Foodie Confidential: Giving up engineering for cooking

Foodie Confidential: Giving up engineering for cooking

When he was 21, chef Leong Khai Git started studying an engineering degree course at the National University of Singapore.

But he dropped out in his last year as he felt that engineering was not his cup of tea and decided to go to cooking school.

He had come to love cooking when he was 18.

On the first dish he made, he says: "I think it was pancakes. It was for my then girlfriend."

After that, he would always be in charge of preparing the food and manning the flames at barbecues with his friends and family.

Now, he has his own restaurant, Dibs, in Duxton Hill. He named the five-month-old restaurant after the slang term for "first claim", which is similar to the Singlish word "chope" or to reserve.

The 40-seat restaurant focuses on off-cuts and underused ingredients, such as pork cheeks and cockles.

Leong, 29, says: "Basically, the food here has no genre. It is as simple as that. It reflects my training from my past cooking stints, with a lot of Asian twists."

Some dishes include Smokey Cockles ($7), a dish of blood cockles cooked in bacon dashi stock and smoked chillies.

After dropping out of engineering school, he enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu in Sydney for a year-long diploma programme.

"I was only 24 then, and I decided on the Sydney campus as I can't learn languages for nuts. So the France campus would be a bit difficult for me," he says.

After obtaining his Diplome De Cuisine, he worked at hotels and restaurants such as international cuisine restaurant Greenhouse at The Ritz-Carlton here, Italian restaurant Gaia Ristorante & Bar at Goodwood Park Hotel and Quest Restaurant in Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi, which serves molecular Asian cuisine.

He was there for six months and then came back and worked at Gaia for another six months before opening Dibs.

What do you think of the Singapore food scene?

I feel that the food in Singapore is very repetitive. The restaurants are the same. Italian restaurants will serve cabonara, or aglio olio pasta. It is always pasta.

How is Dibs different?

We want to do something that will surprise people. For example, for pork cheeks, we sous vide, batter and then deep fry them. They become something like Japanese katsu, which is different from the traditional braised pork cheeks.

What is your guilty pleasure?

Bak chor mee or minced pork noodles. I can eat that for every meal. In fact, I tried doing that before for two to three days. I like the one at Ghim Moh Market, near my home.

What is your favourite cuisine?

It would have to be Japanese. I love how it's simple, fresh, tasty and comforting. I like anything that has uni (sea urchin).

Would you dare to eat fugu or puffer fish?

I have eaten fugu in Japan. It is quite interesting; there's a tingling sensation with a bit of numbness.

Is fugu the most adventurous dish you have tried?

I don't think so. I think the most adventurous dish I have eaten is the balut, a boiled developing duck embryo in its shell. It's hard to stomach.

What is your favourite ingredient to cook with?

I would have to go with crab. I love how there are so many varieties of crabs, and how they differ each season. I particularly like female crabs because of the roe. It's a concentration of flavours. We currently have only one crab item on our menu, crab cakes, but we plan on adding another one soon.

Who would you dine with, dead or alive, and what would you eat with him/her?

I would dine with my late maternal grandmother. I didn't know her very well, but I heard she could cook. I would cook to impress her, and would probably make braised pork leg as I heard she made that really well.

Where does your creativity stem from?

It's from things that I like to eat. Generally, whatever is on the menu is something that I would like to eat. I don't believe that I can cook it if I don't like it.

From there, it branches off to becoming a balance of flavours and textures.

What chefs inspire you and how?

For creativity, I look towards David Chang, the founder of Momofuku Restaurant Group.

He doesn't have any boundaries. He'll do a test, and if it works, he'll sell it. He doesn't have a specific cuisine to adhere to. What is a unique dish you have made?

It was back in Quest Restaurant, where I made this Asian fruit and vegetable salad. It was a simple salad with tamarind dressing. It looked like a garden, but tasted like rojak.

What inspired your cockle and bacon dashi dish?

I felt the need to do something with cockles. It is a very underused ingredient. I love to eat cockles.

When I was young, I would eat raw cockles dipped in any kind of chilli sauce with my mum.

I decided to add it with bacon dashi as I love bacon, and I wanted the umami flavours from the dashi.

Do you travel a lot? What is your most satisfying meal in your travels?

I do travel, and I've been to countries such as Norway, Japan and New York for holidays. My most satisfying meal was in Norway.

We were dog sledding, and then taken to a hut. There was an old cast iron pot over a fire, and in the pot was moose stew.

Simple and flavourful, it was very satisfying and memorable.

What Would Your Last Meal Be?

I would have bak chor mee, extra chili, extra lard, and my noodles will be a mix of yellow noodles and rice vermicelli.

This article was published on May 18 in The Straits Times.

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