Foodie Confidential: Biting into local flavours

What would your last meal be?There's a food stand in New York called The Halal Guys. I'll order the chicken and rice. That dish is amazing.

Spanish chef Carlos Montobbio, who comes from Barcelona, had never tried a bao or Chinese steamed bun before coming to Singapore last October.

The 26-year-old had his first one at Hong Kong dim-sum chain Tim Ho Wan's Toa Payoh outlet, and the taste and texture reminded him of a brioche, a buttery, eggy bread.

He has since incorporated bao into his menu at Anti:dote, a bar serving handcrafted cocktails and modern tapas at the Fairmont Singapore.

His version is filled with veal cheek, caramelised shallots and topped with a slice of Perigord black truffle. It has become one of the most popular bar bites there.

The Anti:dote head chef says: "In the beginning, the bao was done in the hotel's Szechuan Court & Kitchen. We did the filling and they made the bao skins. However, during Chinese New Year this year, they got really busy. They gave me the recipe and I practised for two days. Now, I can make my own."

When he was five, he would help his mother Laura Perez, 52, make panellet, a traditional Catalan dessert.

"It was my first dish. It is made with sugar, almonds and pine nuts. I would mix the sugar and almonds together, coat them with pine nuts, and my mum would bake them. Most Spanish children would help their parents do this when they're young," he says.

At 10, he started cooking more seriously.

"I think my first serious dish was baked sea bass with potatoes, lemon, thyme and onions," he says. "When I was a few years older, I would cook for my family during special events such as birthdays and celebrations."

At 19, he graduated from the prestigious Hofmann culinary schoolin Barcelona and did his school internship at its one Michelin-starred restaurant.

He went on to do cooking stints at restaurants such as El Celler de Can Roca in Spain, which is No. 2 on this year's World's 50 Best Restaurants list, announced last week.

Chef Montobbio says: "It's not stressful and a lot of the pressure comes from myself. All the chefs there have their own pressure and there is no need to push one another. Everyone is competitive.

"It is like going to culinary university. In five months, I learnt more than what I would in two years at a university."

What made you decide to come to Singapore?

I am a fan of Asian food, especially Japanese and Thai food. I really wanted to move to Asia. I feel there is a language barrier in Japan and Thailand, that's why I came here. Also, I feel that Singapore will be one of the biggest places for gastronomy. A lot of good restaurants are opening here and a lot of chefs are coming.

What are your favourite Japanese and Thai dishes?

My favourite Thai dish would be Pad Thai, stir-fried rice noodles. I love it because there is a combination of flavours. My favourite Japanese dish would be unagi, barbecued eel. I discovered it only four years ago at a Japanese fine-dining restaurant in Barcelona. I put it in my mouth and it was amazing.

What is your take on the local hawker food scene?

I feel the food courts are a very nice option where you can get great food for a good price. It's like a concentration of different food counters in one place. It's like a food museum.

What is your favourite local dish?

I love chilli crab and rojak. I tried the fruit rojak from Toa Payoh and I felt it was very unusual to consume fruit with sauces. It's not amazing, but it's unique.

Where does your creativity stem from?

So many things. From reading a book and eating to the memories of past experiences.

How do you incorporate local ingredients into your bar bites?

When I have new products in my hands, I taste them and try to associate them with known products. For example, kaffir lime leaves are citrusy, therefore I classify them as similar to lemons and limes and change the lemon ingredient in a dish to kaffir lime leaves instead.

Do you worry that your fusion bar bites will not suit Singaporeans' tastebuds?

I have a lot of Singaporean chefs in my team. Every time I experiment, I get them to try and get their opinion. If they like it, I hope a lot of people will too.

Who is your favourite chef?

My favourite chef would be my mother. She makes really good fricando, very thin pieces of meat braised in a sauce made up of onions, tomatoes and a lot of wild mushrooms. It is usually served with rice.

What is your take on being a chef?

It's a hard job but, at the same time, it's also a very nice job because you're able to give love to people you don't know. Here at Anti:dote, I serve food when I have the time. I try to go to each table at least once to get feedback. The people are lovely.

Do you consider yourself an adventurous eater, and what is the most adventurous thing you've eaten?

Tuna sperm. It was at a Spanish restaurant and it had a tasting menu with tuna in different cuts and variations: raw, cooked, sperm, heart, head, belly.

The taste is okay, but the texture is amazing. It's crunchy but melts in the mouth.

Are you open to eating anything?

Yes, I'm open to eating anything, at least to try. I won't order 10 portions of it, but I will try.

I feel that if you don't try, you could miss out on a lot of good things just because they look strange.

This article was published on May 4 in The Straits Times.

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