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New Outlook For Chinese Cuisine
FLAMBÉED Chicken. Espuma of clam. Blue cheese and milk foam. Seafoodstuffed zucchini flowers. Nothing out of the ordinary for a progressive modern European restaurant. Except that you're eating these in stalwart Chinese restaurants in Singapore, helmed by young Asian chefs who are determined to prove that their cuisine ''isn't limited to oyster sauce, huatiao wine and sesame oil''.
That's the view of Aaron Tan of Man Fu Yuan at InterContinental Singapore - one of a growing breed of chefs who believe that Chinese food is the next gourmet frontier. With the likes of Japanese, Korean and Thai cuisine finding new relevance and a bigger audience by embracing western techniques and an international outlook, these Singapore- based chefs are determined to do the same with their cuisine.
BREAKING THE RULES
Ask Edward Chong of Marina Mandarin's Peach Blossoms how diners react when he flambés his Chinese wine spring chicken at the table, or serves a roasted Tomahawk steak 'Xinjiang' style complete with its long bone and green papaya salad. ''They go wahhhh,'' he says gleefully. The executive chef joined Peach Blossoms two years ago and has already made his name as a Chinese chef to watch. The 36-year-old knew exactly what he wanted to do when he introduced foie gras, rosemary, parma ham and even Iberico pluma or 'feather' in Spanish - cut from behind the neck of the black pig - into the restaurant's hitherto classical menu. He even reassessed the cooking methods used in the kitchen, for example, roasting char siew over a charcoal grill. ''I marinate mine with rosemary, and sous vide it before smoking it over applewood.''
In turn, the Perak-born executive sous chef Tan serves Peking Duck with a twist - adding Kaluga caviar, gold flakes, foie gras parfait and raspberry coulis, which a younger crowd of diners can identify with.
''Apart from nailing down sweet, salty, sour, bitter, spicy flavours, Chinese cuisine has to work on elevating the dining experience,'' he says. ''On our end, we seek out thoughtful presentations to stimulate diners' senses through sight and smell.''
WOOING A YOUNGER CROWD
Chef Chong readily agrees that he's out to woo the Instagram crowd, which also explains why some of his dim sum and puff pastries take on rainbow hues. ''I want them to whip out their handphones and take pictures.''
Chef Tan, 38, who cut his teeth on Asian and Western cuisine but found his calling in Cantonese gastronomy, is hopeful that what he does will help Chinese restaurants secure a newer, more youthful audience on both ends of the kitchen.
For example, ''We spend a lot of time on R&D when we use new ingredients and techniques. It may not always work but when it does, it attracts attention on social and mainstream media.''
At the same time, ''We want to get more people interested in cooking Chinese food. The wok is too heavy for female chefs and too complex for younger chefs who haven't found a way to create flavour with it. But you don't need a wok to create wok hei - a pan at the right temperature will do.''
CHANGING OLD MINDSETS
While modern techniques and equipment like combi ovens are seen as more efficient, senior chefs schooled in the classics dismiss these as misguided interpretations of Chinese cuisine by a younger generation eager to succeed.
But Chan Shun Wong, Si Chuan Dou Hua's newly installed executive Cantonese chef disagrees. ''We are stuck in a rut and limited by older mindsets that have solidified.''
He believes that there is no limit to the ingredient pairings that work within the greatness of Chinese cuisine, and the real test is for the chef to deliver the right technique.
But it isn't just senior chefs' prejudices that these modern thinkers have to overcome. Chef Chan, 40, notes that diners have preconceived notions about eating in a Chinese restaurant. For one, they are willing to fork out S$300 to S$400 for western or Japanese cuisine, but may feel less generous when it comes to Chinese food.
Unlike Chef Chong who's gone full steam ahead, Chef Chan is gradually ''testing the waters'' at Si Chuan Dou Hua. ''After all, it's been around for 23 years,'' he says. So far, olive oil and soy caviar have appeared in his dishes, along with crisped Parma ham and deep-fried seafood-stuffed zucchini flowers, tempura-style. Diners open up treasure chests to pick out their real sweet amidst decorative pearls. His next step is to introduce omakase-style menus as a platform for his own creativity. ''Inevitably, there will be voices of doubt, but we need to dare.''
Adds Chef Tan, ''There is a saying that even if you want to change the water in the fish tank, you can't do so all at once.''
WINDS OF CHANGE
Eric Neo, president of the Singapore Chefs Association and executive chef at InterContinental Singapore, can see how younger Chinese chefs are ''feeling the pressure of a wider market'' and are actively responding to the times.
''The market has evolved. Western concepts and chefs entering our market brought along a lot of fine ingredients and techniques of cooking. So I'm seeing a lot more young chefs warming up to these new elements.''
Says Chef Chong, ''Already, top chefs like Andre Chiang are going deep into Chinese cuisine. Unfortunately, folks toiling in the Chinese kitchen do not see this potential we have.''
He especially wants more exposure for Chinese cuisine by local chefs.
''Mott 32 is opening soon, and with so many foreign Chinese concepts setting foot here, when would homegrown brands be noticed? We need to get diners to look this way.''
His efforts are paying off, with media and peer recognition, and awards such as Asian Cuisine Chef of the Year at the World Gourmet Awards 2019, as well as Rising Chef of the Year at Asian Masters 2019, under his belt.
STAYING TRUE TO THEIR ROOTS
While bringing their cuisine into a new age, all the chefs remain rooted to their Chinese cooking foundations.
It's about ''speaking out old ideas with the language of today'', sums up Mike Tan, Chef de Cuisine of Madame Fan - a theatre-dining concept by veteran restaurateur Alan Yau - who is launching new tasting menus this month.
Rather than seasoning, Chef Tan, 49, uses champagne in a codfish marinade; squid ink for umami in his XO Octopus Ink Fried Rice with Wagyu. ''Our guiding principle is - 'does this ingredient or technique take us closer to our appreciation of Chinese food?' We want to balance tradition with progression to stay true to our roots. At no time should diners feel they are having a western course.'' Executive Chef Ben Zeng at Hai Tien Lo, too, cautions that in any innovation process, the integrity and authentic taste of Cantonese cuisine should first and foremost be preserved. The Guangzhou-born 42-year-old keeps things real but modern with ingredients like sea cucumber - too black and gelatinous for some but transformed into myriad textures when deep fried to get a crispy skin. For his part, Chef Chong draws the line at molecular gastronomy. ''With Chinese food, you need fire or warmth. Any dish that requires intensive plating beyond five minutes would make food cold and affect the taste.'' Every dish, he says, is heavily tested to ensure nothing is overkill. The rule, says Chef Chan, is to ''build on the foundation and techniques of Cantonese cooking and its soul, or wok hei.'' Otherwise, ''any discussion on newness is pointless.''
NEW WAY FORWARD
What works in the favour of these chefs as they push forward is that they are not impressionable newbies dazzled by the glitzy international food scene. Although Chef Chong was one of the youngest executive chefs when he joined Marina Mandarin two years ago at age 34, he has 16 years of experience built up from the time he started out as a commis under veteran chef Sam Leong at Jade in The Fullerton Hotel. Chef Chan, who worked his way up from his first job as an 18-year-old in Maxim's Hong Kong, has passed through the doors of Imperial Treasure, Peach Blossoms and Xin Cuisine.
While Chef Eric Neo feels that senior managers like him ensure that ''we ground their thoughts in execution and consistency, positive feedback and credit is theirs to keep'', these chefs are more than ready to rise to new heights. ''Naysayers commented that at most, I would be 'a gust of wind','' laughs Chef Chong. If he and his ilk play their cards right, this gust of wind will soon be blowing diners' minds.