Flying the Singapore flag of cuisine

At Marina Bay Sands, the cuisine may be global, but its specialty lies in grooming local talent.

BEHIND every successful celebrity chef is….a Singaporean sous chef?

When Marina Bay Sands opened to glittering fanfare in 2010, much of the hype was centred around its lineup of famous restaurants helmed by the Who's Who of the international dining scene: Tetsuya Wakuda, Wolfgang Puck, Daniel Boulud, the late Santi Santamaria and the like.

While some names have changed, one thing stays constant - the exposure and training they provided for the integrated resort's growing stable of local F&B talent who now play pivotal roles in the restaurants they work in.

From the start, ''our approach was to create good jobs and long-term employment for Singaporeans,'' says Christine Kaelbel-Sheares, vice-president, Food & Beverage, Marina Bay Sands. ''Over the last 11 years, we have built a tight-knit family in F&B, and a culture of nurturing a rising generation of chefs.''

An expanding repertoire of diverse dining concepts also means that its chefs are exposed to different cuisines, literally allowing them to work in vastly different restaurants without changing employers.

But it doesn't stop there. ''Marina Bay Sands' scale and unique resources have also allowed us to serve as a breeding ground for aspiring chefs,'' says Ms Kaelbel-Sheares, adding that Marina Bay Sands reaches out to culinary students through internships and talks. Having partnering chefs like Gordon Ramsay has also been a great boost to their outreach programmes.

With alumni like Jason Tan of his own restaurant Euphoria, Sun Kim from Meta and Gwern Khoo from A Noodle Story, Marina Bay Sands ''has a keen eye when it comes to talent-spotting culinary brilliance,'' says Ms Kaelbel-Sheares. For those who have stayed behind, ''they have stepped up to pay it forward as mentors to their juniors.''

Here, we spotlight three of Marina Bay Sands' brightest talents who share their experiences.

Executive sous chef, Waku Ghin

As anyone in the F&B industry would know, time away from loved ones - think missed weekends and festive occasions - has always been one of the major sacrifices of being a chef. Now that Sufian Zain is a father, ''I did rethink if I should be spending more time at home,'' he concedes. ''But those fleeting thoughts go away as soon as I enter the kitchen and do what I do best. I still have a lot to learn and to give to this profession.''

Having cut his career teeth at Les Amis, before joining the opening team of Iggy's and then Waku Ghin, chef Sufian has always been in the thick of the action in shaping a restaurant's identity and cuisine. But if there's one chef that constantly inspires him, it is his current boss Tetsuya Wakuda, an indefatigable force at the two Michelin-starred Waku Ghin.

''I am amazed at his drive,'' says chef Sufian. ''You would think that an accomplished chef like him would take a step back to enjoy life, but no. Chef Tetsuya still spends long hours at the restaurant and continues to hold extremely high standards for every aspect of service, food quality, and even interior design of Waku Ghin. He still keeps us all on our toes up until today.''

The restaurant's signature botan ebi, sea urchin and oscietra caviar starter is synonymous with chef Wakuda, but it is chef Sufian who makes sure that it is executed perfectly each and every time. And besides working hard to keep Waku Ghin's two stars - ''which are tougher to maintain than to earn'' - he has also taken on a mentorship role to guide junior chefs on everything from technical know-how to ''softer skills you don't learn from textbooks''.

There are plenty of opportunities for young talent in Marina Bay Sands, says chef Sufian, simply because chefs dive deep into action and learn on the job in a fast-paced environment. ''In my experience, big establishments like Marina Bay Sands offer competitive salaries, and most importantly, the opportunity to work across different restaurants under one roof.''

Junior sous chef, RISE Restaurant

While technically the ''baby'' of the three, Stella Tan is a product of the talent-spotting and nurturing process of Marina Bay Sands. At RISE, she is one of seven local chefs tasked with reinventing the lobby restaurant by infusing it with a strong Singaporean identity. And that means contributing her own recipes to pay homage to local food culture.

''Even though I spent my early years in Western cooking, I've always appreciated modern Asian and traditional recipes,'' she says.

''It's an honour to put my own creation on the menu, so it had to be my grandmother's version of Chinese rojak, which is elevated with different ingredients, textures and special chilli padi blend.''

Chef Tan is an early starter, getting her first job in F&B at the age of 14 as a part-time server before becoming hooked on the idea of cooking for a living. As a female chef in a male-dominated industry, she's had her fair share of hard knocks, but ''I was tenacious and determined to try every role in the kitchen no matter how physically demanding it may be''.

Since joining Marina Bay Sands in 2014, she's had stints in various restaurants from Sky on 57 to Yardbird.

''Being able to work for a restaurant with an international presence like Yardbird was also one of the brightest spots in my career.''

Besides playing a creative role in RISE, she is also a mentor to commis cooks and interns. It's a testament to the all-rounded career that being in Marina Bay Sands provides, which is why she feels that her future is at the integrated resort.

''Ten years on, I am proud of myself for soldiering on and seeing the fruits of my labour,'' says chef Tan. ''I urge aspiring female chefs to go out there and chase their dreams. The work may be physically demanding, but the gains are more than they would ever imagine.''

Executive sous chef, db Bistro & Oyster Bar

You know how Singaporean Vincent Yong is when he says he and the local team at db Bistro & Oyster Bar call masterchef Daniel Boulud ''Ah Gong''. It's a term of endearment that captures his deep attachment to the restaurant and his career at Marina Bay Sands as one of its ''pioneer'' employees in 2010 when he joined the ranks at the Spanish celebrity eatery, Santi.

''My first two years at the former Santi was a real eye-opener for a young chef like myself then,'' says chef Yong, who counts then head chef Daniel Chavez as his first mentor who taught him to forget everything he learned before and start cooking from scratch.

''There, I honed my skills in butchering, curing, cooking and learning how to handle premium ingredients like whole sea urchins and king crabs - I hadn't even seen a raw artichoke in my life until then,'' he recalls.

In 2012, he crossed over to db Bistro under the wing of head chef Jonathan Kinsella, who put him on the fast track as his right hand man. He had joined as a junior sous, which meant he had to seriously up his game and now as executive sous chef, he's confident to the point that he instigated an 8 kg recreation of chef Boulud's signature pâté en croûte or l'oreiller de la belle aurore to serve at the 2019 World's 50 Best pre-awards reception in 2019.

''It was a proud moment for me to have hundreds of the world's top culinary stars and gourmands taste my dish, at the World's 50 Best event no less,'' says chef Yong.

He's never thought of moving to greener pastures as he enjoys all the career challenges where he is, and he feels the need to be a mentor to his younger teammates.

''Marina Bay Sands is a great field for aspiring chefs who want international exposure. But more importantly, we recognise talent in the kitchen, and help them to achieve even greater things.''

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