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.


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.


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

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