Esther Sham & Sunny Tan, chef owner & business partner of Maison ES, share with us their biggest challenge opening restaurant Maison ES in Hong Kong and their struggles to balance mental health, work and taking care of their new born at the same time…
WHO PLAYS WHO: TOUGHEST CRITRIC & BIGGEST FAN
Esther Sham: I started my love for cooking when I was modelling. I was so passionate about it, but got so overwhelming that I decided to turn it into my career. Therefore, I applied to work at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon to gain more cooking experience; honestly, I could’ve enrolled into an expensive programme to learn about culinary techniques and methods at a culinary school, but I chose not to. This is because I made a promise to myself that I would no longer take financial support from my parents anymore, especially because I wanted my parents to treat me like an adult rather than their beloved daughter. At that point, every dollar I spent had to be really well-thought out. So, it made more sense for me to approach the free one first, which meant training at a restaurant. And, the fun fact – The restaurant was actually paying for my training.
At the beginning of my training, its physical intensity was very challenging – Imagine that you have to work in a standing position for a really long hour. But I told myself that this is my dream and that I must battle it out. After a few months of working experience, my brother told me about his brilliant dinning concept of ‘wine hangout’ – he wanted to create a place where people would be able to enjoy decent wine and some delicious food at the same time. With his vision, I was allowed to test how people feel about my cooking. In that process, I also saved up some money to join his venture where I could put my dream into action. Yet, I give put an expiry date – one year to it. I told myself that if it doesn’t work out, then I have to confront the reality that my cooking isn’t living up to social standard.
“At that time, I didn’t argue with her because I certainly knew that time will speak for my quality. I didn’t need to prove her wrong at all.”
Sunny Tan: We were still dating at that time.
Esther: Yeah. When I first told him about this idea, I still remember that he gave me a lot of advices, such as planning and operation etc.
Sunny: It was a very respectable and admirable decision she’d made for herself. Setting up Maison ES is not easy, because it requires somebody who’s willing to take high risk and do things within limited resources. During that time, she was the one who was doing everything, such as taking the booking reservations, designing the menus, washing the dishes and buying the food in fresh market. The whole process was very tiring indeed.
Esther: Tiring yes, but worth it. He was my guinea pig when it came to trying out all the recipes that I created. (Laughs) Tasting the recipe is one thing. However, putting everything into a show is not as easy as people think it is. For me, it’s not just about the food; it’s also about providing a whole unique dining experience for my customers.
Sunny: I still remember there was one time when she was cooking a very special uni pasta and presented at a nice table setting. I was like, “Wow! She can really pull off everything together, even though she was only given limited resources.”
Esther: Given the fact that none of our family members have been involved in the industry before, it’s very hard for them to imagine how much I could do, and how much I would achieve for Maison ES. Of course, my boyfriend at that time – Sunny would always compliment my food, but my concern was: would people still like the food if I start charging them?
Well… my mom is actually the toughest critic on my food. There was a time when I cooked for my family; I cooked really light without much oil or salt because I wanted my family to stay as healthy as possible. At that time, the comment I received from my mom was: “No one would like your cooking.” I think this is the most negative motivation for anyone who is looking to pursue their dream. At that time, I didn’t argue with her because I certainly knew that time will speak for my quality. I didn’t need to prove her wrong at all.
2 BABIES IN 2 YEARS + RENOVATION + ONLY 5 REST DAYS AFTER CHILDBIRTH = DEPRESSION
Esther: In 2015, we re-located our restaurant – Maison ES to new location in Star Street. That was a good move, albeit in a bad timing. I was pregnant with my second son and there were a lot of hiccups during the renovation. The original schedule was to get the renovation done so that I could go and deliver my son. However, the renovation was delayed and my son came early. Everything was unexpectedly flipped. So, I had to go back to work just five days after I gave birth.
I actually felt very sad about the fact that I didn’t spend much time to recover after the delivery. There was nothing we could change since the lease was signed and the renovation was an on-going project; all my staff was already on payroll. I couldn’t just leave everything and focus on my recovery.
That year definitely proved to be our biggest challenge. He is basically my partner and an investor at Maison ES. I was very mad that he was behaving more like an investor rather than being a husband at that time. I didn’t feel that he cared about my well-being, or my health. He didn’t say much even though he knew I wasn’t resting after I gave birth. I even felt like he cared about money more than me.
I really thought that I could rest after the grand-opening of Maison ES, but more and more unexpected problems cropped up. And then, we were constantly fighting. I started to have panic attacks. My sister and my mom spoke to him, “Just shut Maison ES down.” But he refused to close down. There was a lot of tension that year. Soon thereafter, I had major breakdown in 2016, and I stopped working for one year. I was unable to work because I was diagnosed with depression.
Sunny: You could sense that she was a little bit up and down and the business was not very good overall. So, everything turned increasingly harder.
Esther: I constantly felt like I haven’t slept in 48 hours.
Sunny: And the frequency/duration of her tiredness was getting increasingly longer.
Esther: All the hormonal changes – from one kid to two kids – my body wasn’t taking it. I was trying to be as tough as possible, but then my body started to react to stress differently, like developing rashes. It was very horrible.
Also, I wasn’t having just depression. I wasn’t taking the right prescription. I had a lot of ups and downs during those days. I was suffering more side effects every time I changed the prescription. I was 15 pounds lighter than now. Later on, my doctor said that it was probably an underlying postpartum depression and that I was supposed to be okay, but then it got offset by the tremendous stress from work. Plus, I had two babies in two years, which led to lots of fluctuation in my hormones.
Sunny: At this point in time, I decided to change my role. I would no longer be just an investor.
Esther: Yeah, he took over the work operation.
Sunny: In addition to my regular job, it becomes my business unit as well. It was not an easy process for the first year. I have no idea about the F&B industry. I needed to get myself familiarized with the industry within a short period of time. In order to turn the business upside down, we needed to identify the problems, such as do we have the right dish for lunch? Or, do we set the right price for the menu?
Previously, it was a private kitchen. But now, the business model is very different; the dish is different and the people are different as well. She was no longer cooking over there. I mean, if she was constantly cooking at Maison ES, I would have lost my wife, so her role turned into an executive chef.
On top of that, I needed to go through in the business where we call it change management, right? I needed to understand the process, so that I could rebuild the system. I thought that I was more like a general manager or the CEO at Maison ES, but I don’t need to talk to her for work.
Esther: Yes, we don’t talk much at work and I don’t join any management meeting at all. I gave it a try before but we ended fighting. I received the meeting minutes afterwards.
Sunny: You cannot work with an artist. You know what I mean? In our business meeting, we don’t get the artist involved. (Laughs)
Esther: Sometimes, it tends to be bad if I show up in the meeting because I would act like his wife and mock his decision in front of our entire staff. Now that we have a mutual understanding – it’s better for me not to be in the meeting. After all, he’s the boss.
Sunny: This is a simple way to make things work. We just need to define who is responsible for doing this, or who is in charge of the decision-making. For example, I will not interfere with how she chooses to work inside the kitchen. I may say that, “Okay. We need to divide the menu in a certain category.” And that’s it. Kitchen is her territory that requires her authority. I don’t need to step in.
Esther: Or salaries or staffing; matters like that, I don’t interfere. That’s his territory.
Sunny: We actually spend more time to be together even though we don’t show up in the same meeting.
Esther: We do share some encounters.
Sunny: Yeah. Like the frustration, difficulty from running the business. But when we look at the bigger, that’s a very small price to pay. At the end of the day, we work so hard; what we’re looking forward to is to have a good quality time with our family.
HOW DID ESTHER OVERCOME DEPRESSION? AND HOW DID SUNNY SUPPORT HER THROUGH THE JOURNEY?
Esther: I generally think there are so many people who have a misunderstanding of their mental illness. They would think it’s like an illness such as cold. It can be healed easily but the fact is that it’s nothing like that! It’s actually something imbalance happening in your brain. It’s not like you’re immature, ungrateful, or that you’re too weak. It’s essentially a lot of internal medical reasons coupled with a lot of environmental factors that trigger all these things together.
Having said that, there are two different approaches that can be adopted when it comes to handling mental illness. Some people use this as an excuse to a lot of the failures that we experience in our lives. Or, they just accept that they’re ill and refuse to seek help or change their lifestyles.
But for me, it’s really no one to blame because I’ve fought it with full force; I didn’t miss a single doctor’s appointment. I was reading different articles about it; I was talking to a lot of people; I started Bible study and I was using whatever method that I could to make myself well again. I promised myself that “If I can ever get cured or get better, I need to help people.” So, I’ve got no shame about it and that makes a difference, you know?
“For me, having my partner faces these emotions is not a very pleasant experience, right? All I have to remind myself is that our relationship is important to us, and that we both love each other deeply.”
Sunny: Yeah. In the eyes of other people, it may sound as if it is challenging to handle her sickness as her partner. But the fact is that it’s not that difficult. I just need to ask myself, “What if it happened to me? What would she do?” There’s no hesitation that she’d put in 100% of her energy to take care of me, right? So, what should be my response? My response will be that her mental health should be my priority, and I just need to make sure that I support her and manage the situation.
For me, having my partner faces these emotions is not a very pleasant experience, right? All I have to remind myself is that our relationship is important to us, and that we both love each other deeply. The definition of love is not receiving, it’s about giving. We also find that God allowed us to go through this experience to learn more about what’s life, and understand more about her. We know that this will hopefully make us a stronger family.
Esther: With depression, the thing is that it cannot be 100% healed but I won’t let it be an excuse or a trouble. If I am feeling some dips, I would just tell him. I’m like, “You know what; I’m feeling low, so maybe I shouldn’t be seeing my mom, because she triggers me sometimes.” Or maybe, I should work a little less and don’t let it control me. I will make sure my mindfulness is on top of everything.
Sunny: It’s easier for us now. I will notice too that sometimes her emotional ups and downs will be more severe when she’s tired.
Esther: Yes, without any reason. There are times when I’m just being very unreasonable.
Sunny: So, I just need to make sure that we manage it.
Esther: Someday, I’m like, “Okay, it’s not making too much sense. Why am I so sad over nothing? Let’s distract myself.”
Sunny: Just go for a movie without talking, just relax.
Esther: Instead of going on a guilt-tripping myself, such as “Oh my god! I’m feeling depressed.” Let’s try different things that you may find relaxing, such as indulging myself in Korean drama.
A PIECE OF DATING ADVICE YOU WISH YOU COULD GIVE YOUR YOUNGER SELF
Esther: No, nothing. I like the way how everything happened. The timing, everything was perfect. It was God’s plan. Seriously, a lot of the decisions I made or things that I wish had happened didn’t happen. But now, when I look back, everything happened for a reason and it was a perfect timing. Even with the depression, I gained so much from it, although it is a very unfortunate event. I’m using my depression to help others – I share my story; I empower people. It’s really about how your attitude and your mentality shape your destiny.
So, for us, if there’re bad things that happen to us, we try to not victimize ourselves; instead, we adopt a positive attitude.
During my depression, we had a lot of sessions for our marriage that actually helped us clear out a lot of our problems that we were facing.
We also learned more about ourselves through those sessions. No experience is ever wasted.
Sunny: Agree. It’s really about experiences because you won’t realize those things unless you go through fighting tough battles. And then, when you look back and say, “Okay. I could have done better in such ways.” So, I would say to my younger self to be less selfish. I mean, it’s a natural tendency of all of us to be more selfish to our own self. But then, being able to have a relationship with God, I am increasing learning, experiencing and understanding more about selfishness and selflessness. I think it’s very important because it changes the perspective about a lot of things.
Esther: Well, I don’t feel that way though. What I think is that you need that contrast to appreciate what you have right now. I mean, if I never experienced all those negative things, it would be hard for me to share my story and help others. (Smiles)
Sunny: On my side, I think another thing is to try to be as curious as possible. When growing up, I was not a very curious person.
Esther: Not proactive. Not spontaneous. But I’m being spontaneous all the time. You know that’s why you fell in love with me. You got attracted to me.
Sunny: That’s true.
Esther: He’s a boring person. Actually, your wish for your younger self is that you wish you would have met me earlier.
Sunny: Yeah. I should’ve just said that. Period.
3 EATING HABITS FOR BETTER HEALTH & BETTER SLEEP
Esther: We don’t eat a lot of processed food. Most of our cooked meal is low oil, low fat, and low sodium. But I love sugary food, I just cannot say no to sugar. I try to avoid sugar whenever I have a choice to save quota for the things that I love. For me, we always decide what we put into our moth with a quota system.
Everyone likes a range of foods, right? But there is different degree of your liking to it. Let’s say from a scale to 1 to 10. I only like that food to a level of 7. If it’s very fattening, I’ll not eat it. But it’s something that I really like, to a point of level 10. Even though it’s really fattening and unhealthy, I would still eat it, because I love it so much. For example, I like chocolate popcorn. I would sometimes even skip a meal to eat it because it makes me happy. But after a treat day, I need to be responsible again – I will eat more nutritious food. So, I think it’s a more balanced diet.
Sunny: For me, if I work in Hong Kong, I will have lots of veggie for sure.
Esther: When I met him, he used to have such a bad habit in beverages. He used to drink like three, four cups of coffee a day, and six cans of Coke Zero and no water. But now, he’s getting better now because I made him a goody bag with cold pressed juice and herbal tea chilled for him to bring for work. And then, we also split his big breakfast into two small breakfasts – the first one is dragon fruit, yogurt and a granola with almond milk topped with chia seeds; the second one is his favourite PBJ, but I cut it into half and serve half of it.
Sunny: I will have the PBJ around 10. But it’s so tiny that you don’t get to re-order. So, it helps control my food intake.
Esther: Well, he won’t be starving. (Laughs)
Sunny: Definitely, but it’s not enough. I’ll have my lunch around 12. But if I go for my exercise, I may have a small portion of food or lunch, because I cannot take too much food before my exercise, right? And then at around 2, I will grab some veggie.
Esther: For me, I always carry my Nature’s Bakery Fig Bar if I need an energy-booster in the afternoon. A lot of people don’t like this kind of density, but I just love it. It has a lot of fibre which actually comforts my stomach. But for his lunch, whatever I pack for him is filled with a lot of veggies.
Sunny: For my meal plan, it’s really like five meals a day.
Esther: It’s good to have a ‘Five-Meal’ Plan because your blood sugar is very fluctuating. If you have a really big meal, a lot of your blood sugar is going into the digestive system. And then, you will get food coma.
Sunny: Another good eating habit we develop is that we don’t really eat after dinner.
Esther: Yeah, we never eat after dinner. As in all aspects – no zero-good aspect of having late night suppers. It’s bad for your digestive system; you’re going to get acid reflux in the long-term, and then you get fat after water reduction. Even if I’m really, really hungry, I might have maybe half an apple or some grapes.
Sunny: But when you get used to it, your stomach won’t react that way now.
Esther: And your body clock.
STRESS MANAGEMENT: NO.1 WAY TO DESTRESS & WINDDOWN
Esther: One good thing about him is that he never brings his stress home from work. He’s one of the few remarkably focused people who doesn’t think too much.
Sunny: I think it is because I exercise maybe three to four times a week. My exercise definitely helps me de-stress. The second thing that helps me is my spending time with my family; it makes me feel that my work is worth it. This is very important to me.
Esther: What I do is self-reflection and to pray to God. Actually, not pray, I have a constant conversation with God.
Sunny: A constant chat. (Laughs)
Esther: I wake up really early, like 5:00 a.m. and that’s the most enjoyable ‘me’ time because no one is up in the house. Then I will review what happened yesterday like replaying the scenes of the things that people said to me etc. Sometimes, I found it very interesting that you missed or made some new discoveries. A lot of people in Hong Kong don’t really take this kind of quiet time to do reflection; they actually miss out a lot of the details in their lives.
Sunny: She encourages me to do meditation.
Esther: Well, we had a bad debate about it. I’ve never tried any form of meditation prior to my depression. I realize how much meditation means to me; actually it’s called a conscious quite time.
My first conscious quiet time came about when I was sick, I had a private yoga instructor come up to my home, since I was so sick that I wasn’t able to go out to exercise at all. And then, I burst into tears when I went into this conscious quiet moment. That was the time when I realized, “Wow! I was abusing myself for eight long months. I didn’t even know about it because I was very angry or saddened by his lack of attention on me that I started to self-abuse myself. As in, I wasn’t taking care of myself. During that time, I was only eating junk food. I refused to do anything good to myself, such as going to have haircut or facial treatment. I didn’t even know about it.
So, I highly recommended that to him. It’s such a small investment. It takes just two minutes to clear your mind out and just talk to yourself.
Sunny: But I have what you call, ‘quiet time’, or whatever time as well when I travel for work.
Esther: No, but you’re reading newspaper or doing something. He’s not getting it.
Sunny: I know it’s different. I know it’s different. What I’m trying to say is that maybe I just haven’t worked hard enough to realize the importance of ‘quiet time’? (Laughs)
PRAYING TOGETHER BEFORE BED DURING DIFFCULT TIMES
Esther: Before our sons, we have our couple time like one or two hour every night. But now, it’s shortened because I sleep so early now. It only happens on some nights, not every night that we used to do. We could spend one to two hours just chatting.
But for him, his night either would either involve talking to me or he would start to clear out his email.
Sunny: Yeah. There are things that I just need to finish off, because during the daytime, I’m very focused to make sure that I conduct all the meetings I need to do.
Esther: More to answer the daily stuff.
Sunny: I usually break down all my stuff in like 30 minutes block to get things done. There could be other times that I may need to write reports, or there could be some other things on my list that I need to clear. So for me, my nights are all about finding ways to make sure that I’m ahead of the game. But if I get any free time, I will come home early to see my son and spend time with her.
Esther: My night is totally different from him. I don’t check my emails or WhatsApp at night. You won’t see me replying emails after 6:00 p.m. unless it’s super urgent. I usually start my nights with a bath with Aromatherapy Associates Himalayan Bath Salts. It helps smooth the intensity of my neck pain. Thereafter, I do love to apply a few drops of Dr. Hauschka Lavender Calming Body Oil on my wrist. The soft scent of Lavender essential oil helps comforts my mind. And then, I will breathe in and out its smell with the Thoracic Breathing method. Recently, we’ve gotten into a habit of praying before sleeping, if there are any challenges that unfold in life.
Sunny: Obviously, having that faith in God helps. But challenges happen every day. You just have to find the knack to handle it. I mean, it’s not the end of the world.
Esther: If we have serious problems that need figuring out, we will pray together and eventually God will give us the guidance.
Sunny: Yeah. He will guide us and we just have to follow.
Esther: Luckily, we both sleep quite well at night. We don’t have any sleeping problems. We turn off the lights and then our brains turn off as well. We used to say, “Oh! Let’s see who fall asleep first.”
Sunny: We really don’t know who, though.
Esther: Yeah. We never can catch who sleep first.