Singapore chef Jeremy Cheok on his love of playing with food

Even though chef Jeremy Cheok used to help his Peranakan grandmother pound rempah using a mortar and pestle starting at age eight, he did not think he would become a chef until much later.

He studied material science engineering at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) but discovered that being a scientist was not his cup of tea.

It happened when he was 24 and doing a seven- month internship at Asia Pacific Breweries in Hanoi, Vietnam. During that time, he was a quality control management trainee in the brewery. His job included testing raw materials, packaging finished products and dealing with suppliers.

That made him realise that a job in the laboratory was not what he wanted.

The 29-year-old, who calls himself a "food enthusiast" of 40-seat Slake, a bar and contemporary Asian restaurant in Opera Estate, says: "Going to work in the lab every day was probably not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, even though I was allowed to drink beer every day for work."

He and four other partners opened Slake in June. On why he calls himself food enthusiast instead of head chef, he says: "I am not a trained chef. I'm a scientist who is enthusiastic about playing with food."

The youngest of four children of a retired venture-capitalist father and retired school-counsellor mother says cooking is second nature to him.

Chef Cheok, whose girlfriend is a petrochemicals broker, says: "Growing up with the mortar and pestle since young, I was constantly surrounded by food.

"My family didn't usually eat at home. Both my parents were working and a lot of cooking was done only during festive occasions, including Chinese New Year and Christmas. It was usually done by my mother and grandmother, who used to live with us. I wasn't in charge of any specific dishes, but I would help out."

In fact, after taking his A levels, he applied to and was accepted by The Culinary Institute of America in New York. However, he opted to study at NTU instead because he was not sure if he really wanted to be a chef.

While waiting to enlist in the army, he worked for five months in a coffee shop in Siglap.

He says: "I had a friend who owned Claypot, a Cantonese restaurant. He wanted to make his own roast meats so he rented a stall called Kum Kee, now defunct, in the coffee shop next door to prepare them.

"Being a hawker was a lot of fun even though it was really challenging. I didn't do most of the cooking there. I was in charge of chopping the chicken. But at least I got to know what it was like working as a hawker."

After national service in 2008, he, along with two friends, Mr Alroy Chan and Mr Tan Huang Ming, both 28, opened JAM, a private dining service where they would cook in people's homes.

In 2012, he opened OKB, which stands for Our Kind of Bistro, at 1 Kampong Bahru Road.

He says: "OKB was a private dining studio and takeaway bakery. Popular demand for the food convinced my team that opening a walk-in eatery was the next step to take."

What can diners expect at Slake?

Slake means to quench one's thirst and it is also an abbreviation of Swan Lake Avenue, where the restaurant is located. Besides alcohol, the food offered is very much Vietnamese- and Peranakan-influenced.

Why did you choose to have Vietnamese and Peranakan influences in your menu?

Because I do what I know. I don't make Vietnamese and Peranakan food. I take flavour elements and incorporate them into my dishes.

Would you call it fusion cuisine?

I would say it's good tasting cuisine. It's sort of contemporary South-east Asian, nice food.

Do you prefer using a mortar and pestle or an electric blender?

Definitely the mortar and pestle. When you grind ingredients, you're bursting the cell walls, extracting certain flavours. However, if you blend it, it's just cutting up the ingredients and the flavours are not extracted well enough.

What is your favourite childhood snack?

I liked Calbee hot and spicy corn sticks and Ka Ka Corn Snack as well. My grandmother always bought them for me.

Where do you get your raw ingredients from?

I do not get them from a supplier. I like to go down to the markets around Siglap, Bedok and Marine Parade and buy the ingredients myself. I've developed a bond with the stallholders.

What is your favourite meat to cook with?

Chicken. It's the most versatile meat. You can fry, boil, roast and steam it. You can steam pork and beef, but they may not taste good. You can eat chicken for lunch and dinner for the whole week and never get tired of it.

What is an essential ingredient in your kitchen at Slake?

Fish sauce. The question is not which dishes have fish sauce, but which dishes do not have fish sauce here. Almost every South-east Asian country uses some kind of fermented sauce, whether it's made from soya or fish. Fish sauce gives a dish a very rounded finish, something heavy on umami.

Slake is as much about the drinks as it is about the food. What is your favourite tipple?

Definitely Tiger beer. Beer is something that I can drink like water. It's not something I have to savour. I'm not into craft beer because I enjoy affordability and consistency, and I think Tiger beer is absolutely suited to our weather.

What is your go-to happy food?

It would have to be sio bak (roasted pork belly) with a good ginger and spring onion sauce. I've not found a better version than Kum Kee's.

This article was first published on October 26, 2014.
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