EARLY RIS­ERS

Meet chefs aged 35 and un­der who are hold­ing court in the kitchen

Wine & Dine - - CONTENTS - WORDS CHAR­LENE CHOW

Chefs 35 and un­der are hold­ing court

There is a say­ing that goes: to re­ally hone a craft, you need to work at it for at least 10 years. For chefs, time and prac­tice count even more. Each ser­vice, each plate of food is dif­fer­ent, and they have to be on their toes, with their skills per­fectly honed, to de­liver spot on ev­ery sin­gle time. With some start­ing as young as 15 or 16, many young chefs can reach their first ca­reer peak in their 20s or 30s. Joël Robu­chon, Daniel Boulud, Gor­don Ram­say and Marco Pierre White all headed the kitchen or helmed their own restau­rants by then, while in Singapore, top head chefs like Sam Ais­bett of Whitegrass and Ja­son Tan of Cor­ner House are 35 or un­der.

Early suc­cess in the culi­nary arts is helped along by men­tor­ships which nar­row the learn­ing curve, says Ed­mund Toh, Pres­i­dent of the Singapore Chefs’ As­so­ci­a­tion. “In­tern­ships have gained more im­por­tance in re­cent years. It’s in part thanks to the rise in qual­ity culi­nary in­sti­tu­tions who con­sciously de­sign in­tern­ship pro­grammes as part of the cur­ricu­lum. This fast-tracks stu­dents’ un­der­stand­ing about the in­dus­try, and gives them a more for­malised struc­ture for learn­ing.” Add to that a wealth of culi­nary knowl­edge on the In­ter­net and a greater ease of travel, and young chefs today have a huge ar­se­nal at their dis­posal.

But there are no short­cuts to hard work and sac­ri­fice, says Julien Royer, chef-owner of Odette, who be­came head chef of Brasserie Les Saveurs in St Regis Singapore at just 25. “I started in the kitchen at 18. It has less to do with age and more to do with hav­ing 15 or more years of ex­pe­ri­ence, start­ing from the very bottom,” he says.

Here we meet 10 young chefs whose restau­rants were awarded stars in Singapore’s Top Restau­rants 2017/2018. We sa­lute their hard work and suc­cess so far, and look for­ward to their dishes still to come, in the next decade, the next, and the next.

1 SUN KIM, 33 META

When he was very young, Sun Kim had a vague am­bi­tion of hav­ing his own restau­rant be­fore he reached 35. “But I didn’t re­ally work hard with that in mind. I worked hard be­cause I just wanted to grow and learn,” he says. That learn­ing jour­ney even­tu­ally took him from Ital­ian and French restau­rants in Seoul to Tet­suya’s in Syd­ney, then Waku Ghin at Ma­rina Bay Sands be­fore he opened Meta in 2015.

Lo­cated at Keong Saik Road and serv­ing “Frenchin­spired cui­sine with an Asian twist”, Meta was given two stars in our Singapore’s Top Restau­rants guide last year, as well as Best De­gus­ta­tion Menu (Asian). This year, it re­ceived two stars in our awards, and was also anointed with a Miche­lin star.

Kim’s set menus at Meta match French cooking tech­niques with Asian flavours. Some of the Korean in­gre­di­ents he loves and uses of­ten are tra­di­tional doen­jang (bean paste), gochu­jang (chilli paste), sesame oil and sea­weed. A re­cent fas­ci­na­tion with Chi­nese in­gre­di­ents also sees him ex­per­i­ment­ing with items like Chi­nese lily bud for its unique flavour and tex­ture. A dish to look for­ward to in Meta’s Au­tumn menu, is a mod­ern in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Korean abalone con­gee us­ing the liver of the abalone.

2 PETRINA LOH, 35 MORSELS

Petrina Loh worked in banking for eight years be­fore switch­ing ca­reers at the age of 30, head­ing for the Cal­i­for­nia Culi­nary Acad­emy in San Fran­cisco and its Le Cor­don Bleu pro­gramme. Grad­u­at­ing and with work ex­pe­ri­ence at restau­rants like State Bird Pro­vi­sions and Spruce un­der her belt, she re­turned home to open Morsels at Mayo Street, Little India in 2013. She moved to her cur­rent lo­ca­tion at Dempsey Hill ear­lier this year. There, she serves up mod­ern Asian cui­sine deeply in­spired by her trav­els. This year alone, she spent about a month in Korea learn­ing the art of kim­chi mak­ing at the vil­lage of Yang­pyeong and at the In­sti­tute of Gyeonggi cui­sine in Seong­nam. She in­cor­po­rates home­made kim­chi in her signature dish of steamed Venus clams in fig broth.

For chef Loh, build­ing lay­ers of flavour is para­mount. She says, “We don’t just add fin­ish­ing salt; we sea­son [the dish] at each stage of the cooking process. Some of the ways we layer flavour is by adding a fer­mented el­e­ment or acid­ity with the use of pick­les and fresh cit­rus, among oth­ers.”

In her new dish grilled Thomas Farms Den­ver lamb ribs, for in­stance, she cooks the lamb in the Chi­nese herbs dang gui and yuzhu, liquorice, cin­na­mon and star anise. For savoury notes, she adds fer­mented red bean­curd, then sous vides the lamb un­til it is ten­der. The lamb is fin­ished on the grill with re­duced herbal glaze. Chef Loh then makes a green romesco sauce us­ing green bell pep­pers, roasted Chi­nese al­monds and jalepeño to match the Caber­net Franc from Do­maine Bernard Baudry Chi­non she in­tends to pair the dish with. Lastly, she adds pick­led bit­ter­gourd, a ‘cool­ing’ el­e­ment which also coun­ters the fat­ti­ness of the lamb, ji­cama for a nutty taste, crispy bee­hoon for crunch and tex­ture, and mi­cro cilantro.

3 JULIEN ROYER, 35 ODETTE

Trained by re­spected French chefs like Michel Bras of Le Su­quet in Laguiole, Julien Royer came to Singapore and helmed Jaan for four years from 2011. Dur­ing that time, he brought it to 11th place in Asia’s 50 Best Restau­rants List and 74th on the World’s 50 Best long list. He then left to open his own mod­ern French restau­rant Odette at the Na­tional Gallery of Singapore with the Lo & Be­hold Group in 2015. A year later, it earned two Miche­lin stars and re­tained that sta­tus this year. To top it off, Odette de­buted this year at 9th place in the Asia’s 50 Best Restau­rants List, and 86th on the World’s 50 Best long list.

Tast­ing menus at the restau­rant let him play with pro­duce, show­cas­ing their nat­u­ral splen­dour, sim­ply and el­e­gantly. Il­lus­trat­ing this are his signature dishes Hokkaido uni; heir­loom beetroot vari­a­tion; and rose­mary smoked or­ganic egg. The ul­tra-pre­mium in­gre­di­ents he uses come from bou­tique pro­duc­ers with whom he cul­ti­vates a work­ing re­la­tion­ship—such as cheese­maker Bernard Antony in Vieux-Fer­rette, North­east­ern France and seafood pro­duc­ers from Hokkaido Ja­pan.

De­spite his suc­cess, Royer re­mains grounded by the words that men­tor Michel Bras shared with him many years ago: “You alone are noth­ing”. By this, he means that a chef is defined by the strength of the peo­ple that sur­rounds him. What more does he hope for? Royer muses, “To still be rel­e­vant. To still have the restau­rant not only full, but with lots of re­turn­ing cus­tomers, and to still have a team that’s strong, like fam­ily.”

4 CAR­LOS MONTOBBIO, 30 ESQUINA

Af­ter 10 years work­ing at dif­fer­ent restau­rants in his na­tive Spain, Car­los Montobbio ar­rived in Singapore at 26 years old as chef de cui­sine of Fairmont Singapore’s Anti:dote Bar. It wasn't long be­fore he was no­ticed by those fur­ther afield, and was made head chef at Span­ish ta­pas restau­rant Esquina in 2015. With the free­dom to be even more cre­ative in this new role, chef Montobbio brought Esquina’s al­ready-pop­u­lar mod­ern ta­pas menus to a new level. “Mod­ern ta­pas is go­ing fur­ther into mostly bite­sized pre­sen­ta­tions. A din­ner be­comes a com­bi­na­tion of 10 to 14 bites with very di­verse tex­tures and flavours, and not nec­es­sar­ily us­ing purely Span­ish in­gre­di­ents,” he says.

An ex­am­ple of the dif­fer­ent tex­tures and flavours he weaves into each morsel is his new potato and truf­fle gratin. He wanted to cre­ate some­thing that re­minded him of the flavours of huevos es­trel­la­dos, a typ­i­cal Span­ish dish made of fried pota­toes, egg and ham. “I took out each in­gre­di­ent from the dish and gave it an­other tex­ture. I turned the fried potato into a pan-seared potato gratin and the sunny side egg into the egg yolk sauce and the fried onion into a burnt onion sauce at the bottom. We fin­ished it with some shav­ings of win­ter black truf­fle and some fried Ibérico ham.” He is now work­ing on es­par­denyes, a Cata­lan dish that makes use of the in­testines of the sea cu­cum­ber; it tastes like squid but with a more del­i­cate tex­ture.

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