Wolf it all down

Chef Alysia Chan, 33, who heads the kitchen at Wolf, a new nose-to-tail restaurant, will tell you that she has "a naturally grumpy face".

It is her way of explaining why it is hard to get her to smile in photographs. Yet, when the lenses are not trained on her, she tenderly pats the snout of the pig's head she is holding, a gleeful smile on her face.

She often punctuates the conversation with guffaws and clearly relishes her role as head chef of the 40-seat restaurant in Gemmill Lane, which opened two weeks ago. It aims to serve all parts of an animal.

Diners pick from dishes such as grilled ox tongue or beef hearts; pig's head and trotter brawn, which is essentially head cheese; or crispy sweetbreads with risotto. The idea is to respect an animal which has given its life by using all parts of it.

Chan's last job was as sous chef of Cocotte, a casual restaurant serving French country cooking at the Wanderlust Hotel in Dickson Road, from 2010 to last year, and from March to September this year. She also worked at Pollen in the Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay from June to December last year.

She says: "One day at Pollen, we had quail and the hearts were going to be thrown away. I marinated them in salt, pepper and Madeira, sauteed them in butter and went around asking people in the kitchen to try. They said, 'Ooh no' at first, but after tasting them, they were surprised. So I said, 'I told you they were good and you were going to throw them away'."

Chan, who is single, says she got into cooking after she "flunked out" of an accounting diploma course in a polytechnic. While waiting for the results of an information technology diploma course she took at a private school, she worked in a deli at Tanglin Shopping Centre.

The owners decided to sell the business and her family bought it over. They ran The Country Deli for a year until the landlord wanted to raise the rent and they had to close it, in 2006.

That was when she decided to go to culinary school At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy, where she graduated in 2008 from a 15-month diploma course in culinary craft. One of her course mates was chef Anthony Yeoh, whom she later worked with at Cocotte.

She comes from a food-loving family. Her father is a private banker, her mother works in her family's trading company and she has a younger brother, 28, who works in sales.

"Mum's a fantastic cook. She would make laksa from scratch for me on my birthday. She'd also roast chicken and make dishes such as chilli con carne. She bakes too - kueh lapis and chiffon cake."

Chef Chan would also cook her parents dinner using recipes she found on the Internet. Swedish meatballs were among the things she made. "If Ikea can do it, so can I," she says wryly.

While she found her calling in the kitchen, her uncle, Mr Yuan Oeij, 44, chairman of the Prive Group which owns Wolf, had to persuade her to quit her job at Cocotte to head the new restaurant.

"I didn't think I was ready and said no a couple of times," she says. "But nose-to-tail dining, this is my kind of food, what I want to do. I feel ready now because I know I have a good team."

The possibilities of working with different parts of an animal inspire her. "There is more to an animal than what everybody knows, like chicken breast or beef tenderloin," she says.

What is your favourite offal to cook?

Beef hearts. I didn't work with them until recently, but if you cook them right, they taste like steak.

What is the most difficult offal to cook?

Brains. You can't overcook them and it is tedious to peel off the membrane. I haven't put them on the menu here because they are difficult to get in Singapore. The supplier sells them in 25kg cartons, frozen. This puts us in a tough position. But when we change the menu, I want to put some brain on it. They have a creamy texture and I would deep fry them.

You have said that you are inspired by April Bloomfield, the British chef who runs The Spotted Pig, The Breslin and The John Dory in New York, and Chris Cosentino, who runs Incanto in San Francisco. Why?

Their philosophy of respecting the animal and not wasting any part of it is similar to mine. Their flavours are bold and they don't do fancy plating.

Who else inspires you?

Alton Brown, who hosts the TV show Good Eats. I would watch it after classes. He goes so in-depth into the science of cooking. It was from his show that I first found out about Grains Of Paradise (a peppery spice with citrus notes). I also learnt about the different structures of starches. I have every single episode of that show.

What was your worst kitchen disaster?

When I first started out, I worked at Sage (a now-defunct restaurant). I learnt from the chef, Jusman So, about timing. One time, he took me aside and in a calm but menacing voice, said: "Don't you f*** up my service again." There was an endive garnish that had to be warmed in the oven and I didn't have it ready. That held everything up by five minutes and the kitchen had to refire every dish for that table.

Which places would you like to visit for inspiration?

I would like to go to New York just because there are so many restaurants, from homey and rustic to Michelin-starred. I'd go to Gray's Papaya for hotdogs, The Spotted Pig and Blue Hill (a farm-to-table restaurant).

In the Napa Valley, I would like to dine at The French Laundry. I've heard so much about it and, at some point, I aspired to be in that kind of restaurant.

At Wolf, you make stocks and sauces from scratch, but also ketchup and mustard. Why?

To me, that is important. If someone asks me what is in the ketchup, I can tell them, and my customers will know there is no bulls**t in the food.

What gives you the greatest satisfaction as a chef?

Feeding people. I love to eat and I know the feeling of eating a great meal. If I can give people that, that's the greatest satisfaction.

hsueh@sph.com.sg facebook.com/tanhsuehyun

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