Foodie confidential: He started as dishwasher

Unlike many other chefs, chef Matthew Leighton's love for cooking did not start when he was a child.

The 27-year-old says: "When I was young, there was an interest but it wasn't strong. It started when I was 16 and completing community school, I worked in an Italian restaurant in Sydney, now defunct, on weekends.

I started as a dishwasher and did that for six months, and the chef decided to let me help with the mise en place, such as the chopping of tomatoes, onions, bacon and herbs for the pizza toppings.

"Then I moved on to preparing pizzas for diners. I fell in love with the high level of creativity that happens in a kitchen."

In 2005, the son of a paramedic mum and sales manager dad enrolled in Technical And Further Education Commission (Tafe) at the Loftus Campus in south Sydney and graduated after two years with a certificate in commercial cookery.

He went on to work in Hilton Hotel Sydney as an apprentice cook in both the hot and cold kitchens for about a year.

Following his stint, he asked for a transfer to Glass Brasserie, which was located in the same hotel. Its owner, chef Luke Mangan became his mentor and he has been working with the celebrity chef ever since.

The Sydney native says: "Luke has really been a great mentor. I mainly learnt French cooking in school, and he taught me about modern Australian cuisine."

Now, he is the executive chef of Mangan's Salt Grill & Sky Bar at Ion Orchard, and he has included his own creations on the menu, such as tea smoked quail with almond cream.

On how he landed a job in Singapore, he says: "I told Luke that I wanted to travel and he offered me a job in Singapore."

Having been in Singapore for 18 months, the chef, who is dating a Malaysian sales executive, enjoys the cleanliness and diversity here, and makes it a point to visit other restaurants to check out the dining scene on his days off.

What is your favourite restaurant here?

I wouldn't say I have a favourite restaurant, but I think Burnt Ends in Teck Lim Road is good. It serves modern Australian cuisine and it has a woodfire oven.

What do you think of the hawker scene?

I love it. Just the variety and how cheap the food is. You pay for the quality you get. I also like how food is available even late at night.

Where would you usually go for supper here in Singapore?

I live in Kallang and there's a prata house that I would always visit. I order a cheese prata, and sometimes teh tarik.

What is your favourite local dish?

I love chilli crabs, especially from No Signboard Seafood Restaurant in Geylang.

I learnt how to make chilli crabs from the Internet and it'll satisfy my craving for chilli crabs even though it's not as good.

What do you like about chilli crab?

I like the flavours and also how there is a challenge in eating it, you need to crack open the shell to get to the meat.

What is your favourite ingredient?

Onion. It's a versatile item and you can use it as a base of a sauce or to make a puree. It adds quite a nice flavour to anything. Quite a few dishes on the menu have onion in it.

How often do you change the menu at Salt Grill & Sky Bar?

The menu changes seasonally, every three to four months. The menus are usually crafted by Luke, Joe Pavlovich, who is the Luke Mangan's group executive chef, and me.

How do you feel being the youngest executive chef under chef Mangan?

I feel quite proud. It's really challenging and I learn a lot every day. I've never run a restaurant before, so it's kind of a really big challenge to come over and do it in a different country.

Which chefs do you look up to?

Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, Luke and Joe. I watch a lot of videos by Heston. Joe and Luke have got to be the top ones. They taught me so much and are always teaching me.

Where have you travelled to and which countries do you think has the best food?

I've travelled to many Asian countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia. I like the food in Thailand because it's cheap and fresh. My favourite Thai dish would be Pad Thai, a stir-fried rice noodle dish.

What would your favourite cuisine be?

Spanish. I love tapas. I like a plate of cured meat, with cheese.

What would your comfort food be?

A pack of Doritos Cheese Supreme. I'm out of it at the moment, but I would usually have a pack at home.

What would your last meal be?

It would have to be a handcrafted or homemade burger with all the best toppings on it, such as bacon, tomato, beetroot, spicy mayonnaise, pickles and cheese.

This article was first published on 15 June, 2014.
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