Customers come first

Nothing slows down Artichoke's chef-owner Bjorn Shen, not even suffering a heart attack while driving.

Recalling the incident early last year, the 31-year-old says: "There was a weird feeling of a weight on my chest and I couldn't lift my left arm.

"I slept it off and called the hospital the next day. They said it was likely to be a heart attack and that I needed to be admitted for tests.

"I looked at the list of stuff I had to do, and said f*** this, I need to feed people by 6.30pm."

The chef, who was born with hypertension and has been on high blood pressure medication since he was 18, still has not gone to the hospital, adding that he is "not an alarmist" and his No. 1 priority is serving his customers.

His love for "making food" began in his childhood days.

He says: "My mum is not a natural cook, and is too health conscious. I was so deprived that when I was six years old, I would take a Mentos sweet and dilute it in hot water so that I could have a sweet drink."

He lived with his grandparents and nanny from the age of eight, after his parents divorced, and continued experiments such as crushing Milo sweets and adding hot water to make "hot chocolate".

During his army days, he would organise house parties for his friends, one of whom encouraged him to make cooking a career.

Calling his friend's suggestion a "revelation", he started working in a cafe in Tanglin Mall as a dishwasher. After two months, he was promoted to cooking pasta.

Shen, who has a younger brother, moved to Brisbane, Australia, in 2004 to pursue his bachelor's degree in hotel and tourism management, while working at various restaurants.

After getting to the top of the dean's honour roll, he focused solely on his academics, and did a master's in marketing at the University of Queensland.

But he "got itchy" and chose to return to his passion, and came back to Singapore in February 2010. In August that year, he opened Artichoke - which serves Middle Eastern cuisine - in Middle Road. His fiancee Roxanne Toh, 29, runs its sister bakery Overdoughs.

Things are not slowing down this year, as the busy chef has "1,000 things happening" with a book on Artichoke and a television show on the way.

He took a $250,000 loan from his family to set up Artichoke and says: "Looking back, it was quite crazy to do what I did. But I've never considered failure. I think that's the reason for my success so far."

A chapter in your new book is titled Reckless Creativity. Tell us one of your most crazy creations.

I made a cookie cake with a breakfast food theme for a friend's wedding.

It had four layers of cookie sheets and ingredients such as peanut butter frosting, marshmallows, Froot Loops, cinnamon buns, dried banana chips, raspberry jam and maple syrup.

Tell us a quirky eating habit of yours.

I like to mix things up. For example, if I have waffles or pancakes, I want all the cream and sauce piled on top. I don't want things served in different ramekins that I have to dip into.

That's why Indian food is my favourite cuisine. I love the alchemy on the plate based on accidental mixing of stuff, such as two curries mixing together with rice. It's an explosion of tastes.

So I'm not big on fine dining, even though I have nothing against fine dining. I see it more as an orchestrated experience, but I want to do the orchestrating myself.

So would you prefer fast food to fine dining?

I'm not afraid to say I'm a big fan fast food. McDonald's is one of the best things in my life, with its golden nuggets of deliciousness. I have cheap tastebuds.

My steamboat doesn't need abalone and bamboo clams or fancy cuts of meat, I just want all those factory-processed fishballs and Hello Kitty fishcakes.

What are your favourite local foods?

I love laksa, mutton briyani and sayur lodeh.

I grew up eating at Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice Restaurant. Maxwell Road Hawker Centre has the best raw fish salad.

What are your favourite restaurants?

Lolla at Ann Siang Road for its sea urchin custard and Morsels at Mayo Street for the scallop ceviche. I go to Italian restaurant Basilico at The Regent Singapore for cold cuts. I like Hua Yi Kitchen at International Building for dumplings, and cold century egg. I also like Whampoa Keng Fish Head Steamboat at Rangoon Road, which also does great salted egg prawns; Ayam Penyet Ria at Lucky Plaza - I'm a sucker for its fried pomfret and catfish.

Where are your supper haunts?

Quynh Giao Quan An Vietnam in Joo Chiat for pho, which is comfort food to me. I also like Newton Prawn Noodles at Newton Food Centre, steamboat at Liang Seah Street, or Khin Kee Fishball Kway Teow at Toa Payoh Lorong 8.

Are you an adventurous diner?

Some years ago, I was searching for fugu in Tokyo and typed a note in my phone saying that I would have died a happy death if I really died from eating fugu.

I've also had horse fat ice cream and sea urchin ice cream. I want to go to New York, and northern China to eat spicy food, the type that will make your a** burn.

What's your favourite ingredient to work with?

I love lemons. People say add salt and pepper, I say use salt and lemon instead.

What's your worst kitchen disaster?

During my two-month internship at Saint Pierre restaurant, when I was about 21 years old. I was called Beyonce The B***h because I was new.

Three weeks into the job, I sliced off the tip of my finger on the mandolin. I had to prove I was tough, so I didn't say anything. I picked up my finger tip and taped it back on my finger with masking tape, wore gloves and carried on working. I had to keep changing the glove because it was filling up with blood. I didn't go the doctor in the end, but luckily my finger stuck back.

What's your best dining experience?

I take an annual trip to Sydney and dine at Bodega. The best dish is fish fingers, which is charred sourdough toast cut into four "fingers" and brushed with garlic oil. It is topped with a fat slice of kingfish sashimi, thinly shaved white onion, and shaved mojama (Spanish salt-dried tuna) on top. The flavours just explode in your mouth.

Its sister restaurant Porteno does the best spit-roasted meats.

What dish best represents you?

Baklava, which is an Arabic pastry. It's super duper sweet, easily misunderstood and isn't for everyone. It can be extreme for some people's tastebuds, but for those who like it, it's super nutty.

euniceq@sph.com.sg


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

VIDEOS TO WATCH

SERVICES