I pursued a degree in Culinary Arts Management in the school of Culinary Institute of America in Singapore, knowing that I was going into an industry that is male-dominated, grueling, and mentally and physically strenuous. My friends thought that I was crazy.

Which was expected, because I come from a country where almost everyone my age has a template for the model of success. You get your degree, get married, get a flat that’s heavily subsidized by the government, get your car, get your money. Ta-dah! You’ve become the ideal citizen.

BUT IT IS SO LINEAR. IT IS BORING. IT IS JUST. SO. EXPECTED.

It is entirely what I absolutely find no joy in. Simply because, what I like to do seems to be high risk. So much so that in order for me to further myself in the field, I took a risk and moved to a country where I got an internship, followed by a job. From there I got discovered and was asked to compete on Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games. To which I obviously said, “yeah let’s do it!”. I had no idea who I’d be competing with but I did win the World Fusion Championship along with my tv team member, Mo! From there they asked me back to do a Summer Grillin Games Tournament and had me compete against 7 other chefs! The filming was rough, and the competition, tough. I was up against veteran American chefs. What would a Singaporean city girl know about grilling in the summer?! I did it anyways, you’ve got to put yourself out there and fake I till you make it, right?

Then when the pandemic hit, all of my industry friends and I suddenly found ourselves indefinitely furloughed or let go. I asked myself what could we do to fight through the slump? How can I help the community?

And again, the answer was to take another risk. This time, to put myself out there to make food for others under my name, under my brand and under my savings. As sales started to gain traction, I decided to formalize the business – that meant that as a migrant, I had to leave the country with all the paperwork done (and all my money put into it), and hope that I could come back with an investor’s visa.

And I got denied.

Uncle Sam didn’t want me back in the country right away! The news was heart-breaking. I was extremely demoralized, to say the least. I had a team that was counting on me to come back, and a business that needed tending to, but what could I do?

After a week of processing the news and my feelings, I re-formalized my business plan with the help of countless friends and friendly strangers, applied again for the investors permit and was accepted.

After coming back to the states and practicing self-quarantine, I was finally able to see what my friends and I built. It took zoom calls, it took tears, it took money I took years to accumulate, it took questioning myself every step of the way and I’m still questioning myself now. There’s no manuscript for how to run a business (I care about so deeply) successfully during a worldwide pandemic, but I think that knowing what the risks are, embracing them, and understanding that it’s okay to fail, and that I trust myself to be able to bounce back from all the risk that I’m taking… makes me feel… fine.

Without risk, I would’ve probably never left my friends and family in my home country but I have now found my calling in food – which is sharing Singaporean hawker food with the Southeast Asian community here in San Francisco, as well as introducing it to those who are willing to take a risk and give my food a shot!

Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
Dabao Singapore is purposefully keeping it authentic with our dishes. When the pandemic hit and there was just so much fear and uncertainty, the thing I wanted the most was Singaporean food. I wanted to taste flavors that would comfort me and send me back to sweeter memories. And I wanted that for those who needed it too. Dabao Singapore is for the people.

Oh and for those who don’t know, we operate as a ghost kitchen – this way, overhead is more manageable and the staff can get a higher pay than having the money go to rent. After working in kitchens in California, and having seen how the skewed the pay ranges were, and I’m hoping with this business model it will help bring up the wages of my staff as they are now entitled to tips.

I want the world to know that it is best to order directly from restaurants. Restaurants pay a huge commission to 3rd party delivery apps and it can lead up to bankrupting the business entirely. If you love a restaurant, support them directly!

Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
My best friend in Singapore would be visiting with her husband later this year! So this is great!

I would take them to my favourite delicatessen, Molinari’s in Little Italy, and take them on a little walk around the city. I will show them Little Italy, Chinatown, pick up some dimsum from Good Mong Kong Bakery, shop for some groceries, and I’d take them over to my little place in the TL to cook them a welcome meal. We would hang out on the roof deck so they’d be able to see the city from the 16th floor!

The next day, I would take them for a seafood lunch at Swan Oyster Depot, and then to Ernest SF (we worked on the same dinner series in Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate) for a delicious Cali-centric dinner and then walk to have drinks at The Morrison! Hopefully we’d get to meet an industry friend there.

Over the weekend I would gather some friends and take them to the farmer’s market at the Ferry building, pick up some produce and snacks and then maybe go crabbing on the pier! The thing that most people don’t know is that Singapore doesn’t have a lot of land to grow their own produce or animals, so i’m clearly very obsessed with showing my friends fresh foods while supporting local businesses!

On a seperate day, I’d love to take them to Souley Vegan in Oakland for some vegan soul food, and then we can relax and digest our foods in Lake Merritt and explore the pub scene there!

And, if time permits and my friends at Shared Cultures are doing their foraging classes, I’ll sign us all up to go mushroom hunting! And of course, make a huge feast after!

Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
You know the quote, “it takes a village to raise a child”? It 100% applies to businesses as well. I’d never imagine I’d make so many friends along the way who’d be so kind to point me in the right direction, give me advise, or even sit down and work out a plan with me. So here goes:

My mother, who encourages me to run my business with her tough love.

My Aunt, a business who taught me about Singaporean products and ingredients. She sells dried provisions in a market through her dried goods store. She rules her business with an iron fist but is also kind and generous to everyone.

Tracy Goh, a Malaysian food purveyor and an inspiration to me. She was the first Southeast Asian chef in San Francisco whose food pop up I attended, and she’s been so kind to give me advice. During the pandemic she promoted my business a lot on her Instagram, and that really helped boost my business.
https://www.instagram.com/eatwithtracy/

Adahlia Cole AKA Hungry Hungry Hooker, single-handedly helped lift the pop up scene with her photography, testimonials, and general awesomeness by highlighting out of job chefs and their side hustles up on her blog:

https://hungryhungryhooker.squarespace.com/hustle

Jessie Lugo, my best friend and a very skilled chef. She has been working with Dabao Singapore since I was operating out of my home and held the fort when I was stuck in Singapore getting my visa.

Harrison Holtzman-Knott, a cook, who was there for me even before Dabao Singapore formalized as a business. He too, worked for Dabao Singapore but now is working on being a fireman.

Cheryl Leong, my leadership mentor.

Laura Lee, she helps organize my messy, creative brain and translates that into what I need to do.

And all the Dabao Singapore customers who have shared kind words with me after trying our foods.

Website: www.dabaosingapore.com

Instagram: @dabaosingapore

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/chefemilylim

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/dabaosingaporesf/

Yelp: https://www.yelp.com/biz/dabao-singapore-san-francisco

Image Credits
Photos by: Uniqlay Ceramics, @croissantsandcaviar, @Staggerleegoods

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