Chef Johnston Teo is not afraid to take the road less travelled.
Instead of taking the conventional career path of chefs, which is to say slogging in the same kitchen in a slow climb from chef de partie to executive chef, he prefers to work in different restaurants, picking up the necessary experience and then striking out on his own.
This has paid off.
At the age of 24, the bachelor is one of the youngest executive chefs in Singapore. He helms Sorrel, a three-month-old restaurant in Boon Tat Street drawing buzz for its innovative, contemporary fare in a casual setting.
The 40-seat restaurant is part of hotelier-restaurateur Loh Lik Peng's Unlisted Collection group, which also runs restaurants such as Pollen and Majestic Restaurant. On the menu are dishes such as hand-dived scallops with foie gras and a confit octopus with romanesco cauliflower and sago pearls cooked with seaweed.
The fusion flavours are perhaps influenced by his two years as chef de partie in progressive restaurant Tippling Club in Tanjong Pagar Road as well as an 18-month stint as a sous chef in French fine-dining restaurant, Jaan at Swissotel The Stamford.
Chef Teo, a Malaysian who has been living in Singapore since he was seven, says he left the restaurants because he would "rather learn through creating a new work environment that is team-based".
He adds: "It scares me that it takes 30 years to become an executive chef, so my strategy is to work in order to get as much knowledge as possible, then come out on my own."
He has always been single-minded about cooking. He dropped out of a digital media design diploma course in Nanyang Polytechnic after a year to pursue culinary studies in hospitality school Shatec.
His parents - a 57-year-old businessman and 55-year-old retired teacher - were initially not supportive of his choice, as their impression of cooking was that it was a messy and low-brow job.
The turning point came during his internship at Raffles Grill in Raffles Hotel. Chef Teo, who is the youngest of three children, says: "It opened their horizons that cooking in the fine-dining world can be neat and refined."
How did you start Sorrel?
I managed to set up a meeting with Mr Loh through a friend who works in Unlisted Collection in August last year. In 15 minutes, we convinced him that the concept could work.
It was unexpected as I just wanted to share and test my idea with someone who is established in the industry.
How did you know that Sorrel was set to become a reality?
It was two months later when he requested a five-course meal for 12 people.
The first tasting was not ideal as the ingredients came in just three hours before the dinner and three of us were working in a new kitchen for the first time.
We spent more time looking for things than cooking. But he gave us another chance.
What do you think of age versus experience in the culinary world?
Older does not mean better. Some experienced chefs, such as those in buffet lines, just follow instructions and cook for the sake of earning a salary. They have a different mindset.
Even though we are young, my team is driven and passionate about giving diners a good experience. We push ourselves hard to learn more within a shorter time.
What type of executive chef do you want to be?
A lot of executive chefs are so focused on management that they become out of touch with cooking and forget how to create a menu. But I still want to be a cook and constantly experiment with new things. Though I still have a long way to go, I hope to nurture chefs working under me.
How did your interest in cooking start?
I did not grow up wanting to become a chef, but I enjoyed adding extra seasoning to instant noodles and porridge when I was young. I also enjoyed watching cooking shows such as Iron Chef. I like it that the chefs have to be super creative within a limited time.
What was your goal when you started working? To work in the top three restaurants in Singapore, but I could find only two. Once I had seen enough from working there, it was time to learn on my own and with my team.
If you really love something, you can be self-taught. What do you remember most from your culinary school days?
My instructors were not happy that I did not follow textbook cooking instructions. Instead of rubbing butter in the chicken's cavity for roasting, I would apply butter in between the meat and skin. However, their criticisms encouraged me to come up with alternative cooking methods.
What are your favourite ingredients to work with?
Chives and dashi - they go well with savoury ingredients such as fish, mushroom and collard greens, and add an umami flavour. And salt.
What has been your worst kitchen disaster? I made chocolate ice cream on the spot during dinner service, after realising that there wasn't a scoop left. I threw lots of dry ice in a container and whisked it with milk, cream, cocoa powder and dark chocolate. The contents overflowed and it was messy. Funnily enough, the head chef didn't know the ice cream was made at the last minute.
What is your guilty pleasure?
Ice cream. When I travelled throughout Japan for a two-month holiday last year, I ate five scoops of ice cream every day and tried all flavours of Haagen-Dazs ice cream. My favourite flavours are milk and buttered toast.
What do you cook on your days off?
Every fortnight, I like cooking local food such as yong tau foo at home and my favourite hawker dishes such as cereal prawns and black pepper crab. Sometimes, my family requests Western fare such as roast chicken and Caesar salad.
If you could pick anyone to have a meal with, who would you pick?
Chef Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck in Bray, England. I would like to see what goes through his mind when cooking things such as triple-cooked potato chips.
He is not conventionally trained, but he has changed people's concept of food and cooking, such as how searing dries up food, instead of sealing in its juices.
This article was first published on April 5, 2015.
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