In 2019, Kevin Wong won the S. Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Asian regional competition in Tokyo.
The young Malaysian chef went on to clinch third place at the S. Pellegrino Young Chef Academy global finals last year in Milan.
This year, the 29-year-old became the chef-owner of new restaurant Seroja, which opened in Singapore shopping centre Duo Galleria in October.
“The S. Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Competition gives a platform for young chefs to shine,” Wong says. “The judges are some of the best in the world, and clinching the top spots lends credibility to the chefs. It gives them an opportunity to stand out among the sea of bright young chefs.”
The S. Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Award for Asia was held by Wong for three years, before going this year to Singaporean Ian Goh.
Goh cut his teeth in French cuisine at Singapore restaurants Ma Cuisine and Alma by Juan Amador, and at the end of last year became sous chef at Nae:um – which went on to win its first Michelin star this August.
During the S. Pellegrino young chef competition, Goh’s heritage lamb dish impressed the judges in a tightly contested cook-off against nine other Asian participants.
“I was extremely impressed with Ian Goh from the beginning,” says chef Daniel Calvert , of French restaurant Sezanne at the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo At Marunouchi, one of the competition’s judges. “He spoke with conviction, worked cleanly and in an organised manner, whilst demonstrating a wide range of techniques and skills.”
Chef Thitid “Ton” Tassanakajohn of Le Du, Bangkok, who was another of the five-member judge panel, agrees.
“He chose a risky dish with five components of lamb – luckily he pulled it off,” he says, referring to Goh’s offering that comprised a quintet of lamb plates, each cooked using a different Western cooking technique and flavoured with a medley of diverse local spices.
According to chef Ton, Goh worked the station very well – “[His] presentation was beautiful and [his] cooking techniques on point”, he says – but the decisive factor was the young chef’s “personal belief and ability to communicate that to the jury”.
“His dish was also delicious,” says Calvert.
During the competition, each participant was given 15 minutes to present his or her dish to the judges. Although Goh was several minutes late addressing the judges, his presentation struck a chord.
“This dish began with my love for lamb and the hope to highlight my Hainanese heritage,” Goh says, adding that lamb – specifically Dong Shan lamb – has been a long-time staple of Hainanese cuisine.
“I was raised with the mindset that we should know and cultivate our roots – likewise with culinary patrimony,” he says, explaining how his dish showcased variations of lamb encompassing ingredients featured along the Spice Route – the ancient trading route that linked East Asia and Europe – and the classic French techniques he’s learned thus far in his career.
While he already knew what he wanted to present – “the idea itself came naturally to me,” he says – executing the dish correctly was a “whole other challenge”.
Because of his busy schedule at work he practised on rest days, mimicking the competition environment and preparing the required amount of dishes in a specific time frame.
“I could not have asked for a better mentor than chef Louis Han, the chef-owner of Nae:um, considering that he himself competed [in the same competition] in 2016,” he says. Han brought a wealth of experience and knowledge.
“We spent long hours together not only to train physically, but he helped to instil confidence and mental steadfastness in me.”
Goh didn’t only walk away with the 2022-2023 S. Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Award, Asian edition; he was also awarded the supplementary Fine Dining Lovers Food for Thought Award, voted for by the online community.
Still reeling from the shock of winning the top prize, which will see him become one of 26 contestants joining the global finals in Milan next year, Goh praises the “level of technical excellence on display” at the competition – proof that there are many great young chefs in Asia.
Beyond the three key performance criteria of technical skills, creativity and personal belief used to assess the young chefs, Goh says that mental fortitude is key.
“This was [part] of the mental training set forth to me by chef Louis – inside I was a bag of nerves but, as with any open kitchens, the outlook of the chef matters,” he says. “We have to give the guests a sense of calm and peace.”
A practitioner of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Goh says that in any match, mental strength and mind games have a big part to play. “As long as you show your rivals that you’re prepared, half the battle is already won.”
“Always mentally prep yourself by telling yourself that you can make it,” Goh says.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.