Asian cuisine 'tricky' to cook: Ember's new chef Sufian Zain

SINGAPORE - Restaurant Ember's new chef Sufian Zain thinks that Western cuisines are "easier" to master than Asian ones.

Calling Asian cooking "tricky", he cites the example of trying to pick up traditional Malay cooking from his 64-year-old mother during Hari Raya this year.

He says: "My mother has taught me how to cook Malay dishes before, but I always forget.

"In the future, I would like to learn more from her. It has become a tradition for me to help with the preparation of ingredients, since I can do that faster."

In May, the 36-year-old took over the reins of the restaurant in Hotel 1929 in Keong Saik Road from its head chef Sebastian Ng.

The menu still features modern European food showcasing seasonal produce, together with new dishes he has created.

These include carpaccio of Tasmanian Petuna ocean trout with orange, pickled French shallots and endives; bouillabaisse with langoustine, Hokkaido scallop and barramundi; and 60-hour slow-cooked Angus short rib, charred onion puree, confit of cherry tomatoes and beef jus.

The soft-spoken chef's interest in cooking started after he completed his O levels and worked part-time in a sandwich shop in Raffles Place.

But just nine months into his diploma course in mechatronics, he dropped out to enrol in hospitality training school Shatec. After national service, he worked at some of the most well-known restaurants in Singapore - fine dining restaurants Les Amis, Iggy's and Waku Ghin at Marina Bay Sands.

Chef Sufian's wife Asyekin, 31, works in the banking industry. They have no children.

While he admits that his current position is "tiring", his four years at Iggy's was no less challenging.

He says: "I faced a lot of scenarios. It was no longer just about cooking. I had to manage people, which was tougher than cooking.

"Those looking to enter the industry should build a sound foundation and learn the basics. With a strong foundation, it is easier to grow."

What dish do you look forward to during Hari Raya?

My mother's best dish, her sambal goreng. It has chicken, prawn, chicken heart and chicken liver. She cooks enough for 30 people.

What do you eat on your days off?

I try not to step into the kitchen on my days off, so I don't cook at home. I go to the Peperoni Pizzeria chain for pizza and The Market Grill in Telok Ayer Street for steak. I do try new places when I get the time to go out.

Recently, I went to modern izakaya Izy Dining & Bar in Club Street Pluck bistro at 90 Club Street, and yakitori restaurant Bincho in Moh Guan Terrace.

Where are your supper haunts?

Spize in Simpang Bedok and Tang Tea House in 357 Bedok Road for halal dim sum.

What's your guilty pleasure?

Eating ice cream before going to bed. My favourite is Haagen Dazs' Caramel Biscuit & Cream. My wife and I can finish a tub at one go.

There was once we had no more left and we went to many petrol kiosks and supermarkets to find it.

What's the most exotic food you have eaten?

In San Sebastian's three-Michelin-starred restaurant Arzak, I remember eating cod throat, called kokotxas. It was cooked with olive oil on low heat and had a very smooth texture.

What food do you never tire of?

I can eat fried chicken for the rest of my life. When I'm hungry after work, my wife fries some for me.

What are your must-have tools?

A sharp chef's knife and a Microplane grater.

What has been your worst kitchen disaster?

I won't say where this took place, but it was 11pm and we were preparing for a media lunch the next day.

We were supposed to cook a certain kind of seafood whole, using the sous vide method. We started to fillet everything, which was not what the chef wanted.

So we had to call the supplier in the middle of the night to order more and my friend went to the farm in Pasir Ris to pick up more of the seafood.

We stayed at the restaurant all night.

What's hot in the dining scene now?

Counter seating at restaurants as people like to watch the chefs at work. So as a chef, you have to make sure you don't lose your temper. Casual dining is also very trendy as diners want quality food at decent prices. Fine dining is a niche market.

What was your best dining experience?

La Cuchara de San Telmo, a tapas bar in San Sebastian. I remember eating octopus and foie gras.

What's on your foodie wishlist?

I would like to dine with my wife at chef Dan Hunter's new restaurant called Brae in Birregurra, Australia.

What would your last meal be?

My mum's cooking.

This article was first published on November 2, 2014.
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