Foodie Confidential: Teenage passion

Spanish restaurant Kaixo's chef-owner Issachar Lee has always been fond of cooking as a teenager, but only made the leap into the culinary world after eight years in the semi-conductor industry.

The 38-year-old bachelor says: "I wanted a break from work and decided to pursue something I've always loved. As a teenager, besides helping in the kitchen, I would flip through food magazines to read about cooking and learn recipes."

The business graduate from Nanyang Technological University enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu culinary institute in Bangkok and, as part of his course, he spent six months each in the Thai capital and Paris.

Before opening Kaixo with a few partners 10 months ago, he worked at Guy Savoy in Marina Bay Sands, and also worked for three months at the three-Michelin-starred Martin Berasategui restaurant in Spain.

The chef is the oldest of three sons. His father, now retired, was a grocery wholesaler, while his mother is a housewife.

While much of his training is in French cuisine, Lee's restaurant features cuisine from Basque country in northern Spain.

He says: "The Basque region spans the border between France and Spain and I feel that the flavours and ingredients are very interesting.

"Also, after coming back from Spain, I realised that there were tapas outlets everywhere and decided to give it a try.

"The hours are tough and the pay is low, but the satisfaction is unbeatable."

What are your childhood memories of food?

I come from a traditional Teochew family, and I remember helping my grandmother and aunt to prepare dishes such as steamed fish and braised duck.

What's the first dish you made?

When I was a teenager, I became more exposed to Western cuisine such as pasta.

I made spaghetti Bolognese when I was about 14 years old.

What are your favourite restaurants?

Restaurant Andre in Bukit Pasoh Road and Nirai Kanai Okinawan Restaurant at Liang Court Shopping Centre.

What are your favourite local dishes?

Fishball noodles from a stall at Zion Riverside Food Centre on Zion Road, and chicken rice from Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice in Maxwell Food Centre.

I also enjoy satay and sliced fish soup.

Are you an adventurous diner?

I have had Wallaby tartare in a restaurant in Melbourne, which has a slight gamey taste. I've also eaten silkworms and grasshoppers in Bangkok.

One day when I have enough guts, I would like to eat balut (boiled fertilised egg) in the Philippines or Vietnam. I couldn't bring myself to try it when I could see the bones and feathers.

Perhaps if it is served chopped up with greens or with some dressing, I would dare to try it.

What's comfort food for you?

Mum's home-cooked food such as a simple fish porridge. Some days, I'd crave some deep-fried chicken with a glass of beer.

What do you crave?

Spanish bar snacks such as anchovies, olives and cold cuts that go well with beers.

My favourites are Kronenbourg Blanc and Japanese Kirin beer.

What's always in your fridge?

Meiji full-cream milk for making my daily latte for breakfast, and eggs.

How do you end your day?

With a Japanese one-dish meal such as oyakodon (Japanese rice bowl dish with egg and chicken) or soba with Japanese fish cake, both of which I make myself.

What ingredients do you like to work with?

I love fish and seafood. I like that in European cooking, the focus is on bringing out the flavours of the sea. For Asian cooking, we like to use soya sauce, ginger and shallots to prepare seafood. I enjoy both ways.

What are your must-have kitchen tools?

My Vitamix kitchen blender, Microplane grater, vacuum sealer and thermo circulator.

What's your worst kitchen disaster?

You know the saying "a watched pot never boils"? For me, it happened twice when I boiled milk.

Once, I turned my back to grab some sugar and the next moment the milk had boiled over.

What do you remember most from your training at Le Cordon Bleu?

The instructors didn't give us full recipes, just a list of ingredients.

It was tough at the beginning because I was so used to just reading recipes in books and following the steps. This taught us to think carefully about planning our cooking process, and not to blindly follow a recipe without thinking.

What dish best represents you?

A Thai spicy beef salad. It is a balance of sweet, sour and salty, with a hint of spice. I'd like to think of myself as being as balanced as possible.

If you could invite someone (dead or alive) to a meal with you, who would you pick?

Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar as I enjoy his films a lot, especially the earlier works, which are quirky and controversial.

euniceq@sph.com.sg


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