Text and Images by Sheere Ng @ Makansutra
Mary Gomes of Mary's Cafe
Every day Mary Gomes whips up five to eight dishes, one type of dessert, cakes and pastries in her Eurasian inspired, Mary’s Kafe. Sometimes she even has to make more when her catering services are hired and, like a good public bus driver – it’s a lone commando cook job in the kitchen and it’s consistent and steady.
“It’s the hands,” says the 63-year-old sprightly lady. “Four to five people can follow the same recipe but I can tell you,the food will turn out different.”And that’s the simple reason why she does all the cooking herself. It’s a job and also a hobby to her. She won’t let someone else do what she needs done which makes her a less than stellar leader but in her kitchen, it’s all about her. Even the set up revolves around her idiosyncrasies . Very much like how an artist won’t let someone else paint their emotions.
She had wanted to boss her own café ever since she was in her 20s and she had a good cooking teacher in her Malaccan born mother. She contemplated quitting her banking administration job to fulfill her ambitions but her businessman husband tempered her dream with pragmatism – he believed that at least one of them should have a steady income.
But that did not stop her from cooking commercially and for love. For almost 10 years since the 90s, this St Joseph’s Church member had served food like Curry Devil, Feng and Pork Ribs Curry to her fellow church members on Sundays after mass. She had to start cooking on Saturday after work. Despite the intensive labour, she charged only $2 per person to cover food cost. She describes it as “voluntarism that is not chore at all”.
Then, the skies opened somewhat – a director at the Institute of Advertising in Singapore, Mr Patrick Mowe, was a fan of her food especially her beef curry. He liked it so much that he persuaded her to contact a publishing friend of his and put out a cookbook of her specialities.
In 2001, she published The Eurasian Cookbook. (It is now in its fourth print.)
Mary's devil's curry
Her popularity sizzled and besides cooking for her church members, Mary also gave culinary classes for her bank’s recreational club but ironically, she was retrenched from the bank during the economic crunch in 2001, which she saw as a sign to turn professional and fulfill her dream. .
She began as a freelance cook and caterer. In 2007, with the encouragement of her friends and family, she finally opened Mary’s Kafe.
Five and a half years later, Mary is still enjoying her gig and craft, just like she did forty years ago except for one fact – she no longer gets butterflies in her stomach when she sees others devouring her food. Now, her sense of satisfaction comes from developing friendships with her customers. She operates only on weekdays because she’s doing it “out of passion and not for the money”.
On the topic of Eurasian food lagging behind the popularity of another minority cuisine here, the Peranakan’s fare(there are only three Eurasian restaurants that we know of), she responses with a mere shrug.
And that’s how Mary is – doing what she likes as best as she can, and becoming a champion (in her own way) of Eurasian cuisine without even realising so.