Long before Ernst Huber ever heard of a tropical island called Singapore, there was Sellenbüren, the small Swiss village where he grew up and where his parents ran a restaurant. “I used to do my homework there, and always heard the latest village news,” he remembers, eyes twinkling. “In school, I became the person with information for my friends, because I was always the one in the know about things that people were discussing.”
Good gossip aside, it was an independent childhood. He helped out in the restaurant, washing dishes and learning how to cook from his mother. In the mornings, he and his sister made their own breakfast while their parents slept in, as they kept late hours at the restaurant. By the time he was a teenager, Ernst was studying butchery, cooking and restaurant management in Zurich. At the age of 21, he landed his first job as a cook at a Hilton hotel in Malta.
“First, I said yes,” he explains with a laugh. “Then I asked: Where’s that?” The Mediterranean archipelago turned out to be the first stop in his globetrotting adventures, which brought him to other Hilton hotels in Iran and Kenya. The most valuable lesson he learned from these travels? “You have to adjust wherever you go, because people won’t adjust to you. You have to work hard, be honest, and treat everyone equally. That’s what I have tried to teach my children. Every person is a person, whatever colour they may be. We had cooks in Nairobi who collected their salaries with their thumbprints because they never went to school. But that didn’t mean they were stupid. I never had a problem in all the places I worked, because if you respect people the way they are, they’ll respect you. It’s as simple as that.”
Andre, the younger of his two sons, agrees that treating everyone with respect was a value that his parents drummed into him and his brother Ryan. “From a young age, we were taught that everyone is equal. Our dad would always tell us that in Switzerland, people don’t look at what a person does, but how well he did his job, and more respect would be paid to a cleaner who did a good job than a doctor who did a bad job.”
The brothers experienced Ernst’s commitment to equality first-hand when they started working under him at Swiss Butchery, which their father helped to start in 1994. “I told them, you are equal to everyone else, you don’t get special treatment,” says Ernst. “When you have gone through your whole life as an employee, you know how people think and how they talk. The moment you show favouritism, you’ll get problems with the staff. So it’s very important that everybody is on the same level.”
Love in the Lion City
Ernst never expected to end up in Singapore. In 1973, he went home to Switzerland after finishing his stint in Kenya, and had already accepted a posting to Hilton Bogotá in Colombia when an offer for a Singapore posting popped up unexpectedly. “When I was in Kenya, I’d read a half page article in a magazine about Singapore, and everything sounded so exotic. That article was still in my head when this offer came up.” And so it was decided: bye-bye Bogotá, hello Singapore. It was a decision that changed his life. At Hilton Singapore, Ernst met his future wife, Dorothy, who manned the front desk as an information clerk.
“He would come to talk to me because he had to send letters back to Switzerland, and that was my job,” says Dorothy. “He was very cute, always making jokes. I felt at ease with him. I was very shy, and I felt more relaxed around him since he was humorous.” They started dating, and she can still remember going to her first-ever disco with him at the now defunct Cockpit Hotel. She might have seen herself as shy, but Dorothy wasn’t a total shrinking violet. “In the past, I was very havoc. I wore a lot of miniskirts,” she shares. Ernst wasn’t her first boyfriend, and in fact, “I was surprised he liked me. He was very different, very open-minded.” They got married in 1976.
The affable Dorothy prefers to let her husband take the lead, and says she helped to instil honesty and discipline in her two sons because these were very important values to Ernst. “I was quite strict,” the patriarch admits. “They often complained, but I said, wait till you’re older, you’ll realise how good it was that you had a strict upbringing.”
Andre remembers how even splashing in puddles in their socks and shoes was frowned upon by his father. “He’s all about discipline and common sense. He always asks us to think things through. Mum is more loving, and she taught us compassion and affection. She would nag at us, as mothers do, and when I was younger it was always ‘one ear in, one ear out’. But secretly, some of that stays within you.”
As a parent to three young children now, he says, “I think I’m a good balance of my parents. I have Mum’s compassion, but if I need to discipline them, I will. I can be quite strict sometimes. After all, if you spoil them now, there’ll be trouble later.” (He does allow his kids to splash in puddles though.)
His wife, Belinda, who is Vietnamese-Australian, made her own way to Singapore because of love. She met Andre not long after he started Huber’s Butchery with his father and brother in 2007, and decided to move here six months into their courtship, her belongings shipped over along with choice cuts of meat in a Huber’s shipping container. In those early days of the business, Andre worked long hours and she didn’t know many people here, so they didn’t have much of a social life. But they were still in the honeymoon period, and she was happy to pitch in. “I went to work with him on weekends, and I would help pack sausages or help with the office stuff. So I’ve seen the business grow from the beginning.”
A Decade of dedication
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Huber’s Butchery, which operates a wholesale business supplying leading hotels, restaurants, clubs, and caterers. It also runs an online store, and a 13,000sqft gourmet store and bistro in Dempsey Hill. The business is a culmination of a long-cherished dream for Ernst, who still talks about butchery with great passion. “Once you know the meat—you touch it, you cut it, you cook it, you eat it—it creates this relationship between you and the raw material. It’s hard to explain.”
He’s the only professional chef in the family, but engineering-trained Ryan and marketing-trained Andre have well-honed palates thanks to him and are adept in the kitchen as well. “My wife cooks very well, but I told the boys from a very young age: you better learn how to cook, because the chances are very great that your future wives won’t know how to cook, so make sure you never go hungry,” Ernst jokes.
It was never a given that his sons would go into business with him. They had other interests, and he thought they might both end up working overseas. When they eventually told him they wanted to join him, “I could have jumped on the table”, he recalls, a fond smile curling his stiff upper lip. “But I tried to control myself. I just said, ‘OK, let me think about it.’”
Dorothy was rather worried about the whole thing. “I was afraid the business wouldn’t succeed, so I was quite reluctant,” she remembers. “I was never worried,” Ernst declares. “When you have the skills, and you do it right, you have to succeed.” Taking the middle ground between these two perspectives, Andre says: “Mum saw how difficult the starting years were, and it was scary to think that if we failed, we would all be penniless. But I felt, at the end of the day, if you grew up with the right values, even if we failed, we would be able to learn from it and start something else.”
Luckily, the Huber’s Butchery customer base has expanded rapidly beyond the original core of expatriate customers in recent years, as local consumers’ tastes become increasingly sophisticated. This Christmas, families all over Singapore will be tucking into meats from Huber’s Butchery as they celebrate with loved ones. “We try to bring in healthier products and we’ve been trying to encourage customers to do the cooking themselves instead of buying pre-cooked turkeys, which are typically prepared months in advance and frozen,” says Andre. “That’s why people always complain turkey is dry. A freshly cooked turkey is actually nice and juicy.”
“I’m very proud of the boys,” Dorothy says. “Being part of this business means a great deal to me,” adds Andre, who is the company’s executive director, while Ryan is managing director. “Getting to spend every day with my family is a privilege. We work very well together, and the kind of trust we have in each other, you can’t find anywhere else.”
“The butchery has grown very fast,” muses Ernst, who heads the company as chairman. “If it had been just me, I don’t think the company would be as big as it is today. The two boys have different qualities and talents, which match well together. And they are both still very humble. Whatever I have tried to teach them, I think it has come true.”
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