Comeback chefs, fresh new faces

Established chefs are making a comeback in new restaurants while on the flipside, fresh talents are taking the helm at well-known outlets.

Shen Tan
Ujong
#01-10 Raffles Hotel Arcade
1 Beach Road
Opens end April

A year after her modern-Singaporean restaurant Wok and Barrel closed on Duxton Hill, Shen Tan is back - and she's more passionate about Singaporean flavours than ever.

Her latest restaurant project Ujong will open by month's end in the 90-seater (alfresco tables seat 60) space previously occupied by Empire Cafe in the Raffles Hotel.

Pulau Ujong was the name for Singapore in the third century. Ujong means "the end" or "the corner", quite aptly, as the restaurant is snuggled away in the corner of the hotel facing Raffles City Shopping Centre. According to Ms Tan, Ujong is a return to her roots - in more ways than one. The Raffles Hotel was a place the 41-year-old frequented while growing up as her mother used to work in a travel agency within the hotel. "It's an honour to be able to cook in such an institution," says Ms Tan, who spent her year-long hiatus working on consulting and pop-up dining projects, as well as reading up on the origins of local dishes.

Decked out in vintage wood, glass panels and marble dinner tables from the unit's former tenants, Ujong will be about "all that represents what Singapore was, is and will be", adds Ms Tan. Her menu will marry old-school classics with modern interpretations of familiar favourites. Everything will be made from scratch where possible and entirely MSG-free.

For breakfast, nibble on carrot cake terrine - steamed layers of lap cheong, dried mushroom, lard and shallots and served with sambal and kecap manis on the side - hae bee hiam-stuffed chee cheong fun or kaya sticky buns slathered with home-churned kaya. Or fill up on more substantial bites such as traditional nasi lemak and claypot rice for lunch and dinner. Mains will cost below $20.

Expect a smattering of Wok & Barrel revivals too, including the bak chor mee pasta, chendol and her signature dessert of puloh hitam cake lashed with coconut ice-cream.

Says Ms Tan, who helms Ujong under fast-expanding F&B group Caerus Holdings, which also runs Lady M and restaurant Nuvo, here: "Being part of a bigger group has helped a lot in terms of resources, I don't have to worry about a lot of things such as our reservations channel or hiring service staff. It gives me more time to concentrate on the kitchen and the food."

Jean-Philippe Patruno
Una
1 Rochester Park
Opens Monday

Born to a Spanish mother and an Italian father and raised in the south of France, Jean-Philippe Patruno was once deemed not Spanish enough to cook Spanish food, not Gallic enough for French cuisine and not sufficiently English to plate up British grub, despite his 22 years of living and cooking in London.

Which is why, when his latest restaurant Una opens next week, instead of limiting himself to a particular cuisine, he intends to send out category-defying plates that bear imprints of his mixed heritage.

Spanish for the number one and Latin for "coming together", Una is - fittingly - a fine dining restaurant, tapas bar and wedding venue bundled in one lush venue. It is owned by the One Rochester Group and takes over the black-and-white colonial bungalow formerly occupied by the group's eponymous flagship restaurant.

"Singapore is a multi-cultural society with people coming from many different backgrounds, like myself," says Mr Patruno of his decision to stay on in Singapore even after the closure of Bomba, the Spanish restaurant he helmed under the Epicure group. He moved to Singapore with his wife and two children in 2012 after heading restaurants such as Quo Vadis, Barafina and Fino in London.

Besides crafting "food made with fine dining-standard ingredients" - such as Scottish scallops cooked la plancha and served with braised veal cheek - on the smartly decked out 110-seater ground floor of Una, Mr Patruno has also plugged in a 60-seat tapas bar on the building's second floor, to cater to the growing appetite for small plates. Both venues can be booked separately for private events.

Accordingly, six signature concoctions stirring in regional spirits such as French pastis, Spanish sherry and Italian campari and grappa front the cocktail list, while beers and wines will be sourced from the three countries too.

Says the 43-year-old chef who has been cooking since he was 14: "I wanted to work with someone who has a long-term vision, not just to open a restaurant for the next six months to a year, but for the next five years or more. And One Rochester has that kind of vision." Blueprints for further projects with the group are still being sketched, he hints.

Chung Ho Shi
Royal Pavilion
Park Regis Hotel
23 Merchant Road

Even at the age of 62, head chef of two-month-old Royal Pavilion restaurant Chung Ho Shi believes there's still plenty for him to learn in the kitchen.

So, when the opportunity came for him to head to Shanghai to helm the Spectrum Chinese Restaurant in the Millennium HongQiao Hotel in 2009, he jumped at it.

Never mind if the Hong Kong native then held the enviable title of executive chef at the Golden Peony in the Conrad Centennial Singapore, one of the better regarded Cantonese restaurants in town. Mr Chung, who had been working there for nine years, recalls: "I felt that it was a good opportunity to broaden my horizon and experience. I could bring my knowledge to the emergent market and at the same time obtain new experiences."

His overseas posting also gave his team at the Golden Peony a chance at promotion within the kitchen, he adds.

He returned to Singapore last year to set up Royal Pavilion with the Park Regis Hotel group, where he now heads the culinary team of more than 20 chefs.

Besides signature dishes that have stayed with him throughout the years, such as the baked spare ribs wrapped with bacon, and baked fillet of cod with teriyaki honey sauce, the menu at Royal Pavilion also folds in new cooking insights gleaned from Mr Chung's stint abroad, such as the bold use of curious new ingredients such as the macalan root in his double-boiled soup with fish maw, or the use of vinegar as a marinade in his shredded jellyfish with garlic vinaigrette.

To suit diners seeking the clean flavours of traditional Cantonese cooking, all dishes are prepared with minimal salt and oil and contain no preservatives or artificial colouring.

Victor Caballe Molina
The Study
49 Keong Saik Road

The saying that when one door closes, another one opens may be an old line for some, but for The Study's new head chef Victor Caballe Molina, it is a happy cliche.

The Barcelona native not only swiftly landed himself a new job after his previous employers wound down their Singapore restaurant in January, he also checked off a major item on his bucket list too.

"I always wanted to be a head chef one day, and now I've become one earlier than I expected," says the 30-year-old who moved to Singapore in 2012 as the sous chef of defunct Spanish restaurant Bomba. Prior to that, he spent six years working in top London restaurants such as Newman Street Tavern, The Penthouse and Quo Vadis, where he met Bomba head chef Jean-Philippe Patruno, who offered him the posting to Singapore.

It was also during his time in London that he met The Study's executive chef Andrew Walsh, who was a regular diner in his restaurant and subsequently got him to join The Study.

"I'm learning a lot about menu costings. I'm a lot busier than before but also much happier," says Mr Caballe Molina, who had to hire his kitchen team of six entirely from scratch over two weeks. "Even after working for 15 hours, I can take a long cycle home and feel great about my day."

Besides assisting in the rebranding of the 30-seater space from gourmet comfort food joint Keong Saik Snacks to the casual, British-inspired The Study earlier this year, Mr Caballe Molina has also fashioned a new menu by offering twists on classic British dishes such as the fried snapper served with duck fat chips and grilled lamp chops served with shepherd's pie.

An expansion of the brunch menu to include family-friendly fodder such as French toast, pancakes and yoghurt muesli will be rolled out next month.

Daniele Sperindio
Open Door Policy
19 Yong Siak Street

Open Door Policy (ODP) may be your trendy neighbourhood bistro, but the technique and thought that goes into its food is of the same standard of that applied at progressive restaurant, The Tippling Club.

That, according to new head chef Daniele Sperindio, was exactly what drew him to the job. The 27-year-old native of Genoa in Italy clocked time in casual and semi-fine dining Italian restaurants in Paris, Monte Carlo and Miami before moving to Singapore to take up the post of sous chef at Italian restaurant Alkaff Mansion in 2012 and later, as the Da Paolo Group's executive chef and restaurant manager.

Still, he was hankering to try his hand at something beyond the Italian cuisine he grew up with, so he knocked on The Tippling Club's door earlier this year and was offered the head chef position at ODP in January.

Three months in, he's already whipped up a fresh new menu reboot at ODP by fusing Asian spices with his Italian roots and Tippling Club chef-owner Ryan Clift's Australian flair.

"Now I get to use all the ingredients that could never be used in a traditional Italian restaurant," he reveals with a boyish grin, such as freshly grated wasabi or the coiff of green mango salad that sits atop his slow-braised red curry shortribs.

From a single pasta dish before, the new menu currently features home-made pastas such as sweet potato gnocchi served with iberico pork belly and chorizo-filled tortelli, along with two stunning risottos made with beetroot and feta cheese or confit calamari and poached pear.

"But we don't want to be too Italian - this is not an Italian restaurant," he says.

Sufian Zain
Ember
50 Keong Saik Road

Starting a restaurant from scratch is a logistical nightmare in these labour-strapped and rent-inflated times, so getting on board a steady sailing industry stalwart was a no-brainer for chef Sufian Zain.

Never mind if Ember is practically synonymous with outgoing chef-owner Sebastian Ng, who has been with the restaurant since it was first founded in 2002. Mr Sufian isn't daunted.

The 36-year-old Shatec-trained chef spent the last month training in the cold and hot sections of the kitchen under Mr Ng and will fully take over the reins when the latter leaves at the end of the month.

Mr Sufian, after all, is no lightweight on the cooking front. After starting his career as a commis cook in Les Amis, he held stints at The Cliff and now-defunct Amuse Bouche before joining Iggy's in 2004, where he worked his way up to executive chef. He was later one of three executive sous chefs who led the opening team of Australian celebrity chef Tetsuya Wakuda's Waku Ghin restaurant at the Marina Bay Sands, which he left earlier this year to join Ember.

Says the soft-spoken chef of Ember's stove burners: "Working at Ember reminds me of my early days working at Les Amis. At Waku Ghin, everything was spacious and modern, like its induction ovens, but I like to perspire over the stove in an 'old school' kitchen through a busy service - you get a greater sense of satisfaction."

As for whether he will get the freedom to create a name for himself, Mr Sufian believes this is something that will come in time - and gradually.

To not abruptly rock the boat, Mr Ng's signature dishes such as the roasted pork belly and duck breast will be kept on the menu, while Mr Sufian's new creations - similarly Asian-tinged European dishes such as the scallop carpaccio dressed with rice wine vinegar, daikon and rocket he's been tinkering with - will be first introduced as lunch specials before a menu revamp around mid-year.

"Besides the challenge of trying to keep Sebastian's regular followers happy, my goal is to attract a pool of new customers in too," says Mr Sufian.

Toni Robertson
Mandarin Oriental Singapore
5 Raffles Avenue

Rare is the female executive chef in Singapore, rarer still one who heads up the kitchens at one of Singapore's leading five-star hotels. But the Mandarin Oriental's new executive chef Toni Robertson is taking it coolly in her stride.

"I've never considered myself to be a 'female chef', just a chef. That has been my coping mechanism throughout my career and it has worked very well for me. I simply do not allow that distinction to be made internally," says the Mandalay-born American in her late 50s.

In fact, she's done it all before. Raised in the United States, where she migrated to as a teenager, Ms Robertson made her Asian homecoming in the 1990s as the executive chef of Pan Pacific Hotel in Singapore, where she helped to open now-defunct Tuscany Ristorante.

"There were no female chefs heading major F&B programmes here then. I was the first. I always joked that they probably thought 'Toni' was actually a 6 ft tall Italian guy when they hired me," she quips. Physical stature regardless, her resume will tell you that she is anything but a pushover.

After eight years in the US Air Force as a medic assigned to emergency rooms, she spent a further five years in the National Guard, during which she was offered a posting to Germany. It gave her a base to travel and eat extensively through the food capitals of Europe.

"I would come home and try to duplicate what I had eaten in those wonderful restaurants. On the weekends, I would cook at home for friends, other airmen who would otherwise have been eating in a mess hall," she recalls. "I would not be the successful chef I am today without the discipline and leadership skills I learned in the military."

Yet she is no drill sergeant in the kitchen, she disclaims. "I'm 5' 2" tall, female and Asian. Nobody is going to mistake me for 'fierce' and that truly is not my management style. I try to lead by example," she says.

At the Mandarin Oriental, besides more immediate plans such as working on the revamp of the hotel's Italian restaurant Dolce Vita to focus on more classical and upscale cuisine, and building an artisan food supply chain of independent organic farmers and local fishmongers to obtain better ingredients for the hotel, two other causes close to her heart are creating an Asian identity and offering internship programmes, scholarships and seminars to attract more women to the industry.

"We do not want to just duplicate what we see in Australia, London or New York. We want to offer that standard but retain elements of our Asian identity that make us unique in our own right," she says.

debyong@sph.com.sg

This article was published on April 12 in The Business Times.

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