Foodie confidential: Love for food started from snacks

Growing up in Myanmar, chef Toni Robertson remembers going to the market with her grandmother, who would buy her snacks from the stalls.

"That memory of having these little treats in the market has stayed with me. That's the reason I love food and why I became a chef," says the new executive chef of the Mandarin Oriental, Singapore.

But she was not allowed in the kitchen as her parents wanted her to focus on her studies. She would have to sneak into the kitchen and ask the cook to let her peel the garlic or pound chilli.

She finally made her first dish with her sister after the family moved to Chicago when she was in her late teens. Her sister taught her to make Rum Baba, a yeast cake soaked in rum.

"The first time I made that, it intrigued me because it's something exotic and I made it with my hands," says the chef, who is in her early 50s.

While her love for food and cooking started early, she became a chef only years later. She joined the United States Air Force as a medic when she was 18 and was in active duty for eight years, including four years in Germany.

When she returned to the US, she served another four years with the Illinois National Guard. She also enrolled at the Culinary and Hospitality Institute of Chicago and was trained in classical French cooking. "My dream from the time I was a little girl was to be a chef. So it was always my plan to leave the military, it was not my career," she says.

But she believes her time in the air force prepared her for a culinary career. "I learnt discipline, leadership and how to effectively manage people. The chaos of working in an emergency room was perfect training for the chaos of working in a kitchen," she says.

Her career as a chef has taken her around the world to hotels such as the Four Seasons Beverly Hills, South Africa's Palace Hotel of the Lost City, California's Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, and Singapore's Pan Pacific Hotel.

She is not unfamiliar with Mandarin Oriental as she was executive chef of the Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco for two years and New York for eight years.

Robertson, whose husband owns a business in New York, will be working in Singapore alone. Her 30-year-old son, who is married, is in the US Navy.

She has been in Singapore for about a month, but she does not feel the distance, thanks to technology such as Skype and Facetime.

"Sometimes my husband bothers me with Facetime and I'll tell him to leave me alone," she says with a laugh. "He still nags at me every morning and I still nag at him about what he's going to have for dinner."

Why did you join the US Air Force?

This is a funny story. I was living in Chicago and I had just graduated from high school. I was walking along the Lake Michigan shore and there was an air show going on. I saw this guy with a really cute uniform. I liked the uniform and I thought I would follow him.

I realised he was a recruiter. He asked me how old I was and I said 18, and he asked me to sign on a form. So I signed it and joined the air force.

You've travelled a lot. In your opinion, which country has the best food?

I don't think anything is the best, I love them all.

I went to Spain, Turkey and Greece last year. I loved the seafood in Greece and the simplicity of the food. In Istanbul, I loved the bread. In Barcelona, the market places have seafood as well. I also went to tapas places. One day, I ate at seven restaurants from 9am to 9pm. I couldn't eat anymore at the last two places. I just looked at the food, took pictures and that's it.

Are there any restaurants you like to visit?

One place I've visited three times already here is the chain restaurant Din Tai Fung at Suntec City. I love the dumplings and noodles with the minced pork that's a little bit spicy.

What local dishes have you tried and liked?

My favourites right now are laksa, yong tau foo and char kway teow.

What's the best dining experience you've had?

The best one I've had was when I was in California. Some chefs and I spent a day in a vineyard during harvest season. We'd get up at 6am and help to pick the grapes. By the time we finished at 10am, we were all starving because it was really hard work.

The winery owner came with a basket full of ham and cheese sandwiches.

That was the best sandwich I have ever had. We sat in the middle of the vineyard and the beautiful scenery, eating those sandwiches.

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

It would be Auguste Escoffier, Julia Child and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson brought French fries to the United States from France.

I'd love to watch Child and Escoffier argue about how modern cuisine has changed. Escoffier took mediaeval cooking into a professional French kitchen environment. Child took classical French modern cooking and turned it into modern American home-cooking.

Were you particular about what your son ate when he was growing up?

If I didn't have a microwave oven at that time, my family would have starved. My husband can't cook, so I would usually cook on Sundays, pack the food up and they would heat it up in the microwave. That's how we survived.

It's embarrassing to say that I survived that way. You go to grocery stores and people know you're a chef, and the first thing they do after greeting you is to check your cart and see frozen pizza and instant noodles.

What plans do you have for the hotel's food and beverage offerings?

I would like to bring more refined and progressive Italian cuisine to Dolce Vita, which I think is perfect for Singapore. I also want to focus more on healthier cuisine, sustainability and natural products throughout the hotel.

WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

Potato chips. Make sure it's jalapeno-flavoured. It's my ritual to always have a bag of potato chips in my bag when I fly. That's my security blanket. If something happens, everyone will be ducking and I'll be opening my bag of potato chips.


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