A taste of Singapore abroad

It's no longer just the Western chefs who are in demand. The spotlight has now turned to local chefs as they are being invited for guest-cooking stints overseas. Four of them share their experiences.

Published Fri, Sep 23, 2016 · 09:50 PM
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Using curry to bridge a culinary gap

PEOPLE around the world know Singapore for dishes like chicken rice, chilli crab, and satay. But in the United Kingdom, some of them have added another local favourite to their food vocabulary - the roti jala.

That's because rustic French restaurant Cocotte's head chef Anthony Yeoh spent a week in September dishing out sample portions of this traditional Malay dish that can otherwise only be found in South-east Asia.

The best part? A total of 4,000 of them were given out for free, along with a portion of Nyonya curry, out of a food truck that made one-day stops in four cities - London, Bristol, Birmingham, and Manchester.

The promotion was part of the Great Singapore Airlines' Getaway campaign by SIA and the Singapore Tourism Board (STB).

Chef Yeoh explains that the unusual choice came about because they specifically wanted to do something "different from the usual suspects, but also not completely foreign to the English diners".

As for the recipe, that came from his own grandmother.

He adds: "A curry seemed like a good idea to bridge that gap. The roti jala itself added that twist to make it interesting and new, but it's also a dish we serve for breakfast at Cocotte for our Wanderlust hotel guests who are usually very keen on local flavours, particularly Europeans. All in all it seemed like a pretty safe bet."

Cooking for 1,000 people per day had its challenges naturally but it helped that chef Yeoh previously worked with STB in January for another event called Singapore Live.

"The first trip really helped me better communicate my needs for this event - I even sent photos to help them find what I needed so there was less chance of, say, the wrong type of pot turning up. Or specifying power requirements for the equipment so we wouldn't overload the generator. These are things you don't want going wrong while you're feeding 1,000 people," he points out.

Feedback was not only very positive, but a number of their guests even asked if he was opening a restaurant, and one even offered to franchise it.

Says chef Yeoh: "Any trip overseas is a good opportunity to refresh and get new ideas and inspiration. Also the opportunity to work (out of a food truck was) new and exciting.

"As for us personally, we had to learn to maintain consistency and quality. It meant learning to simplify and edit our work processes and recipes, all while still sticking to our mission and representing the true taste of Singapore."

Melding foreign and local tastes

WHEN Morsels' chef Petrina Loh was invited to cook at Copenhagen Food Festival 2014 for about 200 people at Restaurant Nam Nam, things did not go as planned.

She was there to serve Singaporean-style dishes like otah noodles salad, bak kut teh, and chilli crab sliders.

For starters, chef Loh's ingredients were sent to the wrong venue, which meant she had to work through the night to rush the prep, and cooked the next day with only about an hour of sleep.

Plus, she did that while running a fever of 39 degrees Celcius.

Looking back, she calls it a "pretty crazy experience, but we pulled it off".

Next month, chef Loh has been invited to cook at another overseas event - the DBS Treasures Underground Supperclub, in Kaoshiung, Taiwan. It is part of an invite-only dinner series organised by the local bank in collaboration with Asian Food Channel, which will be filming a live demo.

Derrick Goh, MD and head of Regional Treasures Private Client & Treasures at DBS Bank, explains that chef Loh was chosen for her "takes on Singapore ingredients and dishes which are always presented with great flair and are consistently excellent. We believe she will present an exciting vision of Singapore's culinary scene".

The request was for some of Morsels' signature dishes at the upcoming six-course dinner, including the steamed clams in fig broth and house-made cabbage kimchee, and the charred octopus with squid ink risotto, topped with a salted egg sauce and tobiko. "This menu is a good representation of what Morsels is, as I meld both foreign influence and local flavours," notes chef Loh.

When asked how she's preparing for this upcoming event after what happened in Copenhagen, she replies: "Issues will always happen. On our end we need to iron out the prep list, and I'm flying in two days earlier to make sure we get sorted. But whatever else, we just have to rely on instincts and adapt to situations."

For chef Loh, the goal is not only to build on her own experience cooking overseas, but also to put Morsels and its cuisine on the map. She adds: "My repertoire is a reflection of what I ate growing up being a native of Singapore and after professional training and cooking in the US. I want to continue to thrive as a local Singaporean female chef bringing a bit of Singapore overseas."

Singapore flavours, foreign produce

IF there's anything chef Han Li Guang has to pack along on his guest-chef trips, it's his own spices and sauces. Because he believes that the essence of Singapore flavours are packed in them.

"My theory is simple: if you go to a hawker centre and order, you realise every hawker dish is defined by its chilli sauce. Hokkien mee's chilli sauce is different from chicken rice's, which is different from orh luak, which is different from char kway teow. They're all different and that's the defining characteristic of Singapore cuisine," explains chef Han, who runs the Neo-Sin restaurant, Labyrinth.

In July, chef Han was invited by the Chapung SeBali Resort and Spa in Ubud to cook a one-night-only four-hands dinner with its local chef Wuisan Chandra; and next month he will be heading to the Makati Diamond Residences in Manila to cook a six-course menu in its kitchen for two nights.

Says chef Han: "Most of the spotlight is on Western chefs coming to Singapore or Singapore chefs going to Western countries. But Singapore flavours are picking up within South-east Asia as well, like Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand (so) I think there are opportunities for chefs to share knowledge across cultures here as well."

For him, one of the most important things about cooking in another country is using its local produce and trying the equipment in the kitchens there.

"The thing is in Singapore we lack the accessibility to really fresh produce, so as a chef if you're doing events overseas and have access to fresh produce, use it. You won't get that chance all the time back home," he notes.

That's why while in Bali, ingredients like the hamachi in his ceviche was replaced with local sea bass and scallops, while the porridge espuma was made with local Balinese rice that was cooked in a pork stock he carried along with him from Singapore. Not only that, the kitchen there only had the most basic traditional equipment like ovens and stoves, which made it more challenging for a chef who specialises in molecular gastronomy.

Points out chef Han: "I had to create classic dishes from scratch, like a chilli crab gazpacho with coconut crab mousse and crispy milk puff. It's a personal challenge for me as well, as much as it is about marketing exposure and showcasing Singapore food. And sometimes when I come up with a new dish exclusive to an event and people love the dish, I might even bring it back to Labyrinth."

No heart attack for the first time

SOMETIMES when you keep your head down and do what you do well, opportunities come your way. At least that's what local chef Bjorn Shen believes after a customer who dined at his Middle Eastern-inspired restaurant Artichoke earlier this year reached out to him on Instagram.

The customer turned out to be the owner of a high-profile Indonesian restaurant group - the Biko Group, which owns restaurants and bars in Jakarta - and invited chef Shen to cook at one of its flagship bars in April this year.

So for one night, the a la carte menu at the Beer Garden Jakarta featured Artichoke's signature fried chicken with lemon honey and whipped garlic sauce, grilled chicken burger with tahini coleslaw, harissa crab fries, and charred corn on a cob with cheeseburger sauce.

"They bought all the ingredients and everything, and we just got there and started preparing for the dinner. Eventually we became good friends and we stayed in touch, so recently when he came back to Singapore I brought him out. We have plans to work together in the future," reveals chef Shen.

Although he adds that this particular trip went relatively smoothly - they didn't even need a supermarket run to get last-minute ingredients - chef Shen says with many other stints, "everything that can go wrong will go wrong".

"In other places I've been to, sometimes we get to the kitchen and realise instead of celery they got coriander, or instead of coriander they got coriander seeds. This was the first trip ever that I did not have a heart attack," he chuckles.

But chef Shen doesn't intend to do any more overseas guest-chef stints at least for the rest of the year: "It gets tiring because you need all that time to prepare. And when you come back you need time to recover from it."

He adds that getting the opportunity for chefs to be invited overseas has nothing to do with one's ethnicity: "If you're a good chef, you're a good chef ... I don't think any talented chefs like Malcolm Lee or Janice Wong would lack opportunities. And it's not because they stand out as Asian chefs, but because they're good chefs. Period."

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