The soft power of chef collaborations
The soft power of chef collaborations
Flick through Instagram feeds of top restaurants these days and it’s common to find happy snaps of chefs pulling off collaborative meals. Called four-hands, six-hands, or even 10-hands—depending on the number of cooks spoiling stirring the broth− these meals take place on home ground, abroad or even both. As in international relations, where visits and exchanges build ties, collaborations are fast becoming a mode of choice for building chef relations. Even more so today where everyone is closer (yet further part, but that’s a story for another day), its possibilities are greater than ever before.
Being able to do collaborations (collabs for short) fairly often, reciprocally and sometimes overseas shows a certain heft about a restaurant and its capacity and willingness to share. Take two-Michelin-starred Odette, who rose to 28th on the
World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and 5th on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants this year. Chef Julien Royer plans at least four collabs a year. This year, among others, he has hosted chef Gert de Mangeleer of Belgium’s Hertog Jan, and visited chef Dominique Crenn’s Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, which sees a return visit this September.
Of his recent collabs, he says the most memorable was his one-night only dinner with “living legend” Alain Passard in March this year. He recalls, “I once cooked for him when I was still at JAAN, but to be in the same kitchen as him, in my own restaurant, is
a true honour.” But he keeps doing these collabs, he says, so that the team gets challenged, inspired and exposed to different working styles. “We try to do enough to keep the year exciting for our regulars but not so many that we overwhelm the guests or team.”
Another chef that keeps his schedule pretty packed is Ivan Brehm of Nouri restaurant. Newly minted with a Michelin star, he does a collab at least once a month. But he chooses his counterparts carefully. “We invite people whose outlook we admire and who are committed to a world that is more inclusive, open and cultured. I wouldn’t put it past a chef to leverage on another chef’s success to get his name out there, but that only leads to an event where dishes are listed by order of ownership and a weird feeling of a lamp that will never fit the room.”
Chef Han Li Guang of one-Michelin-starred Labyrinth restaurant jetted to Sydney last year for a collab with chef Lino Sauro at Olio restaurant. It might have seemed odd for him to be working with an Italian chef, but that was the precise tangent he was looking for. “It was a chance to work beyond the parameters of our own cuisine, our own price point and what we do on a daily basis. I got to cook with Australian produce on that trip.” Ditto on a recent trip to Taiwan, where he did a four-hands with chef Jimmy Lim of JL Studio, a fellow Singaporean chef working on modern Singaporean cuisine. He will return the favour when Lim visits Labyrinth later in the year.
STAY HUNGRY. STAY FOOLISH.
As in all fields, to learn is to grow. For chefs, collabs are one of the best ways of knowledge exchange and in many cases, creative alchemy. Says chef Isaac McHale of one-Michelin-starred The Clove Club, London, who was in town recently for Specialty Fine Foods Asia (SFFA) and a four-hands dinner with chef Royer, “The problem as a head chef is you don’t have much opportunities to learn. It’s possible but it’s much tougher because you have your own business to run. Two because it is odd to be the chief
and suddenly be told what to do in someone else’s kitchen. With collabs, you learn from your colleagues, see different ways of doing things and different approaches to the same ingredient.”
This is particularly true, if you are of the ilk that believes in putting up truly collaborative meals, rather than just course by course transmissions of each chef’s dishes. Says chef Brehm, one such proponent, “Intensely collaborative meals we’ve done such as with Mume, Locavore and Dewakan were incredible blasts. It takes a lot of effort and can be stressful at times as you are dealing with many variables but by allowing yourself the process, the result always delivers.”
Says chef Darren Teoh of Malaysia’s Dewakan, who cooked with Brehm earlier in the year, and followed that up shortly with a four-hands with chef Sun Kim of Meta. “With both Nouri and Meta, we conceptualised the dishes we wanted to share. What was great was the way we fed off each other’s ideas. That’s how some of the dishes were born and that’s also why during both dinners, the dishes were very cohesive.” At Meta for instance, the last main dish was an amalgam of both their influences: purple-hued Malaysian highland rice surrounded by mounds of pickled shishito peppers, kimchi with pork belly, grouper cooked with durian, and pomelo kerabu, and on the side, a rich bowl of fish head curry made with Korean spices.
Chef Han, who recently did a four-hands collab at his restaurant with Filipino chef Jordy Navarra of Toyo Eatery, understands this creative repartee very well. “Jordy and I had the same understanding that a dish we were making—Singaporean Kinilaw ‘Skinnylaw’ dish of silver perch ceviche, calamansi and 3-grain congee espuma—was lacking something. I reached out for soya sauce while he looked for more acidity. He’s more acidicdriven in his cooking, I’m more umami-driven in mine. There’s no right or wrong; it’d still be tasty but in different ways.” Indeed, the final rendition was a delicious riff of our local raw fish porridge dish composed of chef Navarra’s Mindanao-style kinilaw made with local wild-
caught diamond trevally fish, tabon-tabon, a Filipino ingredient with a tannic, astringent profile, and chef Han’s flavourful congee. When creative sparks fly between the chefs, the diner can’t help but tuck in with even greater gusto.
PUTTING MEAT ON THE BONES
As spontaneous as the collab experience can be, putting the show together to its best effect still requires more than a little strategising. Bing Blokbergen-Leow, Director of Gastro-Sense Pte Ltd, a hospitality and lifestyle consulting company, says chef collaborations events when curated well, can help achieve positive brand building and publicity for the restaurant, and possibly positive sales revenue as well. To maximise this potential, she advises restaurants to avoid random partnerships. She says, “Instead, collaborate with chefs or brands that share your brand values and brand pillars such that a positive alignment and association could be drawn.” She also suggests using concepts with overarching themes that reflect the chef/brand’s strengths. “Diners will be clearer about what to expect, and it will offer a more unique marketing angle.” She cites Moosehead Kitchen & Bar’s SG50 (Singapore’s 50th anniversary) collab with two heritage family-owned street food brands cooking with charcoal as one that achieved good publicity and diner takeups.
Seeing the potential of chef collabs, some chefs such as chef Brehm are already thinking of new formats that can be even more rewarding for both chef and diner. For instance, organising a week of four-hands collabs with their regular customers behind the stove. “The guest would create the menu and see to its execution,” chef Brehm elaborates. “We would help edit and polish it up to our standard. Lots of our regulars are passionate cooks and I’d love to share our space with them.” He also plans to explore “multimodal dinners” using “information available from experts in other fields to create experiences that highlight food and dining under a different light.” We’d love to hear more about what that entails. Others like chef Han think restaurant takeovers may be the next buzzword. “Kitchen takeovers are not too common though it is a growing trend. Entire takeovers could be something that will be happening
more often. In fact this could be what the public desires more. If a chef from overseas comes over, it saves them time and money to travel there and try his food. It’d still be a chance for my guys to try something new as well, to learn and exchange ideas.”
Sometimes we overthink things, and maybe collabs are just that—a way for friends to have a good time together. As Han says, “You’d be surprised at how casual we really see four-hand affairs to be. Imagine two guitarists coming together to jam together–it is two chefs coming together to cook together.” Chef McHale shares similar sentiments, saying the last collab he did with his friend chef Jorge Vallejo of Quintonil restaurant in Mexico City was just fun. “You help them do something, they help you and you joke around and have a good time and serve some nice food”. For the diner, you get to taste something you would have had to travel miles to try; you get to keep a food memory that you can relive at the next gentle trigger. In many books, that’s the best soft power any chef or restaurant can hope to wield.
Chefs Julien Royer and Gert de Mangeleer
Odette: Welcoming chefs and diners with mushroom tea and more
Top Upcoming at the Curate x Paste restaurant mashup: Smoky Southern yellow curry of red spanner crab
Chilli crab umami bomb from chef Han and chef Navarra’s collab