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While most chefs tell stories about growing up in the kitchen watching their grandmother cook food that shaped their childhood and innocence, Mexican-born chef Daniel Ovadia had a different experience.
"Nobody cooks in my family. My grandmother can't cook, my mother can't cook, my father also can't cook," he says with a grin.
So instead of hearty family gatherings at a grandparent's home like other kids, he often found himself eating out. "I was little, but I knew almost every restaurant in Mexico City, because every Sunday we went to a different one. I loved it. When I was four, I asked the waiters to take me into the kitchen and I would just stand there and look at everything happening around me. That's when I fell in love with restaurants."
At the time, he already harboured dreams of becoming a restaurateur. And now, the 33-year-old is considered a rising culinary icon in Mexico, and is the founder of the Bull & Tank Restaurant Group which has no less than 10 restaurants globally. Last year, he received the National Award for the Best Mexican Restaurant in the "Young Restaurant Entrepreneur" category from the National Chamber of Restaurants and Seasoned Food Industry (CANIRAC) in Mexico, and just earlier this year was invited to Singapore as part of the World Gourmet Summit. While here, he also conducted a cooking workshop at German appliance maker Miele's show kitchen in town.
Chef Ovadia's career path was not quite a straightforward one though. When he was younger, the food scene in Mexico was still in its infancy, so his parents were not very keen on having their son take on a career as a chef.
"Mexico City had a lot of restaurants back then, but all the famous ones were still either French, Italian, or Spanish. When I was a kid, it was very uncommon for someone to want to go to cooking school. And it was even more uncommon for a boy to want to do so."
So instead, he studied business in school, juggling assignments and a part-time job as a waiter in an Italian restaurant. There, he had the opportunity to try out different roles within the restaurant, but quickly discovered that his interest was firmly rooted behind the stove.
When he turned 20, Chef Ovadia took out a bank loan to buy a 20 per cent share of the restaurant where he worked, but unfortunately ran into problems with his business partner just about a year later. After winning the legal tussle, he decided to use that same location to start his own restaurant, Paxia - which he closed just a few years ago.
"That was always my plan - to do it as a 10-year project and then move on. It was doing well, but I was just not in love with it anymore," he explains.
For Chef Ovadia, his cooking philosophy is simple - to do things perfectly and make them delicious.
"It doesn't matter if I'm cooking Mexican or Japanese food, I want to make people happy, and I want to be happy," says the chef.
"I have a good palate, and sense of smell. It's like if you like to sing but don't have the right vocal cords, even with classes you won't be able to sing. Same with food. You might like to cook but not smell or taste well. I'm very good at it though, and I know how things have to taste, and I enjoy doing that."
He observes that the food scene in Mexico has changed tremendously since he was young. In the last 10 or 15 years, Mexican fine dining restaurants have started appearing, as chefs now take pride in their own cuisine.
"Now everyone wants to be a chef. It's like the new doctor. We have a lot of culinary schools now - of course some teach French techniques, but we also have those that specialise in Mexican food," says Chef Ovadia.
Of course, his restaurants are part of the growing culinary scene as well. At his flagship restaurant Nudo Negro in Mexico City, Chef Ovadia serves contemporary Mexican cuisine with Asian influences.
One of his popular dishes is a Mexican version of a Chinese xiao long bao (steamed dumplings), which has a warm soupy filling. At Chef Ovadia's restaurant, the soup inside the dumplings is a traditional Mexican one known as pozole - made with corn, chillies, radish, lettuce, and lime.
"I love Asian food because I think both gastronomies are very strong, and the flavours are intense. The way of eating is also the same - to share food around a table," he says.
"There are many cultures where they eat just to to fulfil their physiological needs. But in countries like Singapore, Vietnam, China, food is like a way of life. A lot happens around the dining table, and I think that's what we have in common even though we're at two ends of the world."
Wood-fired scallops with garlic, ginger, oyster sauce, white wine and cream
8 pcs of scallops (Hokkaido or Saint Jacques) // 15 oz sauce // 3g baby spinach // Olive oil // Kosher salt if necessary
For the sauce 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped // 120g ginger, finely chopped // 1L heavy cream // 100ml white wine // 15 oz oyster sauce
1 Sear the scallops in a cast-iron skillet with a little olive oil, add the oyster sauce, the spinach and finish cooking the dish inside a wood-fired or regular oven.
For the sauce
2 Saute the garlic and ginger over low heat, add the white wine and let it reduce to half its volume.
3 Add the heavy cream and stir, let it boil and add the oyster sauce.
4 Add salt if necessary.
5 Let it cool.