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Chefs On Lockdown
CHEFS WERE NOT made to sit still. So when they’re suddenly handed a block of free time that they didn’t ask for, it’s like taking a fish out of water. When the government stopped restaurants from offering dining-in services from April 7 to at least May 4, several eateries decided to close temporarily instead of switching to takeaway or delivery options. And with strict semi-lockdown measures restricting everyone’s movements, what’s a chef to do when he’s stuck at home after being used to being on his feet for 10 to 14 hours a day turning out gourmet meals for paying diners?
For four Singaporean chefs, going ‘native’ is their solution. That means stripping off their chefs’ garb, getting their t-shirts on and cooking family-style food, in between paperwork, conceptualising new recipes and occasionally climbing the walls when a bout of cabin fever hits. In other words, pretty much like everyone else, but with a lot more food to eat. Here, they share their stories and recipes for comfort.
For Ace Tan, head chef of modern Asian restaurant 1-V:U in Sentosa, “This is probably the first time in my career that I have actually stepped out of the professional kitchen apart from vacations.” But it’s also an unexpected chance to “take a break, enjoy time with my family and finally catch up on the mountain of cookbooks I’ve accumulated over the years.”
Being at home also means being designated home chef, albeit without the advantage of a kitchen staff nor the access to heat lamps, combi-ovens and induction stoves. Instead, he’s in his mother’s ‘territory’, which he wasn’t always allowed into because, “like most Asian mums, she saw her kitchen as a ‘sacred forbidden ground’, and we get nagged for messing up her ‘system’. But after working in professional kitchens, I can see why she feels that way.” But she’s obviously let him enter her turf since he’s doing a lot more cooking for the family now.
“I have a different thought process when I’m cooking at home. It’s all about the family, thinking about their eating habits and making sure I prepare a meal where there’s something for everyone. It’s easier because I know what they like, whereas professionally it’s about pushing myself to research, develop and deep dive into Asian cultures and cuisines which can be reflected in my progressive Asian cuisine.”
He’s inspired a lot by his grandmother, “whose Ngoh Hiang and Hokkien noodles have been imprinted in my mind. I hold her recipes very close to my heart and I should thank her for my innate passion for food. I’ve also been playing around with her recipes, trying to recreate them my way with a personal and sentimental touch to them.” His inspiration for his pumpkin rice and ginseng chicken broth is a nod to both Korean and Chinese cultures. “The ingredients are Chinese but I use a strong fire to extract the flavours, which result in a cloudy broth - a technique favoured in Korean cooking. I wanted to do a mixed rice similar to the Japanese version which is combined with seaweed, salmon, vegetables or even pork. Adding broth or tea into rice is common across Asia like the Japanese ochazuke (or Chinese thunder tea rice). Here I’ve thickened the broth slightly to make it a little more like Chinese mui fan.”
While occupied with home cooking, looking at old recipes also helps in his work to “expand on what I’m doing to elevate Asian cuisine. To do that, I find myself taking a step backwards to research the history and cultures behind the cuisine of the region.”
Pumpkin Rice Tenghindon With Gingseng Chicken Broth
GINSENG CHICKEN BROTH
Spring chicken – 1
Codonopsis root – 3 pcs
Ginseng – 20g
Goji berries – 1tbsp
Solomon’s seal – 3pcs
Chinese yam – 3pcs
Chinese angelica root – 2pcs
Dried cordyceps – 10g
Water – 2.5L
Salt – To taste
Corn starch – For desired consistency
Note: Herbs can be easily purchased in a package from the supermarket
(1) Remove both breasts from the chicken and leave them aside, blanch the rest of the chicken with boiling water for 1 min and change to a clean pot with all the other ingredients except for salt and bring to a boil. Simmer on medium heat for 2hrs, skimming the scum and oil along the way. (2) Adjust the seasoning with a pinch of salt, switch off the heat and let the residual heat poach the breast for 30 min. (Temperature should not be below 75 Degrees Celsius) If you prefer to really cook it through, leave the breast on in the first step. (3) Remove the breast and cut them into preferred size and set aside. Reheat the broth and adjust using a cornstarch solution.
Pearl rice – 300g
Pumpkin dice – 100g
Dried scallops – 20g
Shallots – 1tbsp
Garlic – 3pcs
Salt – 3pcs
White pepper – 2pcs
Water – 500g
Scallions – 20g
Note: I wash rice 3-4 times until it’s almost clear, soak for 15mins, strain and let them sit in the colander for another 15min before cooking. You will need more water if you do not soak the rice.
(1) Dice shallots and garlic into fine dice, soak dried scallops for 1hr at least before using, strain and set aside. Sauté the shallot and garlic for 10 sec on medium heat, add the scallops and sauté for another min. Add the water and let it simmer for 30min on low heat, strain and measure that you have 350g of stock for the rice. (2) Add the stock, the residue, pumpkin dice and rice into the rice cooker and cook. (3) Once done, mash up the pumpkin into rice to get a nice orange colour on the rice. Season lightly with salt and white pepper.
(1) Scoop rice into a rice bowl and flip upside down into a desired small soup bowl, add the chicken breast on top, sprinkle some scallion ribbons. (2) Finish by drizzling the rice with the thick hot ginseng chicken broth.
The only father in the group of four chefs, Bjorn Shen is still adjusting to the newness of staying at home, but the main difference from working at his restaurant Artichoke and his immensely popular Smalls ‘omakase’ set up is that “I am stuck at home with my very active kids whose schools have also closed.” He reckons that “I’ll catch up on lost time with my kids, if they don’t drive me nuts first.”
It might explain why he wears a crab balaclava at home, but it reflects his irreverent approach to cooking. “At work, I like to be cheeky and do funky stuff with food. I also use a lot of exotic ingredients. At home, I’m extremely basic. I’m a lazy home cook. I love one-pot dishes like risotto and kimchi stew. I’m not really sentimental about any dish/ ingredient. Maybe just preserved olive leaves (kana chai) because it was a favourite of my late grandad. It makes great fried rice.”
Cooking at home is a breeze since “I have some professional things going on in my home kitchen, like large mixing bowls, very large cutting boards and also a huge wash basin. That’s what sets professional kitchens apart from a ‘home cook’s’ kitchen. Mine straddles the two. I just wish I had a full-on deep fryer and commercial grade exhaust hood right now.”
Even then, he barely cooked at home before, although that may well change now. But it will be simple stuff, like his favourite way of eating instant noodles. “I top it with scallions, kimchi, a wedge of Brie (not the usual Kraft slice) and a handful of Doritos. The Doritos go semi-soft in the soup but retain a crunch right at the core. It’s like eating this Mexican thing called Chilaquiles (soggy tortilla chips).”
Meanwhile, he’s also helping out his Artichoke team “which is committed to daily social media postings (shoutout posts promoting other affected businesses, cooking videos, dapao hacks, random happy stuff) so I’ll be helping to coordinate this.”
Red Curry Duck Life A-Biryani
Cooking oil – 3 tbsp
Garlic cloves – 2pcs chopped
White onion– ½ pc sliced
Tomato – 1pc sliced
Red chilli – 2pcs sliced
Lemongrass – 2pcs halved
Kaffir lime leaves – 1 handful
Red curry paste – 2 tbsp (Sugg brand: Dancing Chef)
Coconut milk – 200ml
Pineapple syrup – 50ml
Roast duck - ½
Pineapple cubes – 1 handful
Thai basil leaves – 1 handful
Large white onion – ½, cut in wedges
Yellow capsicum – cut in wedges
Quinoa or basmati rice – 4 cups cooked 75 per cent through
Fried shallots – 2 tbsp
(1) In a large pan, heat up oil and saute all aromatics for 3 mins. Add the curry paste and fry on medium-high heat for 2 mins until nicely caramelised. (2) Add in the other curry ingredients and allow to simmer uncovered for 10 mins. Layer all the toppings over the curry, finishing with the quinoa/rice. Do not press down on the quinoa/rice to maximise fluffiness. (3) Place a lid on the pan and steam on low heat for 10 mins. Remove the lid and allow it to rest for 5 mins. (4) Garnish with Thai basil leaves, spring onion lengths and lime wedges.
The former head chef of one Michelin-starred restaurant Corner House’s plans for his new self-owned restaurant are on hold because of the Covid-19 crisis, but that doesn’t meant he’s any less busy.
The good thing is that this time, it’s for a family charity project.
“I haven’t had the luxury of spending time with my parents for the last 15 years while I was focusing on developing my career,” says Chef Tan. “At this critical time, providing positive energy is very important. So as a family, we decided to kick off our ‘Mommy Boy Curry Chicken’ Pop-up online shop. We want to raise money to help needy elderly and children during this hardship.”
Using his mother’s chicken curry recipe, he’s been cooking up a social media storm as people have snapped up his packaged curry sets priced from S$24 (enough for two), with half of the proceeds donated to an orphanage and old folks’ home. “We got such great feedback from everyone and we were sold out in 15 hours, for 150 servings.”
He plans to do this until his new restaurant opens in September. “It’s been very intense but we love it, as we see it as a curry marathon in which everyone in the house has to help - from peeling the chilli, cutting onions and other chores carried out with joy and laughter!”
Since he lives at home, he’s on his mother’s kitchen turf. And the hierarchy is clear. “Like the name ‘Mommy Boy Chicken Curry’, my Mum is the head chef and I rank as the commis cook.”
Encouraged by his ‘Mommy Boy’ success, “I will continue to kick off more charity projects through my Instagram account in the next few months,” says Chef Tan. And at the same time, “I’m making progress planning for my restaurant, with new ‘Gastro-Botanica 2.0’ recipes for my September opening in Tras Street.”
Caramelized Onion and Cheese "Bikini"
Spring chicken – 1
White bread – 8 pcs
White onion – 4 pcs
Mozzarella cheese – 120g
Cheddar cheese – 120g
Japanese mayonnaise – 4 tbsp
President unsalted butter – 4 tbsp
Sherry vinegar – to taste
(1) Slice onion thinly. Heat a nonstick pan to medium high heat and add olive oil, then onions. (2) Caramelise until brown and season with salt and black pepper. Add very little water to deglaze the pan. Once nicely caramelised, set aside to cool down. (3) Spread unsalted butter evenly on four slices of bread then flip over. Spread mayonnaise, and add cheddar and mozzarella on the other side. (4) Spread unsalted butter evenly on one side of the remaining four slices of bread and flip them over. Spread mayonnaise thinly on the other side and add caramelised onions. (5) Sandwich (3) and (4) together and place in chiller for 30 mins to set. (6) Pan fry on a nonstick pan on low heat till golden brown on both sides.
HAN LI GUANG
The chef-owner of Michelin-starred restaurant Labyrinth has switched from one restaurant to another, but without the paying guests: five members of his immediate family, all with different dietary needs to take care of. “It’s the same except that I don’t have my guys to take care of their restrictions, and I’m working with kitchen equipment like a non-stick pan that sticks,” he jokes.
But yes, you can say Chef Han misses the hustle and bustle of being in his large kitchen at Esplanade mall, with all his equipment at his disposal. “Before opening Labyrinth I was doing a lot of recipe testing at home so I had all my stuff, but I’ve since moved everything to the restaurant. But the other day I was able to go back for a while and managed to bring some things home with me, like a wok and crockpot.”
Unlike Labyrinth, which focuses on modern heritage food, “I’m a lazy cook at home. I just want to break away from work cooking so for the last couple of weeks I’ve just been cooking what I like to eat. I made kuih bingka yesterday, and the other day I made carbonara pasta because I had (leftover pasta noodles from) cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper noodles). I used to work at Garibaldi so I do my own handmade pasta. Maggi mee is one of my guilty pleasures and I just created my own recipe (for the Maggi mee goreng). Occasionally I made the restaurant staff meal and there’s always instant noodles hiding around somewhere.”
Even when Labyrinth was running full time, he never cooked at home, so his current situation is an aberration. “In my free time I was always going out. Nowadays, if I’m not going out to buy ingredients or going for a run around the estate, I’m either cooking for the family or looking for something to order.” With so many restaurants offering home-delivery, he’s been spending a lot of time scrolling through social media to see what’s on offer, generally picking up comfort food like pies and wagyu pastrami sandwiches from his chef pals Andrew Walsh and Drew Nocente.
He’s also spending some time working on a cooking video for urban farmers Edible Garden City which is sending him vegetable boxes to create recipes to encourage people to grow their own food.
Chef Han confesses that he can’t sit still for long. “I go for a drive, run, maybe go to Isetan to buy some sashimi to practise (cutting skills) with, or I work on some R&D for Labyrinth’s re-opening. I’m also working on launching our Ms Vanda brand of home-style Asian food. But yes, I miss my restaurant. It may be a lot of financial hardship running it, but I can’t wait to get back.”
Maggi Goreng Pattaya
Instant noodles - 2 pkts (Indomie brand)
Luncheon meat - 1 tin (Ma Ling)
Chicken thigh - 1 pc
Curry powder - 15g (5g for marinade, 10g for stir-frying)
Five spice powder - 5g
Tomato paste - 20g
Chili paste - 10g
Garlic - 4pcs
Shallots - 2pcs
Eggs - 4pcs
Chilli padi - 2pcs
Light soy sauce - 10g
Salt & pepper - to taste
Butter - softened
(1) Marinade Chicken in curry powder, five spice powder and salt overnight. (2) Dice luncheon meat and chicken thigh and stir fry until nicely browned and cooked. (3) Boil instant noodles in boiling salted water until just cooked. Strain and shock in iced water. (4) Finely chop garlic and shallots and place in a frying pan with a dash of oil and saute till golden brown. Add tomato and chili paste and 10g curry powder and stir fry until fragrant. (5) Add in the cooked luncheon meat, chicken meat and instant noodles and season with a touch of light soy sauce. Combine and continue sauteing. (6) Beat 4 eggs in a bowl and season with a dash of salt and pepper and pour into a separate frying pan under low heat and cook gently until the base of the omelette forms. (7) Add in instant noodle mixture to one half of the omelette and fold over the other half of the omelette to encase the noodles. (8) Gently slide the omelette mixture onto a plate, brush with butter, sprinkle with pepper and serve.