An incredible journey of a chef

Had anyone told chef Matt Orlando 10 years ago, that he would be married to a Danish woman, and have his own restaurant in Denmark by 2015, he would have scoffed.

"Denmark? Is that the capital of Sweden?", he quips.

The 38-year-old American chef is now the owner of the one-and-a-half year old Amass in Refshalevej, a 20 minute bus ride from downtown Copenhagean.

His wife, Julie, whom he met while they were both working at Noma, runs the front of the restaurant.

Chef Orlando started cooking in San Diego at 15.

He worked under Charlie Palmer at Aureole in New York, before landing a position at Eric Ripert's Le Bernardin.

Seeking exposure, he moved to England to work both at Raymond Blanc's two-starred Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons and Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck.

It was in the latter that he met Rene Redzepi, chef-owner of the critically acclaimed Noma.

He spent two years as senior sous chef at Noma before moving to Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York.

Three years later, he returned as chef de cuisine at Noma, before leaving in 2013 to start Amass.

Chef Orlando was in Singapore this week for a two-night collaborative dinner with Chef Andre Chiang of Andre.

On the menu were scallop with chicken skin and spicy greens; aged beef with oyster and turnip; and carrot with buttermilk and pickled pine - all from the Amass menu.

This is his first trip to South-east Asia and Singapore and "Singapore is everything a chef would want in a city," he says.

"There are restaurants, and plenty of street food."

The team had dined at Burnt Ends restaurant the night before, but "I want some chilli crab and chicken rice before I leave."

He hasn't had time to cook overseas since he started Amass in 2013, he says.

The first year was spent focusing on the restaurant, and he only started travelling from last October.

He has cooked in Finland, Napa Valley, and now Singapore, before heading to Taiwan next.

For a chef whose cuisine in Copenhagen is rooted in local and regional produce, cooking in Singapore has a challenge considering that almost everything is imported.

He ended up bringing some of his own ingredients, including carrots.

"The carrots we get in Denmark are sweet, but I was told I wouldn't get similar ones here," he says.

So he packed dried carrots and carrot juice for his dish of carrots garnished with pickled Douglas fir pine shoots, "which are impossible to get here", so he brought those too.

With Amass garnering much acclaim, it is no surprise to hear that food critics for the Michelin Guide have come calling.

"I know one guy came," says Chef Orlando.

"It is nice to be in the guide, but it is not the most important thing."

What matters more to him is that "we can do exactly what we want, and not change anything just to get on a list," he says.

"We have an identity now," he says. "Our flavours are strong. The food is minimalist."

By this he means, that a dish can have just three ingredients, but the focus is on making the best of them.

"The three ingredients all have to be at their best, there is no room for error."

Rather than tell his suppliers what he wants, he plans the menu according to what he gets each day.

His favourite ingredient to work with now is sturgeon, which he is smoking and experimenting with.

His other obsession is with "drying things."

He shares a story about how he picked up a rotten apple, dehydrated it, and then rehydrated it again.

"It now tastes like prune," he says.

Chef Orlando says that while he had a good run at Noma, as chef de cuisine, it didn't allow him much time to do actual cooking.

"If I don't get to touch food, I get into a bad mood," he states.

Nothing quite prepared him for opening his own restaurant, but still he says, opening Amass is a form of escape for him.

He has plans to expand, but it will not be another Amass - he's thinking of other opportunities.

Looking back, he says his life could have been different had he stayed on at The Fat Duck.

"Back in 2005, no one knew of Noma. My journey since then isn't just good, it has been incredible."

This article was first published on January 17, 2015.
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