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Singapore chefs connect with food from the heart
IF DAILY LIFE now seemas to be about hunkering down at home and wondering what takeaway food to order, you’re not alone. But for those overwhelmed by the avalanche of options from both big and small restaurants, there’s an even smaller subset of chefs who are striking a chord with their personalised, small batch cooking and earnest approach to food.
In the past couple of weeks, a mini “cottage industry” has sprouted of Singaporean chefs who have been affected one way or another by the Covid-19 crisis, but are turning to their own or borrowed kitchens to cook unpretentious meals with an emphasis on comfort and nostalgia. Whether out of boredom, wanting to earn some extra money, telling heartwarming stories or just connecting through food, such small-scale operations lend a sense of authenticity and intimacy to the most basic ritual of eating. And with people feeling increasingly disoriented by the state of things today, familiarity breeds content, which is a recipe that these chefs clearly subscribe to.
By Day 2 of government-imposed circuit breaker measures, Alastiar Tan was bored. The 28-year-old head chef of Michelinstarred Labyrinth was facing about a month of doing nothing since his boss Han Li Guang had decided to close shop rather than go the takeaway or delivery route.
“I had bought a second hand ice cream machine from a shuttered cafe on Carousell a week ago for future projects, and it was just sitting in storage, so….” the next thing he knew he was churning out 12 pints of ice cream a week in wacky flavours such as mango yoghurt chilli and parmesan potato chip, along with the more sedate-sounding roasted coconut gula melaka.
He also created a mini Instagram storm with videos of him frying up the likes of pig trotters bee hoon, Hokkien prawn noodles and Nonya laksa, “although I had to take out the laksa because it has so many ingredients that are unstable in terms of availability at the market”.
While he could easily just take a break this period, “my idea of a break is to travel but since that’s off the table, I’m doing this to keep myself from going insane at being cooped up at home”.
What has surprised him the most is the overwhelming response he received. “I had no idea it would become so popular in just one week. Initially, it was all from friends, friends of friends, then their own families and friends. Now I’m getting a lot of requests from strangers and it feels great to be given the opportunity to cook for people, hopefully brightening up their day through my efforts.”
It has also turned into an incredibly busy one-man-operation out of his tiny kitchen with two cooking rings on his stove and a tiny shelf in the fridge/freezer of his flat that he shares with housemates. That’s why he can only do a few orders a day and he buys ingredients from the market daily since he has no storage space.
“For the ice cream, I can only make 12 pints a week because domestic freezers can’t cope. I also order a lot of ingredients online so now my living room looks like a storeroom.”
He has a staple of 12 to 13 items on his menu from savouries to sweets and he decides what to cook depending on “feasibility of prep, storage space and market availability”. Also, “A good few items are also an homage to my late mother, Jenny. She was an excellent cook who influenced my interest in cooking when I was young. She loved whipping up multiple creative dishes for large gatherings, and seeing people happy made her happy. Everything I do in life is motivated by wanting to make sure her life lessons and sacrifices are not in vain.”
He only takes pre-orders because of the amount of prep work and marketing he has to do. And despite his success, he will stop once restaurants get the all-clear to re-open.
“Cooking at home is extremely vexing and tiring. I miss what I do at Labyrinth and the people I work with. We had an amazing new menu to offer in 2020 but it had to be put on hold indefinitely because of the Covid-19.”
But what he has learned during this period – besides realising how unreliable home appliances are – is that “people have become much warmer – I’ve made so many new friends online”. He adds, “The virus has made people look at things in perspective, including myself, about what the truly important aspects of life are.”
For details and orders go to alastiartan.wixsite.com/ atelierjen
GAN MING KIAT
While Mustard Seed is a full-fledged restaurant run by Gan Ming Kiat and two partners, his raison d’etre has always been to serve home-style Asian cooking with a modern slant inspired by his exposure to Japanese and Peranakan cooking. But with his tiny counter-style eatery forced to close during the circuit breaker period, Chef Gan, 30, has switched completely to a takeaway menu that brings to mind the family meals that are now disallowed under circuit breaker measures.
“Most people are craving comfort, home-style food now,” Chef Gan muses. “Especially those who don’t cook at home, can’t cook well or can’t go to their parents’ or grandmother’s place for a nice homecooked family meal.”
No surprise then, that his takeaway menu based on his own late grandmother’s recipes has been sold out since he started offering it. Logistically, too, “the food travels better compared to our usual menu which is more precise and temperature-sensitive.”
When you order a takeaway menu from Mustard Seed, you also get a heartfelt note from the chef, which talks about his “Por Por” who was born in 1937 and spent most of her life rearing pigs, chickens and ducks on the family farm. It was a hard life and the only time they could eat meat was on special occasions such as Chinese New Year, when she would cook her famous braised duck.
The duck is the highlight of the menu, along with dried oyster kiam png, ngoh hiang, luffa gourd with eggs and lotus root and peanut soup.
“I really miss my grandma,” says Chef Gan. “She was a woman of few words but she demonstrated her love through cooking. Every Saturday, she would cook up a feast, and she could remember the dietary preferences and favourite dishes of everyone so no one felt left out.”
When he was planning his takeaway menu in the first week of the circuit breaker, “I had time to sit down and really chat with my parents about their lives when they were young and the food they ate. Some of the dishes can’t be found outside private homes now, so I thought it would be nice to share some of them.
“Basically, I just want to bring a little comfort and warmth to people’s homes through food. My grandma didn’t have a recipe book, so I recreated them from memory and guidance from my mother. It’s not to achieve the exact flavour but rather to capture the essence of her cooking.”
The Hokkien matriarch would prepare kee ah kueh – a kind of rice cake – to serve with the braised duck, which Chef Gan replicates in his own way. “You seldom find it now because the original recipe calls for Borax which is banned. So we achieve a similar texture with a combination of different flours. And for her ngoh hiang, she used soda crackers as a binding agent, which I think is quite a unique touch.”
Making just 20 sets a day, the menus sold out quickly and he’s planning an Indian menu next but it will still follow the same theme of nostalgia and home-style cooking.
Like other F&B operators, “we’re all having a hard time,” he says. “We’re just trying to make the best of the situation and adapt as we go. But we’re blessed to have a good takeup rate on our takeaways and we’re having fun solving new problems and doing something different from our norm.”
To order, go to mustard-seed-at-home.myshopify.com/
When it comes to cooking basics, look no further than Joseph Yeo, 38, who built his career on tasty, fuss-free cooking from his days at Les Amis restaurant to the restaurant-retail concept Sprmrkt that he co-founded.
Since last November, he struck out on his own as a private dining chef, a business that came to a standstill once circuit breaker measures went into effect.
Undeterred, he’s spending the time at home with his wife and two kids, and working on a takeaway menu of wholesome home-cooked meals inspired by Asian and Western flavours.
“Before the circuit breaker measures, we were still able to cater to small groups of families and their friends in their homes but now we’re not sure how long this (lockdown) is going to last. But a few clients (turned friends) reached out to ask if we could prepare some dishes for takeaway that we served at their homes before,” says Chef Yeo.
As fine dining takes a back seat, comfort food is the go-to choice for diners now, which puts Chef Yeo right on trend.
“On weekdays, I do packed meals like Thai Basil Chicken Aglio Olio with housemade Nonya Achar and Palm Sugar Coconut Agar or steamed layered cakes. There will also be couscous and quinoabased meals with pesto and chicken, as well as bean curd with tempeh, galangal and kicap manis as a vegetarian option.” The sets are very reasonably priced at S$13 to S$14.
“For the weekends, I’ve also created a classic brunch platter for two to three people, since that’s when the family gets a break from working from home and the kids’ home-based learning.”
Home cooks looking for simple but creative recipes should also check out his cooking videos on his Instagram handle @josephyeois where he demonstrates delicious-looking grilled chicken and fancy mashed potatoes, pumpkin macaroni and cheese and steamed layer cake in a refreshingly no-nonsense manner.
“I’ve always believed that fresh, tasty food that is basic or classic is here to stay. People tend to find comfort in food and especially in tough times like this, people will seek out such familiarity.”
For orders and enquiries call Chef Yeo at 9663-5541
From being three aspiring chefs working on the back-end at a Michelin-starred restaurant to running their own mini takeaway operation, the last couple of weeks have been quite a growing up experience for Jeffrey Yong, Aslam Yaakop and James Ngoi.
Calling themselves Hungrychef, the trio from JAAN by Kirk Westaway are renting the kitchen of a small German eatery in Dempsey BB&B - Bread Beer & Brez’n to cook fun simple food such as Beefy Nachos Pizza, macaroni and cheese and spicy chicken drumlets.
“Because of Covid-19 and circuit breaker measures, F&B businesses were badly hit and JAAN was temporarily closed for a month until further notice,” says Chef Yong, 24. “It affected our source of income so we came together to try and earn some money doing what we love to do.”
So far, the response has been encouraging for the newbie trio. “It’s been over a week, and most of our customers are family, friends and other chefs. We do get orders from strangers who chanced upon our Instagram account. And I believe many are showing interest as a form of support for local young chefs during this difficult time.”
The three chefs de partie met at JAAN and are part of the restaurant’s close-knit team executing a higher culinary vision. But for Hungrychef, “we wanted to cater to people who live around us by offering comfort food, nothing too fancy,” adds Chef Yong. “We decided on the menu based on the limited kitchen equipment we had on hand – one of which was a top grade pizza oven, so that’s what first came into our minds.”
As first time business owners, “we are out of our comfort zone, involved in end-to-end planning and execution from supplies to costing and delivery services. It’s nice to be able to connect directly with customers and get constructive feedback. We’ve made mistakes, but we learn along the way”.
Covid-19 has been a major disruption, but they are realistic. “Life goes on and we can’t sit around and do nothing about our situation. Hungrychef won’t make up the shortfall in income but it helps us to get by. We’ve engaged people with driving licences who have lost their jobs to earn extra income by helping us with deliveries. Hungrychef isn’t just about us but about providing comforting food options and to help those who need some extra cash.”
For orders and enquiries call Hungrychef at 9137-1131 or check out its Instagram handle @hungrychef