May 24, 2009
Food for the soul
Memories are made ofgood food, says National Heritage Board boss Michael Koh
By Fiona Low
A 30-minute ferry ride is nothing to Mr Michael Koh if the journey takes him to lip-smackingly good fish and chips.
About three years ago, the 47-year-old chief executive officer of the National Heritage Board (NHB) took a half- hour-long boat ride from Sydney to Manly Beach while on a family vacation.
'We had a sudden craving for the wonderfully greasy fish and chips there,' he explains.
Of the trouble, he says: 'It was definitely worth it.'
The architecture graduate from the National University of Singapore joined the Board in 2006.
Since then, he has been making waves in the local museum scene with a series of unusual marketing campaigns, including the use of showbusiness personalities such as comedian Mark Lee as ambassadors and introducing museum tours for taxi drivers in Singapore.
'We are always looking for new ways to engage Singaporeans and tourists,' explains the affable CEO. 'The challenge is drawing audiences from our heartlands, especially seniors and young folks.'
The father of two, who holds a master's degree in design studies from Harvard University, was previously the director of urban planning and design at the Urban Redevelopment Authority.
For him, food is more than just about satisfying hunger.
'Food also reminds me of places I have been to or of special occasions in my life,' he says, before launching into a description of the garlic prawns in a white wine sauce that his wife makes.
'That will always bring back memories of being in Boston in 1992, when I did my post-graduate studies and we used to cook on our own.'
Mr Koh lives in Bukit Timah with his wife of more than 15 years, homemaker Lim Chiwen, whom he affectionately calls his home CEO. They have two children - Jessica, nine, and Jonathan, seven.
What is your greatest guilty food indulgence?
A double mushroom Swiss burger with French fries. Even though it is sinfully unhealthy, I enjoy it thoroughly. I do try not to upsize though, so I will not be tempted to eat the extra fries.
What is your favourite local dish?
Carrot cake fried in sweet soy sauce. I like only the black, sticky variety, never the white ones. It reminds me of my childhood, when I would wait expectantly for my mum to return from the market with it on Sunday mornings.
Are you a healthy eater?
I always try to be conscious of what I eat. While I do have a fondness for cheeseburgers and the occasional craving for banana splits, I try to eat healthily - especially since my doctor says I have to lose 5kg to reach my appropriate body-mass index figure.
You have two young children. Are you strict about their diet?
Yes, as responsible parents we have to ensure that they eat right because habits are built from a young age. But we do allow them to have some fun. They enjoy steamed fish, but they do eat chicken nuggets as well.
Is there anything you absolutely will not eat?
Innards. They remind me of biology class and the dissecting we had to do then. That is a huge turn-off for me. I also try not to eat any bushmeat because I believe that we should all do what we can to protect wildlife.
What is the one item that is always in your refrigerator?
My family is really big on fruit, so we always have that in the fridge. We have fruit after every meal. My favourites are peaches and longans.
What is your favourite place to have a meal with your family?
Our garden patio at home. It is surrounded by plants and a frangipani tree and the sound of flowing water from a neighbour's pool. It is great to eat there and kick a football around with my kids after that.
What can you recommend for museum-goers looking for a bite to eat?
I like the hearty portions at Trattoria Lafiandra in the Singapore Art Museum. They serve a huge spaghetti aglio olio with prawns and zucchini (below), and their ravioli in porcini mushroom sauce is really good too.
For haute cuisine, the Novus Restaurant at the National Museum is definitely the place to be. It's a grand experience dining there.
What is your signature dish?
I love making a minced beef and vegetable soup with carrots, potatoes, onions and leek. It was a dish I often had as a child and it's simple to whip up.
WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?
Freshly caught lobster steamed in the small towns of New England. The lobsters are so wonderfully succulent and they always bring back nice memories of my time there with my wife when I was studying and we were newly married.