May 17, 2009
Steady Han in kitchen
Michael Han has a successful restaurant and renowned chefs as his pals - not bad for someone with no culinary training
By Fiona Low
Chef Michael Han might have a master's degree in law, but by the time he was halfway through the first year of law studies at Bristol University in England, he already knew he did not want a legal career.
'It was okay, but sitting in a cubicle from nine to five wasn't something I wanted to do,' he explains.
The Singaporean now runs a modern European restaurant, FiftyThree, in Armenian Street.
The restaurant is a joint venture between him and the Les Amis restaurant group. Despite opening its doors only last January, it has already garnered rave reviews for its food.
The turning point for the 31-year-old chef came when he first dined at the three-Michelin-starred restaurant, The Fat Duck, in England during his university days.
'I was blown away by the meal and it was a life-changing experience,' he says. 'Once I was exposed to the wonderful world of gastronomy, I was immediately consumed by it.'
That meal in 2000 left such a big impression on him that he e-mailed the owner, Heston Blumenthal, for a job several years later.
A four-month stint there in 2006 was the beginning of a life in the culinary arts for Han, who has since worked in other renowned restaurants including Michelin-starred restaurants Mugaritz in Spain and Noma in Denmark, among several others.
Despite having no formal training at a culinary school, he believes that this was something he was meant to do.
'Formal training gives you the theories, but ultimately being a chef is about the practical work,' he says. 'If you have it, you have it.'
The soft-spoken chef says he has been interested in food and cooking since he was 10.
'We had a domestic helper from Penang and I used to help her in the kitchen with tasks such as picking the roots of beansprouts and cutting chilli,' he says.
However, the younger son of a banker father and an administrator mother faced harsh opposition from his parents when he told them he wanted to carve a career as a chef.
'They said I could do whatever I wanted, anything but cook,' he says, adding that they did not think it was fitting for a university graduate to work in a kitchen.
These days, however, with a successful restaurant under his belt, his retiree parents seem to have warmed up a little more to the notion. 'They see now that it's more than a pipe dream and they've relented.'
Some people would say that you had an easy journey to helming your own restaurant. You have no formal training but managed to find backers to open your own place. What do you say to them?
Having a restaurant is far more challenging than most people can imagine. It might seem fun and the 'in' thing to do, but this is not the case for me.
FiftyThree has taken me a year to set up, sourcing for everything from the right ingredients to the furniture.
I have been fortunate to have a supportive partner in the Les Amis Group. But this is just the beginning of a very long journey and an undoubtedly difficult one.
What are some of the challenges chefs in Singapore face?
It is every chef's dream to be able to cook with quality produce but it is very difficult to get that in Singapore. The draconian import regulations and the lack of an agriculture industry worsen the situation.
What inspires you to constantly come up with new creations?
It can be anything. Nature, eating, being in the kitchen and cooking, discovering new ingredients, flavours and textures all inspire me.
You have an interesting team backing you in the kitchen. How critical are they to the success of the restaurant?
Each person is highly valued and without each of them, the restaurant would not have its character and personality.
I worked with some of the chefs when I was in Europe and we became friends. Chefs Sam Fahey-Burke and Leandros Stagogiannis worked with me at The Fat Duck, while I met Chef Cory Campbell in Noma.
They have moved here to help me achieve my dream, as well as to experience Asia for themselves and I am very fortunate to have them here.
Do you make an effort to tailor your cuisine style to suit the Singaporean palate?
Yes and no. Singaporeans enjoy eating pasta. This is not common in restaurants in Europe with the exception of Italian ones. But at FiftyThree, we occasionally add pasta to the menu to satisfy this demand.
Having said that, there are principles we don't want to break. The dishes we serve reflect what we as a team think is good food and would like our guests to try.
What is your favourite local dish?
I have two - Hainanese chicken rice and wonton noodles.
I like Tian Tian Chicken Rice in Maxwell Road but I rarely eat there because I don't have the time.
I also like the wonton noodles at a stall called Fei Fei in Joo Chiat. I've been eating there since I was a child and I like that the noodles are very chewy. The chilli is good too.
What is always in your refrigerator?
Orange juice and soy milk.
What is the most memorable meal you have ever had?
That would either have to be my first meal at The Fat Duck or a meal I had in Vietnam.
During my first meal at The Fat Duck, I had crab biscuits, sweetbreads with hay and bacon and egg ice cream. The great food there made it very memorable.
Also, eating by the roadside amid all the fumes in Ho Chi Minh City last year was memorable not just for the food but also the company I had.
I was eating with my girlfriend at that time and we had banh xeo, a Vietnamese pancake stuffed with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts.
What is your signature dish?
I believe that it is our guests who decide what our signature dishes are and that can change over time.
At this point of time, one of our more popular dishes would be our Potatoes And Duckweed With Coffee And Parmesan (above).
The inspiration behind this dish is nature itself. The potatoes are completely infused with an earthy roasted flavour. The taste aims to evoke a walk through the forest.
WHAT WILL YOUR LAST MEAL BE?
Anything cooked by my family's maid, who was with us from the time I was one until I was 28. She was a great cook and I loved her Penang laksa and braised chicken stuffed with cabbage. She also made great otah and soy milk, both from scratch.