With a degree in building construction management, The Rabbit Stash's chef-owner Matthew Mok draws a parallel to his job of "constructing food" now.
The 38-year-old chef worked for two years with Far East Organisation doing marketing and sales, and was an education counsellor for about seven years, helping students plan their overseas education, before deciding to pursue his passion for food.
Mok, who has a younger brother, says: "In my family, boys were not allowed in the kitchen. But I was always curious and would loiter around while my mother and aunties were cooking."
His Hockchew father is a retired human resource manager and his Peranakan mother is a finance manager.
He enrolled in culinary school At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy "to see whether I have the gift of cooking", he says and has not looked back since.
For about 1 1/2 years, he worked as a private chef before opening The Rabbit Stash in Pandan Valley. After four months, it relocated to its current premises in Alexandra Road.
He is married to Donna, 38, who is the restaurant's maitre'd and marketing manager, and they have a one-year-old son, Isaiah.
Planning ahead for the new year, Mok is hoping to be more innovative in his cooking.
He says: "It's about going green and having more vegetables and fruit in our diet. I also want to elevate the dining experience and put the fun in food by pairing food with music or textures.
"I hope to intrigue diners with nostalgic elements too. For example, my squid ink cracker, which I serve as an amuse bouche, reminds people of keropok (prawn cracker)."
What are your childhood memories of food?
I remember the kitchen always smelling of belacan and my aunts making nyonya zhang and kee zhang (rice dumplings). There was also a hawker who sold putu mayam from his bicycle.
What are your favourite local foods?
Chicken rice from The Big Bird in Balmoral Plaza, where the fragrant rice stands out. I also love Hokkien prawn noodles from Chomp Chomp Food Centre in Serangoon Gardens and chilli crab from Jumbo Seafood.
For nasi lemak, I go to the Hot & Spicy Nasi Lemak Family Restaurant in Pasir Panjang Road.
What are your favourite restaurants?
Two-Michelin-starred The Square Restaurant in London and Quay Restaurant in Sydney as it is creative with an Asian influence.
When did you start cooking?
During my university days in Sydney when I had my own kitchen. I would have friends over for parties and cook various dishes such as Hokkien mee, bak kut teh and curry. I also did Western dishes such as roast chicken and beef stew.
You had a six-month internship at Majestic Restaurant in Bukit Pasoh Road. What was the biggest challenge?
Being part of the chef culture and getting used to it. Also, I had to speak Cantonese and I got orders wrong in the first few weeks.
What is your worst kitchen disaster?
During my internship, I sliced my index finger while cutting chilli padi with a Chinese cleaver. I was perspiring and dripping blood.
What is the most exotic dish you had to make?
Cock's comb cooked two ways for a magazine photo shoot. One was sauteed with hon shimeiji mushrooms and field mushroom puree, while the other was crispy cock's comb salad with wasabi mayonnaise, rock melon and snow pea shoots. Deep-frying the cock's comb helps to mask the taste.
Are you an adventurous diner?
Yes, I've had bull's testicles in Denmark. They were battered and deep-fried and tasted like fishcake. I've also had emu pie in Australia, which tastes like shepherd's pie. I would like to eat pufferfish one day.
What's your favourite ingredient to work with?
Lemon, because it is very versatile. It can be used to cure items, bake or as an ingredient in a vinaigrette.
What's your must-have kitchen tool?
My tweezers for plating and lifting food items.
Which dish best represents you?
I hate lamb because of its gamey smell. I challenged myself to cook a lamb rack in such a way that I would eat it.
I use mint-scented shiraz, which is a shiraz wine reduction flavoured with mint and herbs, and even my wife, who also hates lamb, can eat it now. Lamb is now my signature dish.
What's your opinion of local diners?
They have become more discerning and are less apprehensive about trying new things. Some are still inclined towards hawker food, but are willing to spend.
If you could invite someone (dead or alive) to a meal with you, who would you pick?
The late American singer Whitney Houston because her songs inspire me.
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