'I don't want to be perfect, I want to be exceptional': 26-year-old Singaporean chef competing to be world's youngest champ in culinary 'Olympics'

Monday, May 31, 2021

Mathew Leong is at the top of his game as one of Singapore's most talented young chefs, but his pursuit of culinary excellence resembles a script that's a little more Rocky than Ratatouille.

"If I were to choose a movie to best represent my life, I'd say it's Rocky," said the 26-year-old who's currently based in Oslo, Norway.

Don't be fooled by his boyish good looks and impish smile. Beneath all that lies a steely personality with the grit and drive to achieve his goals. 

At 21, Mathew packed his bags and left for Norway after he was accepted to work at two-starred Michelin restaurant, Renaa. The Shatec graduate wanted the job so badly that he offered to work for free for a month.

Although the restaurant still paid him a basic salary, it wasn't enough to cover rent and the high cost of living in the Scandinavian country, where a McDonald's meal costs $30. Dipping into what little savings he had, Mathew shared a small, poorly-kept apartment with another chef from the restaurant.

His ego prevented him from seeking financial support from his father, a sales and marketing director, and his mum, a homemaker.

"I tried to survive by myself. I didn't want to call home to ask for money," said Mathew, who performed well enough in his job to be promoted after just one month.

"At 21 years old, I was running the fish and meat station alone at a Michelin-starred restaurant," said Mathew proudly. "Usually [at that age] you're back in the kitchen peeling onions or cucumbers," he added. "The chef trusted me so much that he later even flew me back to Singapore to represent his restaurant and cook with him at an event in Sentosa."

After a one-year stint at Renaa, he left to join Michelin Plate restaurant A L'aise in Oslo, where he currently holds the position of head chef.

PHOTO: Mathew Leong

Mathew might have tasted success at a relatively early age, but that's not to say that he hasn't suffered some hard knocks in the kitchen.

"Of course, at the beginning you do s****y jobs. You clean the chiller, wash the pots. We have to do all these to climb up the ladder," said Mathew, who'd worked in many Singapore kitchens such as Tippling Club and Open Farm Community prior to his big move.

Being perceived negatively due to his age also came with the territory.

"I mean, haters are everywhere," said Mathew of brickbats he has faced. "But when your skill is there, nobody can say anything to you."

It helps that Mathew holds himself to a punishing work ethic and is driven by his perfectionistic tendencies.

"In all my jobs, I always do it to my maximum. I will never go home until things are done. So if I have to stay for another eight hours and do OT to get things done, I will get it done before I go."

One may say that he's a sucker for self-punishment, but to Mathew, his continuous desire to improve is what has allowed him to succeed in the kitchens he has worked in.

"For me, getting beaten up (metaphorically) is nothing. If someone is willing to push you and train you, you will never be somebody if you can't take it."

On his criteria when looking for jobs at restaurants, he said: "If I hear that a chef is very nice and that 'I will have a fun time working there', I will never apply for the restaurant."

So his advice to aspiring chefs is, "Accept people’s criticism to make yourself better."

"If that’s what you want to do, bite the bullet and you can do it.”

Started cooking at 13

If he weren't a chef, being a sportsman would have been a natural choice for Mathew, given his self-confessed competitive nature.

At 13, the Pioneer Secondary School student was already searching for a goal in life. He got started in competitive sports — first taekwondo, then swimming — from a young age. But his dad's reminder of how sporting careers are often short-lived got Mathew to think deeper about his future.

Without any prior experience in the kitchen, Mathew entered a school culinary competition when he was in Secondary 1 and took first place. Bolstered by his unexpected win, he joined his second competition soon after, where he met local celebrity chef Jimmy Chok, his very first mentor.

Chok invited the young student to follow him around in his professional kitchen for a day and Mathew left the experience inspired, convinced that he had found his dream career.

For the past decade, Mathew has mostly been focused on one goal — making it to the prestigious Bocuse d'Or culinary competition. Not only that, he hopes to be the youngest chef to win the global competition.

The biennial gastronomic event, described by Mathew as the Olympics of the culinary world, will be held over two days in September this year.

There, 24 chefs from around the world will compete in a five-and-a-half-hour marathon to present 16 plated dishes as well as a platter to be scored by a panel of judges.

Mathew had first heard of Bocuse d'Or — named after the late great French chef Paul Bocuse — in 2009, when the competition was won by Norwegian Geir Skeie at the age of 28.

Mathew resolved then to better that record.

But the journey to the top is a long one with many hoops to go through — first winning the national competition, then placing in the top five at the regional finals before being able to earn a ticket to the grand finals. As the Asian-Pacific competition in Guangzhou was cancelled last year due to the worsening Covid-19 pandemic, the finalists were selected based on their qualifying rankings, and Mathew made the cut.

Entering the competition also requires phenomenally deep pockets.

Mathew estimates that it costs close to half a million dollars just to train for the Bocuse d'Or. That includes the cost of all the food and materials required in the lead-up to the competition. Even a simple platter for the competition can cost an eye-popping $700,000, shared Mathew.

"We need to cook the same dish 200 times and I have my own personal kitchen that's built to look exactly like the kitchen on the day that I compete.

"So on the day that I cook, I can close my eyes and I'll know exactly where every single thing is," said Mathew.

Flavours of the sea: A sample of one of Mathew's creations. PHOTO: Mathew Leong

The money was raised mostly from endorsements and sponsorships, with help from Mathew's boss, Ulrik Jepsen, who is also his coach for the competition. In an interview which the pair gave to a culinary magazine, Ulrik admitted that he was taken aback by Mathew's request to enter the Bocuse d'Or when he had been working at the restaurant for only two months.

Despite his reservations, Ulrik ultimately gave his support to the young man, whom he called "one of the most pertinacious and persistent chefs I have met".

No less than a podium finish

Aligned with his ambitious nature, Mathew is not prepared to settle for less than a podium finish at the competition.

"Being in the top five or top 10 in the world is already a very big achievement, but it's not good enough," said Mathew. The furthest that Singapore has gone in the competition was a bronze placement by chef William Wai in 1989.

For the past three years, Mathew has been living and breathing the Bocuse d'Or, using his off days and whatever free time he has to put into his training. And there is no place for complacency in his test kitchen.

"We had an excellent cookout for the competition and everybody was high-fiving each other, saying 'we're doing a good job'," recounted Mathew of a recent training session.

"But I just raged at them, I said, 'If this is good enough, how about tomorrow? You cannot be happy after just one success. Even if today is good, you need to be even better tomorrow'."

Exasperated, he even told his coach not to tell them whenever they have a good time trial.

Unsurprisingly, with his tough-as-nails demeanour, Mathew has made "an encyclopaedia list" of people, both women and men, cry in the kitchen. But to him, "the strong ones survive". He has faith that he has earned the respect of his staff, who know that he has their best interests at heart. 

"For me, I'll cry at home, but never in the kitchen," confessed the hardened chef who believes that if people are harsh towards him, there must be a good reason for it.

This has been ingrained from childhood, where Mathew used to write down all the mistakes that he'd made during the day and how he could improve.

He doesn't deny that he's his own worst critic, but he explained: "If I want to do something, I will make sure I do it to the best of my ability.

"I don't want to just be perfect, I want to be exceptional in everything. I don't want to be 90 per cent of the people in the world, I want to be the exceptional one. And I think my hard work has paid off in some ways. 

"Whatever goals you have in mind, you will never succeed unless you work hard for it and get the work done."

As for his goal beyond Bocuse d'Or? He hopes to one day be able to open a restaurant of his own, and get his first Michelin star within a year.

Because as he says, "I'm always chasing after something."