When we were presented with the opportunity to have coffee with Victoria Milner of Singapore Foodie, the first question we knew we wanted to ask was her opinion of the coffee culture here in Singapore, given the companionable lady hails from Melbourne.
Settling into an engaging conversation, we listened intently to her two cents on the local food scene and what it takes to not only keep diners happy, but what she feels will keep a restaurant business thriving. As the founder of Singapore Foodie, Victoria’s self-proclaimed straight-talking demeanour proved to be a refreshing and humbling take on what it really means to write about all things food.
What inspired your career choice?
Victoria Milner: I knew coming to Singapore, I wanted to have more time on my hands and have the ability to do side projects. Coming here and discovering food was mind-blowing, but reading the food reviews here didn’t reflect what I was experiencing, so I decided to write my own version and came up with Singapore Foodie.
What was the biggest challenge you have had to overcome professionally?
Victoria Milner: The biggest thing by far is working on your own, and not for a large corporate company. I’ve always worked with big teams, and I had people around me to bounce ideas off or assist me with tasks, and now, not having a support network is by far the biggest challenge that I face till today.
What do you personally believe to be the secret ingredient to a restaurant’s success?
Victoria Milner: At first thought, I’m thinking passion. But then I don’t think it’s necessarily passion; I think it’s tenacity. A lot of people have passion; they grow their businesses starting from the passion to do something but the journey to becoming successful entails a lot more things that you may not be passionate about.
For example, to run a restaurant, you have to have passion about food, which is awesome. But you also have to do recruitment, staff training, budgeting, marketing and everything else in between. So no matter what stands in your way, you push on and move forward and keep going, even when the passion may not necessarily be as strong as it was on day one.
Apart from Singapore Foodie, you’ve also been the founder of The Milner Guide, presenting travel ideas for Europe, the Middle East and the Asia Pacific. In what ways do you think food and travel connect?
Victoria Milner: When I first came to Singapore, I wanted to do my own thing, starting with a travel blog, and that was because I always saw myself as a traveller from my early twenties, with food just becoming a natural part of that. When I moved here, that’s when the food aspect of my writing became more prominent because we eat out a lot, have no kids and we entertain our friends a lot and there’s a lot more opportunities to explore here. So food just became a bigger part of my work and for Singapore, it’s just natural because food is such an integral part of the culture here.
What common misconceptions do people hold about your job? What is true, and what is not?
Victoria Milner: That I sit around all day and eat! Sometimes, it’s a little bit true, but the misconception is that it’s easy to write about something you love doing. Of course it’s easier than to write about, say, finance packages but it’s still a challenge. Everything that encompasses online writing like content planning, marketing, etc. is constantly evolving and I think not many people put much thought into how much time goes into understanding SEO, advertising strategies, and even more when you’re working alone.
Unlike many other food writers in Singapore your blog is based on curated restaurant reviews rather than sponsored advertorial posts. How important is authenticity in the food and beverage (F&B) business?
Victoria Milner: (Exclaims, “Ah, this is the crux!”) This is the biggest reason why I started Singapore Foodie in the first place, because I just didn’t trust the food reviews I was reading. You see these food bloggers who get paid thousands of dollars to write about a particular restaurant, and as a reader, if I know it’s sponsored that’s fine. But a lot of times, readers aren’t fully informed and think it’s an unbiased review. To me personally, that’s not even a matter of being authentic, that’s straight up dishonest. But that’s my opinion; I think everyone has to do their own thing.
I am, however, about to change the way my blog is written; I will soon set aside advertising space to restaurants that want to advertise because I know that that’s just how the business works, and they want the exposure that food bloggers can offer, with their high numbers of followers.
Your photos are very prominent on your blog – why give it so much space?
Victoria Milner: That’s an interesting point, because I’ve been thinking about it. I always photograph the food, but sometimes the lighting’s terrible and I don’t believe in flash photography because it looks awful and I think it’s unpleasant for the people who are dining around me. So, admittedly my images aren’t that great, but are bad photos better than no photos? I still haven’t figured out that answer. In general though, food is very visual; people eat with their eyes, so you need to have photos. But it also means pages load slower, meaning you have to keep it limited to a handful of images per post.
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 Singapore Foodie’s message across?
Victoria Milner: At the start of setting up Singapore Foodie, I definitely spent more time on social media, especially Twitter, which certainly helped. I’m also considering changes to the blog alongside the launch of the new Singapore Foodie app.
Who’s one inspirational restaurateur you deeply respect?
Victoria Milner: I interviewed Chef Han Liguang of Labyrinth and I really like him and his food. He’s Singaporean but spent a lot of time in Europe, is an 80’s kid so he knows simple flavours, but has created medley of flavours in his cooking with influences from around the world. It’s different from hawker food, but not truly fine dining; it’s like the middle ground between hearty familiar food and exquisite higher-end dining. I also like Chef Shen Tan (currently an instructor with Coriander Leaf and Culinary Director of Gastrogig). She had a hawker stall selling nasi lemak back in the day and is an outspoken lady who’s proud of Singapore and loves to push boundaries and experiment.
History typically plays an intrinsic role in the cuisines a nation eats – how do you think this has affected Singaporean food and/or its food scene in general?
Victoria Milner: For one, in Singapore, you cannot avoid food! The food here is so diverse and rich with the influences from Indians, Malays, Chinese, and even western countries like the United Kingdom and Austrlaia. It’s not unlike in Australia, where you have a large immigrant population that has undoubtedly influenced food for the better over the years. The history of immigration is essentially the fabric of food in Singapore, and I don’t know what it would be without it.
What is the one thing that sets Singapore’s food scene apart from many other places you’ve travelled to?
Victoria Milner: Singapore has the most diverse Asian food in the region. If we look just within Asia, you can’t get great Malay food in Vietnam, and in Thailand you can’t find amazing Vietnamese food. But in Singapore, you can find good versions of just about any Asian food. It definitely is the most diverse South East Asian country in terms of food.
If you would have to choose one restaurant for your last meal (a) in Singapore, and (b) overseas, which ones would it be?
Victoria Milner: (Shyly admits) In Singapore, it has to be Luke’s. I know it’s not the most exciting answer but I just love it. They have amazing tenderloin. Abroad, I would say any quaint trattoria in the South of Italy, because it doesn’t matter where you go – the food is always good.
Which are your 5 favourite places to enjoy good food globally?
Victoria Milner: Bologna, London, Beirut, Hanoi and Sydney. I was actually looking at a map and studying the places I’ve been and one of the things I realise I like is tapas or mezze – basically anything with a small shared plates concept. I chose Sydney over Melbourne I know, but I find Sydney has a fresh and vibrant take on food, which gives it an edge.
Being from Melbourne, how would you rate Singapore’s coffee culture here? How can we improve?
Victoria Milner: (Excitedly) This is my favourite question! When I moved here, I only knew of like, three places that I would always go to. Now, there’s like a 103! There’s so many now, it’s hard to keep track. Now when I visit home (Melbourne), the coffee isn’t as good as I remember but I’m sure it’s because the standards here have gone up so much. I think it’s a combination of people getting educated on coffee, roasting their own beans, making their own coffee recipes, pushing boundaries and being experimental, which people are very drawn to.
In the last 5 years, this culture has really grown and blossomed and it’s astounding. Like when I first came here, Common Man Coffee Roasters and Forty Hands were just getting started, and now, an impressive following of coffee places have sprouted.
Which traits and characteristics of service, based on your own experiences, matter most in a restaurant?
Victoria Milner: Customer service is key to me, but that doesn’t mean when I’m walking into any restaurant, I expect the red carpet treatment. But I do expect someone to notice I’m there, sit me down and bring me water or at least offer me a drink. The worst is when you sit down and you just sit there for minutes and have no one attend to you with no water or menu – why do that to someone? I think the way you greet a diner as they enter the restaurant is very important especially when they’ve made a conscious decision to dine there.
Politeness goes a long way, and it goes both ways from the service staff and the diner. The staff also should have some knowledge of the menu, so when I ask about a dish, I shouldn’t be surprised they know the answer. That’s what disappoints me sometimes when I dine here, like when I ask about a menu item and the staff have to repeatedly go back and forth between the kitchen and the dining area because they don’t know the menu well enough – that’s just a matter of training. So if you can fix these minor things, it’ll make the dining experience much more enjoyable for the diners, and give the staff an easier job as well.
How do you usually tackle the issue, if it does occur, of bad food/service at an establishment?
Victoria Milner: It depends on the day. It takes effort to address service concerns so if I feel that the staff are open to that I’ll give them feedback on what they could improve. In fact, I’m actually going to include a segment in the blog about the top three tips on what to improve about the restaurant I’m writing about. There’s also the issue of me having to figure out how to advise restaurants on how to improve their service in a nice way without sounding like I’m insulting them; that’s not my intention. I want it to be written constructively and in a way that makes sense.
Complete the sentence: On Saturdays, I am most likely to…
Victoria Milner: Go to Common Man Coffee Roasters for takeaway coffee in the morning, in my gym gear.
What is your biggest dream for the future, and how are you hoping to achieve it?
Victoria Milner: Launching my app and growing my blog, so watch this space!
Any advice to aspiring food bloggers?
Victoria Milner: Be authentic in whatever you do. You have to be authentic and courageous – to let go of the fear. I may be a straight talker, but I’m actually quite a timid person in terms of putting myself out there and selling my persona so that people can follow my blog. But I know I need to work on being more comfortable getting my voice out there and I think I’m getting there.
What is one place that our readers should check out (to eat), and why?
Victoria Milner: My favourite at the moment is Violet Oon’s at The National Gallery. I particularly recommend this one for visitors to town. The National Gallery is a fantastic building and a monument to Singapore with its rich history and art and it’s got great restaurants which makes it perfect. It reflects Singapore in a way, with the new, old and modern takes on history and architecture.
Final question – what camera do you use?
Victoria Milner: (Picks up her iPhone) I’m lazy. To be honest I have a DSLR but I don’t like to make a big fuss when I’m in a restaurant. I don’t want to take up space and time just for the right shot. I’ve sat next to bloggers and they spend twenty minutes taking photos and arranging the plates – meanwhile their food gets cold! It will, of course, produce a better photo, but I don’t think it adds any value to the readers’ experience.
You still have to tell them about the food and about the place itself. In some ways, especially on Instagram, a lot of food bloggers put up a photo from a restaurant and they don’t necessarily state that it’s a sponsored or paid post, and worst is when they don’t even state if the food’s good or not. So photos, in this case, can be very misleading.
Read personally curated reviews of independently sought-out eateries by Victoria at Singapore Foodie – http://www.singaporefoodie.com
1 Apple store: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/singapore-foodie/id1126795732?ls=1&mt=8
2 Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.app_singfoodie.layout
*All images credited to Singapore Foodie