“Gene is Selfish because he will not serve food he would not eat himself.”
After graduating in psychology from NUS, he spent a year devoted to finding his passion. What he found was a love of food.
Gene Mok opened The Selfish Gene in December 2011.
Finding your passion
Gene graduated in psychology from NUS. Both parents are academics who taught at the polytechnic level. His mom taught polymer science and his dad is a food technologist.
“They are a bit upset I didn’t go on to do a PhD.”
He studied psychology because he “didn’t know what else to do” but his studies did not inspire him. So when he graduated he decided to devote a year to finding his passion.
“I didn’t want to jump into the first job I got then 5 years down the line say OMG what did I do with my life?! So I decided to take one year to try whatever I wanted.”
For three months he studied pottery and ceramics taking a baking class.
“Pottery was fun but I soon realised couldn’t make a living selling pots and plates.”
Food held more promise.
“I always had a thing for food. And I liked baking. I was the only guy. I felt out of place but I didn’t care. I enjoyed it so much I decided to pursue food. So off I went to Australia to do a culinary course at the Cordon Blue in Sydney.”
Three months in Sydney were followed by two months backpacking in New Zealand. It was a fantastic trip but made him keen to get to work.
The adventure began
“I was dying to get to work when I got home. You know how it is in Singapore… we’re always so busy. I wanted to get back to that. So when I got back in 2006 I immediately applied to work in all fine dining restaurants and finally got a job at St. Pierre.”
He worked at St. Pierre and a few other places before finally returning to St. Pierre working under celebrity chef Emmanuel Stroobant as his assistant and jack of all trades. It gave Gene the chance to travel and see restaurants around the region.
“He went around doing restaurant consultation, opening places, TV shows… I did everything and saw everything. I learned a lot and I saw a lot of things. It was very enriching… you can’t pay for that kind of training. But after two years of that I was ready to head out on my own.”
The Selfish Gene opened for business in December 2011.
Where does the name of the cafe come from?
The cafe is named after the book by Richard Dawkins.
I came across the book in college and I liked the concept – that there is a selfish nature to human beings that is beneficial. At that point I was a very strong cynic. I was cynical about EVERYTHING. everything was a conspiracy. everything was wrong. so I used it as my blog name.
Then when I came back in 2006 I forgot about it.
Then like 2 weeks before opening this place I still had no name. so my friends reminded me of the old name. but at fist I hesitated: in Singapore you don’t usually use a name that has a negative connotations. at least not then – it wasn’t so fashionable as now. to this day my dad hates the name. he said why don’t you call it the happy gene?
But I stopped trying to explain the real meaning of The Selfish Gene to people.
It’s not so easy to explain the concept. It’s more than a 5 second conversation and people had a hard time grasping it so instead I stopped trying to explain and came up with this slogan. But the idea is still there: we all try to sustain ourselves… if I make good food for selfish reasons, everyone benefits.
Non-stop training machine
The restaurant has 3-4 fulltime staff and a pool of about another dozen or so part-timers that fill in, especially on weekends. Everyone is local and most are students that do 4-6 months while waiting to go off to uni or starting another job. Since the 1st day of operation, 67 different people have worked there (he’s got a register).
On the list includes those that showed up but didn’t even make it through a whole day. The longest running staff is on the list at #7.
“It’s a high turnover business. You should just expect it and plan for it or you will forever be stressed. We just try to get the best out of people before they move on.
Turnover is a matter of fact in this line. When I started this I knew it would be bad… but in truth I didn’t think it would be this bad! But we’re better able to cope now… we’re getting better at training people and dealing with the turnover.
“But if worse comes to worse, my dad can come in, my brother, the whole family, my girlfriend… That’s 5 of us… We just need two more and we’re OK.
For the servers, the training is not so much technical as it is cultural,
“It’s not hard to teach someone to bring a dish. But it’s hard to teach the kids that it’s alright to smile, it’s nice to say hi… to open up. In the west they work for tips and it’s more a part of the culture. Here’s it’s different.
And we don’t address them as ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ because they are not members of parliament and are not your teachers. If you talk to people like that, then you create a distance. We try to get people to treat customers like friends: not “hi buddy give me a hug!”…but like equals. Kids here aren’t used to that.
“I also believe that the best service is the one you don’t notice. You don’t want to feel like there is someone standing behind you or that someone is interrupting you. So there is skill in getting people to serve this way.
Getting your foot in the door to be part of Gene’s team is not so difficult. After an initial interview, Gene usually gives most people a chance. The question is, can you make it through the first day?
“After an initial interview, if they are still interested, I try them out for one day. Some don’t even last a whole day. Some people are good at interviewing but when they come in they may be late, or very tired, disinterested or not hard working… I always give them a chance to see if they work out. But sadly some people are more of a burden than help.
“The thing is, you have to enjoy it. You can’t do this job for money. People who do it just for the money don’t last. You can’t get rich doing this work. You have to get something else out of it.
Do you need a lot of experience to succeed in this business?
Some of the most seasoned chefs and general managers can open a place and fail. Then someone with no F&B experience opens a place and succeeds. At the end of the day it’s a business. You don’t necessarily need to have hands on experience but obviously it helps. Sometimes the experience holds you back because you have pre-conceived notions. Some experience in other work can be useful. You should bring something to the business but it doesn’t have to be directly relevant.
Ultimately, it depends on what the Chinese call your “ming” – your life, your fate. Are you meant to have that life? Some people by luck are in the right place at the right time and get the right people. That’s life.
“Are you following your ming?”
Only time will tell.
Singapore: Home Sweet Home
People who travel fall into two camps. Some end up hating Singapore and want to leave. Some realise they love the place. I know this is the place I want to be. I would not want to be anywhere else.
Where else can I go and I can speak the way I want and people understand what I’m saying?!
I feel things are getting better. There will always be some problems. Every generation always feels that the younger generation is useless; they’re not going to survive; they’re going to cause the extinction of the species. But we’re still here. It never happens.
Selfish Gene Cafe
40 Craig Road
Tel: +65 6423 1324
Daily except Tuesday: 10am – 6pm