Aeron Choo, 25, Sushi Chef
Working in the F&B industry is notoriously brutal. For CLEO Change Maker Aeron Choo, the 25-year-old chef-owner of Kappou Japanese Sushi Tapas Bar and Gokoro – Concept Bar, the journey was exceptionally arduous.
At 14, she started working as a dishwasher at a Japanese restaurant. At 18, she bought a one-way ticket to New York, working odd jobs in construction and F&B while she waited for her big break. That didn’t work out, but Aeron’s story is one about fortitude. She found herself in Tokyo less than a year later, to study the art of sushi-making from the masters.
When asked why she started working at an age when most Singaporeans are still schooling full-time, the soft-spoken chef just shrugs and says in the most matter-of-fact tone, “Circumstances. Life.”
In fact, Aeron doesn’t talk much about life before she stepped into the kitchen professionally. Except for this one incident.
“I think it was in kindergarten when I started cooking for myself and my brother, who’s two years older than me. I was cooking an egg and I accidentally spilled boiling water all over myself. It took me eight months to recover from the burn.”
You’d think that a kid who’s had an accident like that would never voluntarily step into the kitchen again, but it should be apparent at this point that Aeron is clearly of a different calibre.
“I don’t know why I wasn’t afraid to step into a kitchen again. I think there’s something innate in me to want to cook,” she says with a soft chuckle and a shake of her head.
“Like a man”
A life-long love for sushi and a history of working in Japanese restaurants led Aeron to the sushi masters in Tokyo, where she worked as an apprentice for two years.
“I was constantly reminded that I’m female, and that I had to respect their rules,” she adds. “They said: if you want to make it in a man’s industry, then you better be able to take it like man. So they treated me exactly like a man during work hours.”
Not wanting to be thought any less of just because of her gender, Aeron complied with their practices and took whatever hard knocks that came her way—sometimes literally.
She sported a shaved head because it’s common practice for sushi apprentices to have their hair shorn off. She endured kicks from chefs, and still has the scars till this day to show for it.
“I got scolded every day,” she recounts. She also had to handwrite lengthy apology letters in Japanese whenever she made a mistake, because that’s the custom. It was extra tough on her because she didn’t know how to read or write in Japanese then.
“Being late for work is a mistake, even if it was by a few minutes. And if you fall sick, it’s also a mistake because somebody else has to pick up your slack. Nobody took MC, because it’s your fault for not taking care of your health. If you cut your finger, you have to apologise to the team because you’ll be slower and burden everyone else,” Aeron explains.
Once, she even had a pot of rice thrown at her head because she forgot to cover the cooked sushi rice. It was a big mistake because the rice was then rendered unsuitable for serving to customers, and she had just incurred extra expenses for the restaurant.
“I quickly bent down to pick up the rice that had spilled because the kitchen floor has to be spick and span. As I was doing that, the chef continued scolding and throwing rice at me.”
Despite all of that, Aeron maintains that she’s grateful because she got the chance to learn.
“It’s how the culture is. I’m grateful to be given a chance. Sometimes, it’s like that, lor,” says the bubbly chef.
But she admits that there were times when she felt down, especially when she fell sick, when money was running low, or when she felt exceptionally alone.
“I was so burnt out. There were many times when I wanted to give up,” says Aeron. Anyone else in her shoes would have thrown in the towel, but Aeron—whose name is derived from the Celtic goddess of war and has Hebrew origins that translate to “mountain of strength”—pressed on.
When asked about where she gets her tenacity from, Aeron offers this explanation: “Succeeding was necessary. I have no safety net. I am my own safety net.”
“I was at the edge of a cliff, you know? If I don’t do this, I’d have no work and no money to survive. So I had to be a cockroach.”
After her apprenticeships, she eventually enrolled in Tokyo Sushi Academy and graduated with a diploma in culinary arts.
Striking out on her own
Upon her return to Singapore, Aeron continued to dream of sushi. But first, she had to have enough money to start her own restaurant. So she traded her chef’s jacket for sweatpants and Crocs, and started a donburi stall in a coffeeshop in Yishun.
Two years later, in December 2016, she set up Kappou Japanese Sushi Tapas Bar in Fortune Centre with $70,000 that she painstakingly squirrelled away. There, she serves up 14-course omakase meals at a relatively affordable $128 per person—although it’s policy that every patron has to order an alcoholic drink.
Her motivations are simple: “I want Singaporeans to be able to enjoy Japanese food at a more affordable price.”
She remains largely a one-woman show at the 12-seat restaurant, in a bid to keep prices affordable for her customers. Last year, she opened Gokoro – Concept bar, which serves up Japanese spirits, sake and tapas, just one floor above her restaurant Kappou.
Given all that she’s achieved, Aeron maintains that she couldn’t have gotten where she is today without the support and kindness of everyone she’s met along the way. “Especially my partner, who supported me in all aspects,” adds the chef, who is currently in a relationship.
A letter to her younger self
It’s been a hard-knock life for the 25-year-old sushi chef, but if Aeron could say something to her younger self, what would it be?
“Take care of your health, and remember to get insurance,” Aeron reveals. She had a health scare two years ago when her legs gave way during the middle of service. It was then when she found out that she had a 12cm steroid cell tumour growing in her ovaries.
Because of the tumour, she never had a period. Her rare condition went undiagnosed for the longest time which, oddly enough, worked in her favour when she was doing her apprenticeship in Japan. Taboos around periods are a big reason why you don’t see many female sushi chefs, as it’s believed that their palates are affected by menstruation.
“So I told them, I don’t have periods anyway, I can do this,” she shares candidly. She adds that there are two more things she’d tell her younger self: to work harder, and be more positive.
It’s apparent to anyone who knows Aeron that she’s the last person to slack off, which is why it might seem strange that she’d drive her past self to put in more work. But to Aeron, these hardships are the pressure that turns coal into diamonds.
“I’ve been cheated by housing agents before when I didn’t have very much money. I’ve lived out of two luggages. I used to only own one pair of shoes and survived on only cup noodles. But my journey moulded me into who I am today,” declares Aeron.
She pauses for a bit, then adds: “I can survive anywhere now.”
Photography: Brendan Zhang
Styling: Cheryl Chan
Hair and makeup: Zoel Tee
Styling Assistant: Melissa Lee