Wacky tales from the kitchen

SINGAPORE - People who buy chef Bjorn Shen's cookbook, called Artichoke like his restaurant, will get much more than recipes.

Even if they have not met him, his wacky personality comes through and he tells readers candid, no-holds-barred stories about life in a restaurant kitchen. It is no accident that the tagline of the book is Recipes & Stories From Singapore's Most Rebellious Kitchen.

Other chefs in Singapore have written cookbooks, but few are restaurant-centric. This is set to change with Artichoke, as Singapore follows a worldwide trend where celebrity chefs such as the Roca brothers from El Celler de Can Roca, Heston Blumenthal and Daniel Boulud have produced cookbooks on their establishments.

Shen's 272-page cookbook, published by local publisher Epigram Books, launches on Saturday at Books Kinokuniya at Ngee Ann City, and he will be there to meet readers.

The recipes are not sorted in neat categories of meat, fish and desserts. Instead, they flow chronologically, like the chapters of the book.

The book starts with the restaurant's opening in 2010 at 161 Middle Road, to its progression and the chef's overseas travels to represent Singapore at food events.

For example, there is a fish and mussel chowder recipe in the first chapter, titled The Little Place With No Signboard, as it was one of the dishes served in Artichoke's early days.

The Breakfast Smash-Up recipe, made up of hash browns, scrambled eggs, and bacon, comes in the chapter on Staff Meals because that is what the restaurant's hungry staff chow down after a hectic brunch service.

Shen, 32, says: "The book tracks the life of the restaurant and we even included old photos to keep everything authentic. Think of it as a storybook- oriented cookbook, where the stories are substantiated by the recipes."

His reckless creativity is showcased in some of his crazy spins on dishes that he jokes are "intellectually inferior".

These include recipes for Oreo pancakes (Oreos dunked in pancake batter then fried), youtiao hotdog (where the fried dough fritter replaces the hotdog bun), Mamee salad (made with Mamee noodle snack), and char siew bao grilled cheese sandwiches (which he calls a "so-bad-it's-good idea" in the book).

The recipes also come with wacky anecdotes about how the dishes came about.

Shen, who insists that the recipes are doable at home, says: "Our recipes are accurate. So if you want to copy us and open another Artichoke, we're gone. But no one's stupid enough to do that."

He also talks about the reality of running the restaurant, warts and all.

There is a chapter called Cuts & Burns, where he asked fellow chefs to send him photos of their own kitchen battle scars. This is followed by recipes which "involve high bodily risk", including one for Sizzling Prawns with green harissa cream, fried onions and coriander. The tiger prawns spit like crazy, to put it politely, while cooking.

Shen's favourite chapter, Every Day I Die A Little, is about running a restaurant and in it, he "sums up my frustrations", which include having no rest days, not being able to go to the restroom because of constant interruptions and dealing with daily disasters. "Not everyone gets it," he says. "So this chapter is to shut them up."

Similarly, the chapter titled What's So Difficult About That highlights difficult customer requests. To this, he gives his responses - both professional and "what we really wanna say as human beings".

With the constant interruptions at work, he took a week off to write the book, holing himself up in a hotel in the Gold Coast of Australia.

Because he "thinks faster than he writes", he spoke into a recorder before transcribing his words, and that is why the book has a real, candid tone.

Heaving a sigh of relief now that the book has been published, the busy chef has many other things on his plate.

In November, he is getting married to Ms Roxanne Toh, 30, owner of Artichoke's sister bakery Overdoughs. He is also hoping to open another restaurant next year.

Turning serious during the interview with SundayLife!, he calls the book an "underdog story".

He says: "When Artichoke first opened, we ate s*** for two years before the recognition started. My staff would have friends working for many fine dining restaurants, and they would be like, 'You're working at where? Artichoke?'

"Now, everyone's proud. They can show this book to their friends working at those restaurants, half of which are not even around anymore."

euniceq@sph.com.sg

Artichoke: Recipes & Stories From Singapore's Most Rebellious Kitchen ($48.04) will be launched on Saturday at Books Kinokuniya. It will also be available at Times Bookstores, and currently retails at Artichoke, 161 Middle Road.

"Our recipes are accurate. So if you want to copy us and open another Artichoke, we're gone. But no one's stupid enough to do that."

- Bjorn Shen, chef of Artichoke


This article was first published on September 21, 2014.
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