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26 Jan 2022 


In Singapore, passion and practicality are often seen as opposing ends of a spectrum. Far too often, we’ve been taught to choose between our dreams or earning a comfortable living.


In the hustle for that monthly salary — along with the stress of paying bills and saving for retirement — how can the average working Singaporeans find purpose in the life they’re living? The thing is, it’s not binary. As Ilyas, a 33-year-old editor-slash-home-cook would tell you, it’s possible to pursue one’s financial goals without compromising on one’s passion.


As with everything else in life, it begins with a plan. 


It all started with an air fryer

Ilyas working at his desk.

By day, Ilyas works as an editor for a local online publication. As with most roles in the media industry, work comes with the occasional long hours and burnout. Simply put, there’ll always be stories to chase and multiple deadlines to meet.

Still, he makes it a point to juggle his time well enough to pursue his passion for cooking.

Despite the hectic schedule that comes with being a senior editor, you’d typically see him hosting dinner parties for a bunch of friends and family on at least two weekends in a month. When these dinners roll around, off goes the editor hat and on comes the apron. That’s when Ilyas transforms into a fiery chef in the kitchen. 


Ilyas holding a bowl of dish that he prepared.

Rosemary chicken; artfully plated kale salad with roasted walnuts; atas Indomie with salmon, roasted brussels sprouts and sous vide steak? These are just some of the many dishes he serves to the people who step foot in his humble 4-room BTO.

“When I first started hosting dinners, there were surprisingly positive responses from my friends,'' Ilyas recalls. “I’ve never once asked for payment from any of them, but then I started receiving willing donations directly into my account more than once.”

“That’s when I thought that this could be more than just a hobby.”

Dishes on the table prepared by Ilyas.

Beyond good food, it’s the element of showmanship that makes home cooking so intriguing from his view. As it stands, his dining area directly faces the kitchen, which means that diners get to witness food preparation up close. Better yet, they’ll get to engage in hearty conversations with Ilyas, hear his jokes or learn more about his inspirations behind each dish. Omakase style.

With private dining thundering up a storm in Singapore’s gourmet scene, the dream of starting a private home dining business began manifesting. The goal may still be a work-in-progress, but Ilyas explains that the endgame is to be good enough in the craft to be sustainable in the long run.

Ilyas serving the dishes he prepared to his friends at home.

Work and passion goes hand in hand


While the trade of being an editor may still be largely enjoyable, it inevitably takes a toll every now and then. This became crystal clear to Ilyas when the pandemic rolled around two years back. All that extra time spent indoors meant an opportunity to finally hone his culinary skills — something that he’d been putting on hold for the longest time.


“The pandemic made me realise there’s more to life than the daily hustle. Who am I beyond my job title? If I was retrenched tomorrow, what else can I do? I didn’t have enough savings to last a long period of unemployment.”


If it wasn’t for the lockdown, Ilyas would have had less time to reflect on his priorities in life.

He reasons: “I’ve been so used to the grind that it felt unfamiliar to actually pursue a passion.”


Chips and sauces prepared by Ilyas.

Ultimately, he’d figured that as much as it’s great to focus on the daily hustle, it’s equally essential to sustain his passion. Not just a side hobby that fizzles out when the tough gets going, but one that can provide comfort now to retirement age and beyond. 


Ilyas compares retirement planning to mise en place, the French culinary phrase referring to the organised placement of raw ingredients and kitchen equipment before starting to cook. Everything needs to be in its right place for easy access and maximum success.


From the way he sees it, this humble dream of starting a home business should only be pursued after he’s built a solid financial foundation. Much like the ingredients prepared before cooking, Ilyas composes multiple financial portfolios and plans before retiring. 


Ilyas preparing dishes in his kitchen.

Apart from his CPF contributions, he actively sets aside 20 per cent of his monthly salary towards savings and maintains long-term investment plans with an insurance company. His retirement plan is also bolstered with monthly voluntary cash top-ups to his CPF Special Account (SA). On top of all that, he uses a robo-advisor as a way to grow his CPF savings further.


Cooking up a plan to keep the flame alive

In an ideal scenario in the future, Ilyas shares that he’d love to obtain official training under a culinary academy and get certified as a private chef. He’d even choose to undergo some professional kitchen experience to widen his culinary knowledge if time allows. 

Ilyas' friends enjoying the dishes he prepared.

Ilyas admits that he’s at a pivotal point in life — with things like marriage and housing pretty much settled, the next big thing to tackle is retirement. To pursue his passion for cooking in the future though, it was time to start thinking about how to grow his nest egg.

“During one of my dinners with a friend, the topic of retirement and CPF came up. And if I’m being honest, I knew little about either of them back then,” he chuckles.

“This one friend suggested that since I love cooking so much and would love to retire at ease, then I should start putting money into my CPF Special Account (SA) earlier and to maximise it as much as possible.”

Dishes on the table prepared by Ilyas.

While initially doubtful, it made sense the more he thought about it. The importance of financial planning and retirement was a concept that seemed distant when he was in his twenties. But it’s undoubtedly grown to be a primary concern now that he’s in his thirties.

“It may sound silly, but this all goes into building a substantial foundation for me to continue pursuing my passion post-work life.”

This sounds easy in theory but can be hard to execute. In reality, there are a variety of things to think about — expenses, loans, bills, to say the least. Of course, that’s not accounting for the cost of purchasing fresh ingredients and upgrading of kitchen appliances.

A close-up shot of a grilled chicken prepared by Ilyas.

While money received from these dinners may just be donations for now, he sees every little amount as additional savings, which he uses to funnel into his CPF. When making these top-ups into his SA, comfort is knowing that the money grows with attractive interest over the years. This naturally builds up a pool of savings for his retirement — the more he has, the higher the monthly payouts he receives under CPF LIFE; no matter how long he lives.

“We’d all love to retire early so that we can pursue our passions, don’t we?” he muses. “It’s how to get there that people are often clueless about.”

When asked about the Singaporean struggle between passion and comfortable retirement, Ilyas assures that it’s not that disparate. They can complement one another, like grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup.

Pursuing financial freedom and passions simultaneously is like learning how to cook, he says. You’ll get burnt and cut once in a while, and you’ll feel like giving up at times.

But at the end of the day, if you gather a semblance of a plan — just like you make time to gather each and every ingredient before cooking — what you’re doing is essentially working towards a meal that you can enjoy for the rest of your life.


Information in this article is accurate as at the date of publication.