SINGAPORE - Chef Mark Richards says he is always up for a challenge.
The 39-year-old group executive chef of Caerus Holding says: "After setting up restaurants, there's nothing to do and you hit a plateau. I like a challenge and, so far, every day has been a challenge."
He took over the reins at Raffles Hotel's Singaporean restaurant Ujong@Raffles recently, after former executive chef Shen Tan left after six months. He lost no time in revamping the menu.
The company he works for also owns other restaurants such as Lady M Confections patisserie and Italian-Japanese restaurant Nuvo. He is the "roaming chef" who oversees them as well.
Born in Singapore to a Portuguese-British father and Peranakan mother, the graduate of hospitality school Shatec started his career as part of the opening team for the Four Seasons hotel here in 1999.
After his national service, he was posted to the Four Seasons in Hawaii for a year. He also worked in Australia, with the likes of chef Ian Curley, former head chef of The Point, by Albert Park Lake in Victoria, and three well-known chefs in Melbourne: Shannon Bennett of Vue de Monde, Donovan Cooke of The Atlantic and Greg Malouf, former head chef of MoMo.
In Singapore, he worked at several restaurants, including now-defunct ones such as Sweet Salty Spicy, Heart Bistro and Keystone Restaurant.
At Thai restaurant Sweet Salty Spicy, he met his Myanmar-born wife Nang Hsaddan Phyu, 35, who was then the restaurant's chef de partie. She is now head chef at The Fat Cat bistro in Holland Village. They have no children.
But while he yearns for bigger challenges, Richards, who has two older sisters, also hopes to return to the basics of cooking.
He says: "One day, I would like to open a bed and breakfast in my wife's hometown in Shan, Myanmar. When you dine in Myanmar, the kitchens may be beat up, but the flavours are authentic. In Singapore, sometimes you concentrate on pleasing customers until the essence of cooking is lost through demands of commercial needs."
What inspired your new dishes at Ujong@Raffles?
We changed the previous modern Singapore menu to do more traditional food, tweaked to give a bit of a surprise. One of my favourite items is the foie gras chee cheong fun.
As a child, I grew up eating chee cheong fun and I wanted to make a more grown-up version without the sweet sauce. The foie gras sauce is made with a blend of foie gras, sake and mushrooms.
For the ikan pari dish, I used stingray because local diners like to eat grilled stingray. I introduced this dish because you seldom see it in restaurants.
What are your childhood memories of food?
Dining at the now-defunct Hainanese restaurant Silver Spoon where Park Mall is now. I had a bad habit where I would order my food, but pick from everyone else's plate.
I wouldn't be able to finish my food so someone would have to help me. But maybe all this "tasting" helped to cultivate my diverse palate.
What are your favourite local foods?
For breakfast, I love roti prata, putu mayam, tau huay, carrot cake and fried beehoon. I'm a big fan of durian. I would love to do a durian-themed meal at Ujong.
In Chinatown, I discovered a small bakery called Yuen Long Hong Kong Pastry & Buns that sells durian buns filled with 100 per cent durian pulp.
Where are your favourite food haunts?
Ming Li Coffee House at Geylang Lorong 15 for its assam laksa. I love the balance of acidity, sweet, sour and spicy flavours. It has a thick broth, and the noodles are made in Penang.
For zichar, I go to Fresh Frog Porridge in Geylang Lorong 9. I love the frog legs with ginger and spring onions. It's so good that I bought two bottles of beer to give the chef a treat.
You worked as an operations manager for a company that ran cafes in ter- tiary institutions and hospitals. After that experience, is it easier to be a chef?
I'll pick being a chef, for sure. I'm a detailed person so I can handle everything from A to Z in the kitchen.
But when I was operations manager, it was so draining to handle eight outlets.
After working 16 to 20 hours a day, six months was enough. It was a very good experience though, and I learnt a lot about how to save on operational costs.
In your journey as a chef, what is the biggest lesson you've learnt?
Trust is good, but control is better.
Apart from that, in my early years as a chef, I worked in a male-dominated environment. When I started working with chef Malouf at MoMo in Melbourne, he believed that having a female presence adds a different dimension to the kitchen.
They have great attention to detail and are less prone to shouting. At one time, I had five female chefs working with me.
Now, I try to have female chefs in the kitchen but finding local women who are willing to do so is challenging.
What are your thoughts on how social media has influenced dining?
Social media delivers news so much faster. Sometimes, it can develop hype too quickly. If diners just go to consume the hype, they may be disappointed.
If you could invite someone for a meal with you, who would you pick?
I would pick German physicist Albert Einstein and French chef Auguste Escoffier. I would like to tap into how they think.
What would your last meal be?
My mum's fish cutlets made with ikan parang. I will also have foie gras with freshly baked brioche and fleur de sel.
This article was first published on November 8, 2014.
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