Ex­ec­u­tive chef, Mo­mo­fuku Ssäm Bar, New York


A decade ago, ex­ec­u­tive chef Max Ng re­solved to work for Mo­mo­fuku, chef David Chang’s restau­rant brand known for un­pre­ten­tious, Asian-in­flu­enced, in­no­va­tive cui­sine. Ng had gained enough kitchen ex­pe­ri­ence by then—in es­tab­lish­ments such as the cater­ing arm of Au Jardin in Les Amis and even on­board a yacht—to know that “good food needs to be ap­proach­able on a daily ba­sis.” Com­ing across the Mo­mo­fuku cook­book, what he read of Mo­mo­fuku Ssäm Bar and Mo­mo­fuku Ko res­onated well with his be­liefs.

The for­mer had mor­phed from serv­ing only ssäm (Korean let­tuce wraps)-bur­ri­tos to a ca­sual restau­rant in­spired by global in­gre­di­ents; while two-Miche­lin-starred Mo­mo­fuku Ko, a Ja­panese kaiseki-and-sea­sonal pro­duce-in­spired restau­rant, spe­cialised in flavour-packed tast­ing menus. Putting thought to ac­tion, Ng moved to New York in 2011, en­rolling at the Culi­nary In­sti­tute of Amer­ica (CIA). From there, he started as a CIA ex­tern at Ssäm Bar, then moved on to Ko as com­mis, work­ing his way up through the ranks to chef de cui­sine in 2016. Mid last year, he moved back to Ssäm Bar, this time as ex­ec­u­tive chef.

When you be­came chef de cui­sine at two-Miche­lin­starred Ko in 2016, did you feel the pres­sure?

Whether it’s at Ko or Ssäm Bar, there is def­i­nite pres­sure to be bet­ter than you were the day be­fore. We all as­pire to be a bet­ter ver­sion of our­selves. There is not al­ways a lin­ear line of pos­i­tive pro­gres­sion, but if the over­all trend is up­wards, that’s all that mat­ters.

We get many pa­trons and din­ers from all facets of life and many of them are in­ter­na­tional trav­ellers. Some caught my ac­cent and tried to guess where I’m orig­i­nally from. Guesses vary from Sin­ga­porean to Nor­we­gian, and usu­ally we end up talk­ing about the won­ders of trav­el­ling and new ex­pe­ri­ences.

How have you re­freshed Mo­mo­fuku Ssäm Bar since be­com­ing its ex­ec­u­tive chef?

Ssäm Bar is an ac­cu­mu­la­tion of the in­flu­ences of David Chang and the chefs who have come be­fore me here. With­out their in­put and in­flu­ences, I could not have done or be able to con­tinue do­ing what I am do­ing now. From that base, I have started to in­clude some Sin­ga­porean/South­east Asian in­flu­ences and com­po­nents of dishes that re­mind me of home and child­hood and how trav­el­ling in­flu­enced the way I look at other cul­tures.

How do you usu­ally con­cep­tu­alise new menus and dishes?

The menu at Ssäm Bar is al­ways evolv­ing so we are usu­ally work­ing on mul­ti­ple food ideas, dishes, or con­cepts. Some make it to the menu, some don’t. Last year, we did a corn dish that was an amal­ga­ma­tion of corn snacks from var­i­ous night mar­kets. It re­minded me of a roasted corn street snack in Tai­wan, fried corn ker­nels in Sin­ga­pore, and roasted Mex­i­can corn with queso, lime and chile, along with other in­flu­ences from my trav­els to Hong Kong and Ja­pan. We might do a sim­i­lar dish this year when corn sea­son comes around.

We al­ways try to find the over­lap in dishes. For ex­am­ple, fried chicken is also a huge ‘food group’ on its own, whether it’s ayam penyet, fried chicken from the Amer­i­can south or Korean-style fried chicken. And tripe dishes have its roots in mul­ti­ple cul­tures, such as the Ro­man-Ital­ian trippa, the Mex­i­can menudo/ pancita, or the Korean tripe stew. These thought pro­cesses help us in mak­ing dish decisions.

Does Ssäm Bar’s con­cept lend it­self eas­ily to in­cor­po­rat­ing South­east Asian in­gre­di­ents?

The key is still find­ing com­mon ground amongst dishes and in­gre­di­ents. If there is a dish or com­po­nent that I feel will con­trib­ute to the menu—whether it’s some­thing from my her­itage or some­thing new to me—it still goes through our stan­dard vet­ting process be­fore it makes it onto the menu. The banana leaf skate and belachan on the menu, for in­stance, is some­thing that res­onates with me as I used to fre­quent the East Coast Park hawker cen­tre back in the day. And my first ad­di­tion to Ssäm Bar’s dessert menu was pan­dan co­conut pie to show my love for kaya, and how pan­dan is the one key in­gre­di­ent that helps ac­cen­tu­ate co­conut.

South­east Asian cui­sine is gain­ing wider in­ter­est and ac­cep­tance in­ter­na­tion­ally. How do you see it grow­ing in in the New York food scene?

There are so many cuisines that make up South­east Asian cui­sine, and each of those cuisines has in­flu­enced the New York’s food scene over time and con­tin­ues to do so. It’s cru­cial for one to be proud of one’s per­sonal her­itage and to em­brace one’s cul­tural iden­tity, as it has a huge ef­fect on af­fect­ing change.

What’s your great­est in­spi­ra­tion for keep­ing on a chef’s path and what dreams do you have in the next five years?

I never ex­pected to be where I am to­day. I was only sup­posed to stay at Mo­mo­fuku for one year af­ter I grad­u­ated from the CIA. But it was a se­ries of short term goals that led me to my cur­rent stage in my ca­reer. I try to plan ahead, but my pri­mary fo­cus is to con­tinue to im­prove Ssäm Bar. We are not try­ing to rein­vent the wheel, we are just try­ing to be a lit­tle bit bet­ter ev­ery day and hit the goals we set for our­selves.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Singapore

© PressReader. All rights reserved.