Haikal Johari knows a thing or two about overcoming adversity. The 43-year old father of two helms the kitchen of one-MICHELIN-star restaurant Alma in Singapore as its executive chef — a feat that would have been unimaginable just five years ago when a serious motorcycle accident in Pattaya, Thailand left him paralysed from the neck down.
Then, the doctors had given him the devastating news that the high cervical nerves on his spinal cord had been damaged, leaving him with just a three per cent chance of moving his body again. After the accident, Johari was air-lifted to the National University Hospital (NUH) in Singapore to begin his long road to recovery. Unable to speak and reliant on a ventilator to breathe, he pulled through thanks to the care, comfort — and tough love — that the nurses and medical team poured on him during that difficult period, the chef recalls today.
“There was one incident that left a deep impression on me,” he shares. “They were trying to wean me off the breathing machine gradually, starting with two hours a day, then four, then six. It was so difficult to breathe, I felt like I was dying and each time I wanted to give up I would call for the nurses."
"There was this nurse in particular, she was pregnant and she would speak very fiercely to me: ‘How can you leave this hospital if you cannot breathe?’ It was a wake-up call for me. She was fierce, but every time I felt like I couldn’t bear it anymore, she was always there,” says Johari.
This was why in early March, the same doctors and nurses came to his mind as he sat in his car listening to the radio about the rise in the number of Covid-19 cases that is putting a strain on Singapore’s healthcare workers. “It was getting quiet at the restaurant, so I thought, why not use the time to give back to them?”
The chef enlisted the help of his kitchen brigade as well as his sister and brother-in-law who run popular bakery Woodlands Sourdough, and they collectively began putting together lunch boxes twice a week for the staff at NUH. Each box contains hearty Angus beef burgers, beef pastrami sandwiches and sourdough sandwiches piled high with roasted cauliflower, hummus and smoked cheese.
“We had a team briefing and everyone got so excited with contributing ideas. Woodlands Sourdough sponsored the bread, brownies and blondies and even our customers started chipping in so we have a small budget to work with. It wasn’t foie gras or Wagyu, but it was something different [from the food at the hospital] to lift their spirits, and hopefully something for them to look forward to,” he says.
Though Johari had committed to do these lunch deliveries to NUH for eight weeks, the initiative had to be put on pause as the nation-wide “circuit breaker” measures kicked in in early April to curb the spread of the disease. And with Singapore authorities' new measures forbidding dining in put in place, fine dining restaurants like Alma were the hardest hit. Morale is at an all-time low, says the chef.
“I told my team that the most important thing in life is to never give up. If you give up, you’ve already lost. We will try every avenue to find a solution, even if it means selling burgers. Even if we fail on one day, we will try again the next,” says the chef resolutely, echoing the same sentiments in his video interview with the MICHELIN Guide Digital four years ago about overcoming his disability to lead the MICHELIN star restaurant.
Though still largely wheelchair-bound, the chef goes to work daily, planning menus and managing the pass while squeezing in time for physiotherapy in between lunch and dinner service. “Even now, I go for therapy every day, and not every day is a success. But we can celebrate the small wins along the way, like coming off the ventilator, or the 300 orders we got on our first day of starting takeaways," Johari says.
"I believe that after every hardship, there is victory — that's our light at the end of the tunnel.”