MANAGE À TROIS
Meet the three chefs helming 田Magic Square, a year-long pop-up at Portsdown Road
Meet the three chefs helming Magic Square, a year-long pop-up at Portsdown Road
It’s not so much risqué as it is risky, putting three largely unknown chefs at the helm of an experimental kitchen. Nevertheless, in the spirit of supporting local talent, Tan Ken Loon of Naked Finn and Nekkid backed three chefs, Desmond Shen (25), Marcus Leow (26) and Abel Su (29), in starting 田Magic Square, a minimalist, loftstyle kitchen and incubator named after a series of paintings by Swiss-German artist Paul Klee. Throughout the course of the space’s one-year lease, Shen, Leow and Su, in that order, would take turns presenting month-long nine-course tasting menus (priced at $78 per person) along their chosen themes and have a hand in managing the business side of things. They would also get to work with fresh, local ingredients, courtesy of Naked Finn’s network of local suppliers, 3am visits to Jurong fishery port and an indoor vegetable farm. Though young, all three chefs have had kitchen experience at renowned restaurants such as Odette, Whitegrass, Curate and Iggy’s. On the pass since May, they are now into their second cycle of menus and going strong.
Having each done one round of menus at 田Magic Square, what are your thoughts?
Leow: In my progressive Peranakan-centric menu, the dish I was most happy with was my buak keluak and olive vegetable emulsion, with a variation of brussels sprouts. It gave me great joy when diners finished the brussels sprouts as this is an ingredient that people typically didn’t like or thought was boring. On the other hand, I would say I was most disappointed with the pork belly and chinchalok sauce with a burnt pineapple sauce. I really liked it and so did the diners, but it just didn’t really fit in with the other courses, so we changed it to a 90-dayold French chicken smoked in a coconut husk, with an eggplant purée infused with Peranakan aromatics of pickled ginger flower and chopped pepper leaves.
Su: I loved the jasmine rice parfait with a sweet potato skin caramel, topped with anise flowers and purple sweet potatoes with a brittle crust that reflected my Cantonese heritage. It was an idea that I came up with seven years ago, but it is something that would have never been possible without the seven years since, or without this place (I would have never thought to fry the potatoes if not for Desmond’s input). The dish looks simple, but it has made so many guests happy, which makes me happy.
I like how the pork dish with 10-year aged plum vinegar and burnt plums turned out, because I felt a strong connection to the aged vinegar I made with my parents 10 years ago. I also learnt the value of adapting to feedback with my Indian threadfin dish. It was initially gently steamed in a broth of salted coconut water infused with ginger flower. The flavour polarised diners due to the warm sweetness of the broth. I changed it to an Indian threadfin atop glutinous rice seasoned with roasted bone powder and some dried sole fish, which was then wrapped in sweet potato leaves and added to a roasted fish bone broth topped with crispy egg threads and a green scallion oil. This dish was much better received.
What’s on your upcoming menus?
Leow: For the month of September, I will continue with a progressive Peranakan theme and feature dishes such as buak keluak pesto or a bergamot infused salted vegetable broth. I also hope to add some experimental dishes to the menu. One is a binka ubi that has a smoky flavour when grilled over hot charcoal, served with a very rich jackfruit curd. Another is Bombay duck—a fish that’s incredibly common in Tekka market and very affordable— used in a dish of fish dumpling and a broth made from dried Bombay duck infused in a black grapefruit peel.
Su: I cook with my heritage and training in mind, but I just want the food to be simple, well-executed, and make sense as part of the whole menu. I am usually most excited by desserts. We have an ice shaving machine loaned to us by a friend, and I would feel like I am letting him down if I did not use it at least once.
In addition, Pike conger is not something I have used before. Up until we went to the fishery port in Jurong, I had always thought it was only available in Japan. It is an interesting fish with a very complicated bone structure, and it is something I hope I can make a great dish out of.
Shen: Well my next menu is coming up in August, which will probably be over by the time this article come out, but I will be injecting subtle Malay and Indian influences to my dishes. My godmother is an Indian-Muslim and she, along with my Mum, inspired me to learn how to cook in the first place. I’m currently developing a dish composed of grilled mangoes, kaffir, spiced yoghurt and Maqaw pepper, a mountain pepper berry from Taiwan. It’s a flavour combination that I really enjoy and identify with because of its heat and fragrance.
From left to right: Desmond Shen, Abel Su and Marcus Leow