Foodie Confidential: Winning with perseverance

Chef Kirk Westaway believes in the value of hard work.

While studying for a National Vocational Qualification in restaurant, culinary and catering management at Exeter College in the United Kingdom, he was also working in a butcher shop and the kitchen of two restaurants.

Four years ago, just before coming to Singapore, he worked 46 hours straight at the now-defunct Patterson's restaurant in London, preparing food for 200 people.

The 29-year-old said: "As I sank into a chair for a rest, chef Raymond Patterson said to me, 'You know, Kirk, just never give up'. He was still on his feet and settling some paperwork. I saw the dedication in him and those words just stayed with me."

Passion and perseverance has indeed paid off for him.

Two weeks ago, he beat nine other chefs to be crowned the South-east Asian regional winner of the San Pellegrino Young Chef 2015 semi-finals.

The dish he cooked, called Forest Pigeon, was thought up while applying for the competition online last November. The pigeon is stuffed with thyme, bay leaves and garlic and cooked sous vide.

He also used vegetables not commonly seen, including crosnes, a kind of tuber, and served the dish with black truffle and barley risotto.

The Briton was born in Exmouth, a seaside town in East Devon. His mother, 65, is retired, while his father has died. He has two older sisters, aged 31 and 33, who work as a psychologist and a part-time social worker respectively.

He is currently the sous chef of Jaan in Swissotel The Stamford, which serves modern French cuisine.

Chef Westaway has also worked in two-Michelin-starred French restaurant The Greenhouse in London, which was where he met Jaan's current head chef, Julien Royer and was then invited to come on board.

In addition, he has worked at D.O.M., a restaurant in Sao Paulo which serves Brazilian cuisine.

How did you get into cooking?

At 13, I worked in a restaurant in Exmouth as a dishwasher and cook for nine months, seven days a week. It was next to a big holiday park and customers came by the hundreds for lunch.

It was inspiring to watch the chefs banter with one another and still stay focused on their work. We'd start work at eight in the morning and finish at 1am.

Some people left after a week because of the long hours, but I loved the continual buzz of the place and stayed on. What was the first dish you cooked?

A roast dinner for my family - with roast beef, potatoes, a combination of vegetables and Yorkshire pudding. I cooked it when I was 11.

Did your family inspire you to be a cook?

Absolutely. My mother is a very good cook. My favourite memory of her was her cooking a rainbow trout with bread for supper, just before she went vegetarian. She just was not fond of the hormones in meat anymore.

My family had three gardens where we grew fruits like berries and apples, as well as vegetables like carrots, potatoes and turnips. We would eat or cook the produce. As a kid, I did gardening too.

What was your worst kitchen disaster?

When I was 16 or 17, I boiled 2 litres of milk at the coffee machine for my colleagues in a restaurant and turned the steam on full instead of turning it off.

All the milk bubbled over, my hand swelled to twice its size and I had blisters on every finger.

I had to go to hospital and keep my hand in a plastic bag for two weeks. I took one to two months to recover.

What are your favourite ingredients to work with and why?

Vegetables as well as quality produce from small farms, where more care is invested in the crops grown, rather than big farms which might be focused on quick growth and sales.

In particular, I like the beef and pork from Devon.

What are three ingredients you cannot do without?

Fleur de sel, or French sea salt - it brings out the flavours of most dishes and also helps to balance them. Butter from Devon is a great cooking aid, not just for making foods richer, but also for browning them and heightening their flavours.

Finally, potatoes, as they are very versatile and easy to cook if you're in a rush. I like to roast them.

Who are some chefs who have inspired you and how have they done so?

Chef Raymond Patterson taught me a great deal about discipline. He's the most hardworking man I've ever met and such passion and pride come through in his cooking.

I liked how Antonin Bonnet, the former head chef at The Greenhouse, chatted with us every morning. Chef Julien Royer has a way of speaking to staff in an aggressive yet firm manner.

How is working at Jaan different from the other restaurants you've worked at?

As Jaan is in a hotel, I see new customers every day. Fish and vegetables from countries like France and Spain also take three to four days to arrive. I work around it by preparing food in advance.

What restaurants do you like here?

I like the Esquina Tapas Bar in Jiak Chuan Road for its good service and cauliflower and scallop dishes. Also, I like Burnt Ends Singapore in Teck Lim Road for the leek with white truffle and hazelnut - it tastes very natural.

Finally, Brasserie Gavroche serves classic French food done well.

Do you like local food and where do you go for it?

My girlfriend, who is Malaysian, introduced me to salted egg yolk crab, which I eat at Robertson Quay. I also like the chicken rice from Sin Swee Kee.

What's always in your fridge and why?

Organic eggs and ham as well as lemons. Every morning, I drink juice squeezed from half a lemon, mixed with a glass of water. I've not fallen sick for a year since I started doing so.

If you could pick someone to have a meal with, who would you choose?

It would be with all the chefs I've worked with around the world. Chefs are so busy and thus difficult to get hold of.

What would your last meal be?

Something simple and homely, like a cottage pie, meat with potatoes and gravy, and a pint of ale or Guinness beer.

sarahgyx@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Feb 15, 2015.
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