Alden Boon

SGBrisketKitchen Founder Jayce Ho on the Joys and Pains of Smoking Meats and Entrepreneurship



You pride yourself on using charcoal and wood, and not a gas or electric smoker. What selections of woods do you use?

The level of smokiness is another factor of a good brisket. I experimented with different types of woods. My mother used to help me chop down the logan trees we had growing in our back yard. Lychee and citrus wood imparted a very light flavour. Post-oak is usually smokier, and hickory wood tends to be on the sweeter side. During the early stages, the hint of the hickory wood would be overpowered by that of the post-oak. So, I had to adjust the balance. For pork, I prefer the combination of cherry and maple wooda.

Do you have any pre-cooking rituals?

I talk to my meats (laugh). I say to them: ‘You are so beautiful’. My friends find that odd. I just like to thank the small things in life. I feel we need to treat everything with respect and to be thankful. Whenever I see a rainbow, I’m just grateful I have the gift of sight and the ability to appreciate these things.

That’s rather spiritual. What do you do when the meats are in the smoker?

Many people think that I’d sleep but I cannot do that. It is, after all, an open fire; I also have to ensure the consistency of the temperature. I do bring along my skateboard and skate around the indoor carpark for about fifteen minutes — it keeps my day fun. I also catch up on my work.

I guess the long hours of cooking allow you to slow down and break away from the hustle of life. How much brisket do you smoke in a single batch?

About fifty to sixty kilograms. There is a lot of water loss. The shrinkage can be very high — it can go up to about sixty-five per cent of the meat. The high-quality meats, because they have higher fat distribution, tend to shrink a lot. But I’m insistent on using high-quality meats, because fat equals flavour, so it’s an unavoidable problem. This is why I have to be careful about accepting too many orders, because I cannot predict the amount of shrinkage, which affects my ability to fulfil my orders. And there’s no way that I can get the same cut of meat. Every piece of meat is different, from fat distribution to size and appearance.

What are the visual cues that a smoked brisket is good?

It has to sag under its own weight when you lift it. And it has to be soft. When you examine the fat, it’s been rendered golden-brown. And when you slice it, the juices just flow — that’s what I always anticipate eagerly before cutting into the meat. There’s also the bark formation. It’s the black-coloured crust that many people think is burnt (I thought so at first too). I sent one of the samples to my godfather and his helper cut it off, and I was like, ‘No, that’s the best part!’

From operating a home-based business, you moved into a commercial kitchen six months into your venture. What were the differences?

I decided to scale up production as I didn’t want to disappoint my customers — they make the effort to set up calendar reminders, so I feel bad whenever I’m unable to accept their orders. I don’t want my business to thrive only on hype. I want it to be a regular thing where people can receive their orders and then enjoy them.

When I first started smoking meat in my backyard, I had to endure rainy days. That’s when I have to decide if I should increase or decrease the air flow or add more wood. And I didn’t have a shelter over my grill, so the rain would hit the firebox. Whenever it rained, my back would get soaked, and my hair would become wet. And I had to look at the wind direction. There’s a lot of smoke, and the beeper would keep going off; it’s annoying. High humidity may dry out the meat, but luckily in Singapore the humidity doesn’t fluctuate that much. I do however find that I enjoy smoking the meats when it rains, because the meats tend to be softer. In fact, some grillers place water bowls in their smokers to create a moist environment.

Moving into my current commercial kitchen, I no longer have to worry about the rain. It’s not as fun, but at the same time I don’t really need that excitement (laughs). But there are other considerations. I took the plunge and bought my dream smoker, so there’s a bit of back and forth getting acquainted with it. I had to discover its different hotspots, as the heat distribution is not even, much alike an oven. I took a hiatus to experiment again. This is why I can never let go of my smokers, because there’s a relationship. I know which smoker of mine is a better fit on rainy days.

I definitely feel the pressure as well. I have two staff on payroll. I’ve also hired and am training another staff to oversee the smoking process. This is important — with no need to oversee administrative matters, I am free to focus on developing new recipes, which is what I enjoy most. Now, it’s no longer just about pursuing my passion or having a hobby. There are people on my payroll, and they have families and they have needs.  I have to run SGBrisketKitchen like a business. I have to take things seriously: I don’t get to take a rain check or a break just because it’s my friend’s birthday tomorrow. For now, the revenue that is coming in is able to offset the rental and other overhead expenses. I don’t pay myself yet. I have to be very mindful about expenditure. It’s a very fine line. Yet I still want to have fun doing it, and I don’t want it to become solely a business, an obligation. I think any loss of passion or joy would be reflected in the meats.

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Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.