One-on-one with a former Creative Director eating her way through Instagram

I’m not sure if Veronica Phua remembers, but my first formal interaction with her was back in 2018 when I asked, through my now-ceased food Instagram account, The Food Project SG, for recommendations on worthy stalls to try at Old Airport Road Hawker Centre. She nudged my way to the former Yan Ji Seafood Soup (now rebranded as OAR Seafood Soup), where I had my early education on simple but hearty flavours and what umami meant in the context of food as culturally rich as fish soup.

I didn’t know it then, but Veronica was instrumental in the unearthing of some of Singapore’s finest but hidden food treasures—she still is. She brings to the fore not just great food but also a reverence for all things local, evidenced by her tireless visits to hawker centres all across the island and the occasional visit to praiseworthy private dining chefs. In this interview, Veronica Phua shares her thoughts on family, her approach to food reviews, and how her personal brand of honesty keeps her 33.3k followers hanging on to every word.

Veronica Phua profile picture collage

Zat: Humour me a tad. Describe what you do for a living in exactly five words and elaborate on your thought process behind this choice.

Veronica Phua: The bulk of my career was in marketing and advertising. My husband and I started our boutique ad agency, Plum Ideas, which I helmed as Creative Director for close to fourteen years. Since we wrapped up our business, I turned my energy and time to pursue my two greatest passions – content creation and food! First with Burpple, then a little later, also on Instagram. But I don’t do this for my primary source of income.

Zat: What was your childhood like growing up, and how has this affected the decisions you’ve made now in both your personal and professional life?

Veronica Phua: My earliest and most indelible memories are centred on food and the joy of creation. During the weekends, my whole family would pile into the car and head out to enjoy a good meal together, and more often than not, they were at places that wouldn’t pass today’s hygiene standards. But that was part of the charm, and I learnt that the best makan places demanded time and effort. My mum is the OG food influencer as she would take us to far-flung corners of Singapore to try a hawker stall or restaurant she had heard about. If it met her expectations, you bet she would immediately share with her friends.

As for the creation part during my childhood, it began from the moment I could hold a pencil because I never stopped drawing after that. My textbooks from primary to secondary school were covered in doodles to the consternation of my teachers. Around the age of four, if I recall correctly, I fell in love with reading. It was oddly enough, through a book on physical geography. Somehow, reading about different kinds of stones and how they’re formed led to my enlightenment that words could open a whole new world. After that, my nose was forever buried in books, and I never left home without one.

These two early loves of mine culminated in a desire to create. So I began drawing and writing all the time. And when I was twelve, I produced my own “fairyland newspaper”. Honestly, I love that I grew up during a time before screens took over our lives. At most, I probably spent an hour or so in front of the television after dinner. The rest of the time, my brothers and I would be making up games to play in our garden or around our house.

A younger Veronica Phua and her brother with their parents
Credit – Veronica Phua

Z: Who or what inspires you the most, and what can we learn from your source of inspiration that would help us live a more fulfilled life?

Veronica Phua: I don’t have a single person, but two people I admire and look to for inspiration – they are my parents. Both have solid values, which they have inculcated in my brothers and me since we existed. My dad’s a born optimist, and I can tell his cheerful disposition has rubbed off on me since I believe in looking on the bright side in every situation

Z: What is one food that you absolutely love that most would find strange?

Veronica Phua: It would have to be Natto, the fermented soya bean. Although it is beloved by most Japanese people, I tend to get a look of horror or disgust when I tell someone how much I enjoy those slimy protein-rich brown beans.

Z: With 33.3K Instagram followers, your opinions about where and what to eat certainly carries weight. How has this expectation changed the way you approach food recommendations and reviews.

Veronica: Frankly, I have not felt compelled to alter anything because since I started sharing on social media, my approach has been the same—to be authentic, honest, fair, and respectful. Since day one, I would state clearly at the start of a post if I had been hosted or invited by a restaurant or PR agency. It’s something I picked up from running my ad agency when our clients included media giants such as CNN International, who had the strictest legal guidelines. Over the years, many of my followers have messaged me to say they appreciate my transparency as it gives context to my reviews.

Due to the evolution of the Instagram app itself, the type of content I create has evolved accordingly. With the advent of IGTV and Stories, I produce many more videos to upload either as an Instagram Post or IGTV. However, I still use just my iPhone as I prefer to keep it simple. The feedback I’ve received has been extremely positive as my followers enjoy “being there with me” on my visits to restaurants or hawker stalls. Many chefs and their teams have also told me they love how I bring their food to life, both visually and in my detailed captions.

Veronica Phua sitting at the head of a table in a restaurant
Credit – Veronica Phua

Z: What, in your opinion, has been the most visible and significant impact the pandemic had on the F&B scene in Singapore today? Are operators more ready now should another lockdown happen again, or are Singapore businesses being lulled into a false sense of security given how well Singapore has managed control over the pandemic?

Veronica Phua: It has to be the spurt of delivery-only food businesses and home bakers and cooks. Quite a number have sprung up with compact menus of dishes that travel well. Unfortunately, that also means a lack of originality in offerings as the aim is to sell what’s popular.

I take my hat off to all the Chefs and Restaurateurs who managed to pivot from dine-in to takeaway successfully during the Circuit Breaker. That must have been challenging, but you can see the massive effort everyone put in to make it work. Based on that, I doubt anyone dares to be complacent despite Singapore’s current situation. And yes, if we have no choice but to go into another lockdown (touch wood), I am confident F&B businesses will draw on their past experience and come up with even better ideas to cope and even thrive.

Z: What are your current top three favourite cultural phenomena that you’re obsessed with and why?

Veronica Phua: Travelling via tastebuds — Covid has curtailed travel, but it has not taken away our yearn to do so. Enter the next best thing—exploring countries via their cuisines. So it’s now become a thing to make reservations to visit “Japan” for an indulgent sushi omakase, or “Spain” for sangrias and tapas, or embark on a tour of the best champagnes and Burgundy at a French brasserie. Yes, traversing the world is entirely possible while staying put in Singapore.

Private dining — Though no longer that new of a phenomena, the interest seems to be growing, and more options are popping up these days. The variety is wide, so you can find places that offer traditional Cantonese dishes, Peranakan feasts, elevated “zi char” favourites, Royal Thai meets French and even Modern European. You might need patience, though, because some of these places are booked up many, many months in advance.

Social-media-turned-real-life-friends — The rise of social media has led to like-minded people finding their tribes. Many of those who click online end up deciding to meet in real life. Friendships are cultivated as they begin to pursue their interests together. I, for one, have several food-loving friends whom I got to know over Burpple and Instagram and now meet with regularly to dine.

Have an interesting hawker story or good food to share? Email us at [email protected]