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