Foodie Spotlight: Kate McFarlane of Sassy Mama Singapore
Kate McFarlane is indeed one sassy mama, as she juggles her time between two-year-old daughter, Maggie, walking their 4-year-old Singapore Special (with an equally specially name, Avon Barksdale) and running Sassy Mama as a full-time editor.
Hailing from Boston, her work has brought her around the world before having settled in Singapore for the last 5 years or so. foodpanda shared a hearty meal and chat with her as she indulged us with her favourite local eats, how the food scene has transformed over the years and even an anecdote or two about some rather memorable dining encounters!
Source credit: Littleones Photography
What inspired your career choice?
Kate McFarlane: I’ve always been a writer, even when I was in college I was into writing, particularly sports writing. I worked in book publishing, which was really dry. It wasn’t a life goal for me to stay in that field and I wanted to work in Boston, and there was a position there for me that fit my background in history and publishing, and worked there a year.
But I soon realised that that wasn’t for me, so I went to grad school, and enrolled in journalism school with UC Berkeley. They have an amazing faculty with many well-known magazine writers and authors. After which, I interned at places like Forbes and Sports Illustrated, so writing is something I’ve always been doing – even when I was travelling around the world.
What made you decide to join the Sassy Mama team?
Kate McFarlane: It’s quite a long story, but started in 2009 in New York, when the U.S. economy tanked and my husband, who is a lawyer, was offered a 2-year stint in his firm’s Sydney, Australia office. We thought why not, because people were getting laid off in New York, and they happened to offer it on a very cold day in January (the height of Australian summer!). So we migrated and I joined a travel website called Travelzoo, where I wrote about hotels and travelled a lot. Eventually, that job brought me here, because there were planning on opening a Singapore office.
That was in 2011, following which, my daughter was born in 2014, and I was on maternity leave with the plan to go back to work. A week before my maternity leave was over, I happened to see a job posting for Sassy Mama. They were looking for an editor, that offered flexible hours and the ability to work from home. I wasn’t planning on applying initially, because I technically had a job to go back to but my boss understood where I was coming from and was really understanding. Shortly after applying, Sassy Mama offered me the position.
What was the biggest challenge you have had to overcome professionally?
Kate McFarlane: Leaving New York and a job I really, really loved. It was a start-up which reviewed hotels undercover, so that gave me lots of opportunity for travel. I got to go to the Caribbean and Hawaii, and I was really close with my co-workers and I had a lot of fun. Then I had to move to Australia and sort of find a new identity, and it took me a long time to find a job. But then I found Travelzoo, which was great.
Here (at Sassy Mama), we’re a really small team – there’s only two full-time editorial people and the rest are freelancers. I write about 6 to 10 articles a week, and the rest are done by the team. I’m quite the procrastinator, so that’s also a current challenge, but other than that, it’s really fun.
What do you personally believe to be the secret ingredient to a restaurant’s success?
Kate McFarlane: I think good food is the number one thing, which is sort of a given. In Singapore, you should not only know your products, but have staff that possess the knowledge and passion about your products. There are so many restaurants where the service is really bad and you ask yourself, ‘why am I here?’. It doesn’t only apply to fine dining establishment; the rule also applies to smaller cafes and even hawker stalls.
For me, what keeps me coming back is the food for sure. If the food isn’t good, even if they’re trying to win over customers with a novel concept, then it’s not going to last. I commend them on trying, given the market is saturated in Singapore, but it can also be sort of jarring – when a place opens for 3 months, then closes.
What common misconceptions do people hold about your job? What is true, and what is not?
Kate McFarlane: It’s very much a full-time; it’s not like one blog post as and when. It’s a very competitive space in Singapore, and there are other parenting sites and magazines and people in Singapore are very discerning about content, so you have to be timely and smart about it. It takes a lot of work, and more demanding than I thought it’d be, but definitely more rewarding, so it’s okay!
What is the funniest thing you have read about yourself in the media?
Kate McFarlane: I don’t think I’ve heard anything about myself in the media; that’s like giving me too much credit! I think the only time I’ve heard something was just someone commenting that they think we’re (Sassy Mama) just some moms who sit around and write blog posts at home in our spare time. No, it’s definitely a full-time job.
Singaporean influencers have been incremental in adopting early to a variety of social media platforms. Apart from your website, your brand is also shown on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. How important do you think these platforms are in getting Sassy Mama’s message across?
Kate McFarlane: For us (Sassy Mama), it’s all about Facebook, because our audience are women who are generally in their late twenties to mid-thirties. Also, our audience are mothers who are up at the oddest hours, checking their phone, so it’s a great way for them to stay updated at any time of the day, around the world. Every now and then, we have an article that’s really liked and shared, and most of the traffic we have comes from Facebook. In fact, I was one of the first few people who joined Facebook when it first started, because my friends from college shared the same dormitory as Mark Zuckerberg, and they encouraged me to join, so I did.
We do have Instagram as well, which is most useful for Sassy (the younger sister of Sassy Mama). As with Snapchat, that’s the one I’m struggling to wrap my head around. I mean, I get the point of it, but I don’t see how it will help Sassy Mama’s readership. Right now, I don’t see how its relation to our audience.
What is your favourite food in Singapore?
Kate McFarlane: I love chicken rice. I lived in Joo Chiat, when Tian Tian was still there. I also love teh halia (ginger tea), which I’m obsessed with as I have it every morning. My favourite teh halia is from this place in Tanglin Halt called Bismillah; it’s really good, made fresh and the couple who works there is really sweet! The Thunder Tea Rice in Joo Chiat is also really good.
What is the biggest difference between the food scene here in Singapore and your hometown, Boston?
Kate McFarlane: I think Singapore combines what’s best around the world and brings it here. They make really trendy food places that you find abroad and make it their own, and it works. When I lived in New York to move to Australia, I was so sad because I missed a lot of my favourite restaurants. For example, I missed Goldfish crackers, and specialty bacon, and here you can find all of that in Cold Storage. Here they have places like Osteria Mozza, Daniel Boulud, Jöel Robuchon and California Pizza & Kitchen, which I’m so thankful for. Singapore has amazing foreign chefs and talented local chefs, so the Singaporean highs are higher than the kind you get in Boston. Street food is only just starting to catch on in Boston, so hawker stalls do stand out as part of Singapore’s culinary identity.
In Boston there are several major universities, so all these students from around the world bring their food culture over, but in addition to that, they also bring along their appetites. In response, restaurants start showing up and so we have Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian cuisine. The Japanese food here in Singapore is really good, but Boston hasn’t matched up. They do have places that serve ‘pan Asian’ food, where they have menus that serve everything from Chinese, to Japanese, to Thai which one would find so sacrilegious here! Also, the portions back home are enormous.
Your biggest epicurean sin (whether homemade or when eating out)?
Kate McFarlane: Having teh halia every morning, I would say, is my cheat moment! I really try to avoid excessive sugar in my diet, but it’s so good I can’t help myself. Anything ice cream, I’ll get it. Chicken and waffles is something that’s really catching on now and I almost always get it if it’s on the menu. I’m a terrible cook, but our helper is an amazing cook and she makes my family chocolate chip pancakes every Saturday! I look forward to eating that all week!
We also hear you’re quite the fitness fanatic. With all the tempting food here, how do you keep your diet in check?
Kate McFarlane: I really try to be good during the week; if I know I have a tasting during the day, I’ll have a healthy dinner. I’m quite disciplined about keeping everything in balance and I don’t believe in dieting. I believe in ‘everything in moderation’ – so if you eat badly today, try and eat well tomorrow. I do really like to exercise, and I have a dog, so I walk him twice a day, an hour at a time. Then I also try to do something else like ride my bike or go for a run. I’m one of those people who start to feel sluggish and restless if I don’t work out for a long time, so I typically find something to do like walking the dog or take my daughter to the Botanic Gardens.
History typically plays an intrinsic role in the cuisines a nation eats – how has this affected Singaporean food and/or its food scene in general?
I’m sure you have heard of Anthony Bourdain and everyone in the US watches his shows, and he’s always in Asia. I watched the Singapore episode and I couldn’t wait to come here; it’s seems like such a cool place just by him talking about the food scene here. Last week, Singapore just released its Michelin Guide and nowhere in the world can you find Michelin-starred street food; who wouldn’t want to come here and try it for themselves?
As an expat, you can easily find food and flavours that remind you of home, because of all the cuisines that have been brought over here and having restaurants that have decided to open up shop here as well. In fact, recently we did a story on international grocery stores and we discovered Indian grocery stories, South African grocery stores, German grocery stores, and I don’t think you’ll be able to find anything on that scale anywhere else in the world.
Which are your 5 favourite places to enjoy good food globally?
Kate McFarlane: The five best cities I’ve been to for eating are New York, Osaka, Paris, Berkeley and Ho Chin Minh. To be more specific, jerk chicken in Jamaica, eaten by the side of the road, where you can see them chop the chicken and cook it in a large oil drum and have a beer while looking out to the ocean. Sushi in Tokyo is amazing, fish tacos in San Diego is very highly recommended, you must have bagels in New York City and lobster and clam chowder in Boston.
Which latest food/restaurant trend do we have to try right now?
Kate McFarlane: I feel like I’m trying to in fact keep up with all these trends, so I don’t have an answer for that – so sorry! I’ll try things for curiosity’s sake but I’m not into following trends for the sake of trends.
What is the oddest food you’ve eaten?
Kate McFarlane: This is kind of funny, and I don’t mean it in a degrading way! A couple of days ago, I went to Ding Dong. I really love the restaurant and Chef Jet Lo, and so I ordered banana bread with duck liver and kimchi. Although it looks weird – almost like a hotdog – it was honestly one of the tastiest things I’ve had! I mean I’ve had tarantula before but fried insects are kind of expected. But it’s interesting to see what’s normal for different countries, and I’d really like my daughter to grow up with a sense of exposure to food that I didn’t grow up with and hope she catches on to trying new things.
What was the funniest/most surprising/best/most gruesome dining experience you have had so far?
Kate McFarlane: I went to this café that our food columnist recommended in Punggol and she said it’s fantastic, with a beautiful view. When my parents were here visiting with another friend, I suggested we all go for brunch there. When we get out there, they tell us ‘our stove is broken and the only thing we’re making is pizza’ and it’s not a pizza place! So we still ordered and sat there, waiting for an hour. I was thinking ‘if you’re only making pizzas, it shouldn’t take you an hour’. So for whatever reason, to make things worse, they told us they also were out of certain toppings, and we ended up with really bad food.
If your stove is broken and out of ingredients, I think you should just close the restaurant; don’t let diners come in and tell them you only have pizza. Plus, I’m really into breakfast, so when you’re expecting pancakes and waffles, it was a serious disappointment to have to eat bad pizza.
Which traits and characteristics of service, based on your own experiences, matter most when it comes to dining?
Kate McFarlane: I was actually a waitress once upon a time, so I feel like you definitely need people to enjoy dining at a restaurant, and for the staff to be attentive. It’s just so weird when you call for service and the waiter sees you, but then immediately turns around and pretends they didn’t notice. There are also instances where I’ve seen waiters busy themselves so much with clearing tables, where I feel that instead of spending excessive attention and energy on tables that are empty, why not spend it on tables that still need your attention? I’m not sure if it’s a training thing or a personal shortcoming. Personally as a waitress I always liked to make diners feel like they’re welcome and talk to them, to show them they were genuinely appreciated as guests.
Complete the sentence: On Saturdays, I am most likely to…
Get up, eat chocolate chip pancakes and walk with my dog and daughter down to Empress Place Market to get my teh halia. It’s great; I love having my Saturday morning routine.
What is your biggest dream for the future, and how are you hoping to achieve it?
Kate McFarlane: I want to see Sassy Mama continue to grow, and increase its social media following. Our audience is pretty diverse with a 50-50 local and expat ratio, but I’d love to see more local families get into us as well. We have sister companies within South East Asia, so I hope that grows and expands too.
Finally, share with our readers one of the must-visit eating places in Singapore, and why.
Kate McFarlane: It depends on what you’re looking for. My favourite restaurant that brings me back to home is a restaurant called Luke’s, where the chef does amazing lobster and clam chowder. I go there for special occasions or when I’m homesick. But when I have visitors coming to visit, I love going to hawker centres and ordering like, ten different things and tell them what they have to try. Another one is Banana Leaf Apollo in Little India, which I know is touristy, but I always look forward to going there when I have guests.
Source credit header image: Kerry Cheah of Red Bus Photography