Chef-owner of JL Stu­dio Jimmy Lim con­tem­plates his un­likely jour­ney into Mod Sin


I’ve never con­sid­ered cook­ing Sin­ga­porean food. Af­ter work­ing in Euro-cen­tric kitchens for 13 years—I did French fine-din­ing for nearly eight years at Le Moût, Tai­wan, and also stints at Noma and Gera­nium in Den­mark—I in­tended JL Stu­dio as a mod­ern Euro­pean restau­rant. But one month be­fore open­ing, the con­cept sud­denly felt im­per­sonal. As I started to think more deeply about what holds emo­tional res­o­nance for me, I re­alised that Sin­ga­pore’s cui­sine wasn’t very well known in­ter­na­tion­ally, un­like French or Ital­ian or Thai. That was when I de­cided I should go back to my roots. Mod Sin was my way of el­e­vat­ing the cui­sine to counter mis­con­cep­tions that it’s just cheap food. I also knew that if I wanted to get din­ers en­gaged and ea­ger to learn more about our food cul­ture, I needed to do some­thing dif­fer­ent and cre­ative.

To me, keep­ing true to tra­di­tional flavours is more im­por­tant than de­con­struc­tion. Many here don’t know much be­yond chicken rice and bak kut teh, so I need to take it step by step. Some­times, peo­ple don’t en­joy cer­tain foods be­cause they don’t un­der­stand the con­text. Af­ter get­ting feed­back that our spices were too strong, we started to ex­plain how Sin­ga­pore’s year-round sum­mer cli­mate calls for pun­gent, spicy and sour flavours to whet the ap­petite. I’m happy when guests say that my food made them want to visit Sin­ga­pore to taste the orig­i­nal dishes.

My din­ers are mainly lo­cals; a third comes from Ja­pan and Hong Kong. I also have reg­u­lars from Sin­ga­pore and Malaysia who pop in when­ever they’re here for work. I’m both sur­prised and hon­oured that they find my food ex­cit­ing enough to keep re­turn­ing. Right now, my pri­or­ity is to prop­erly es­tab­lish JL Stu­dio in Tai­wan. We’ve only been open for a year and a half, and there’s still so much to learn.

I re­gret be­ing com­pla­cent back when I was help­ing my late fa­ther with his zichar stall. Af­ter liv­ing and work­ing abroad, I’m fi­nally ap­pre­cia­tive and cu­ri­ous—of the di­ver­sity of our hawker food, the his­tory, the tech­niques—but now it’s all re­search, and trial and er­ror.

At the be­gin­ning, I listed down all the dishes I could think of, then se­lected some to de­con­struct. These days, I pre­fer to keep things sim­ple, to fo­cus on flavours rather than plat­ing—so I’ve been chal­leng­ing my­self to take a more in­gre­di­ent­driven ap­proach.

Sus­tain­able farm­ing and food mileage mat­ters. We’re in Taichung be­cause that’s as close we can get to the pro­duce: 80 per cent of our in­gre­di­ents are lo­cal, and I can eas­ily ex­plore nearby farms for in­spi­ra­tion. For in­stance, my black pep­per lob­ster was in­spired by ma­gao, a spice tra­di­tion­ally used by abo­rig­i­nal tribes. Its pep­per­corn-like flavours re­minded me of pep­per crab, so I ex­per­i­mented along those lines. For the cur­rent it­er­a­tion, I serve poached slip­per lob­ster with ma­gao done two ways: as a broth, and as a black pep­per paste. Sin­ga­pore’s flavours re­main the back­bone for my dishes, but I also want to give a sense of place.

I find it funny the way ev­ery­thing comes full cir­cle. Grow­ing up, I would won­der why French cui­sine looked so beau­ti­ful, and our food so messy. To some ex­tent, I think con­fi­dence comes with age. Now, I’m proud to say that I’m a Sin­ga­porean cook­ing a mod­ern in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Sin­ga­pore’s cui­sine.

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