Monday, June 8, 2009

BTO: Kitchen sessions

Business Times - 06 Jun 2009

Kitchen sessions

Ever wished you could have the undivided attention of the chef? Get up close and personal to chefs like Sam Leong and Eric Teo as they re-define the chef's table dining concept. By Jaime Ee

Sam Leong

My Humble House 

8 Raffles Ave, #02-27 

Esplanade Mall 

Tel 6423-1881

SAM Leong is a busy man, but it doesn't mean that all his hours are spent cooking up a storm in any of the Tung Lok Group's restaurants. As director of kitchens, he's kept on his toes ensuring consistent quality standards in the group, while overseeing its overseas restaurant ventures in cities like Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai and New Delhi. Not to mention his numerous TV appearances, guest chef stints and generally, living the harried life of a celebrity chef.

But sometimes a chef just wants to get more hands-on with his craft, which is why chef Leong has just launched a chef's table at My Humble House where he personally cooks for a party of six to 13 people for lunch or dinner, by advanced booking only.

Priced at $125++ per person (food only), diners get to sit in the restaurant's private dining room right next to the glass walled kitchen so they can watch Chef Leong prepping, cooking and plating each of the nine to 12 course menus that they can customise according to their needs.

'The idea is to give people an opportunity to appreciate fine, modern Chinese cooking the way that Sam has developed it over the years,' says Ricky Ng, Tung Lok's executive vice-president. 'It's also a chance for guests to watch him work and also to interact with him on a more personal basis.'

The chef's table is still fairly rare in the local dining scene although it's more common in top restaurants in Europe or the US where diners with some 'connections' are able to snag a table right next to the kitchen where they can watch the chefs prepare their meal. But forget about getting the chef - usually a Michelin-starred or celebrity chef - to come by and chat at length, not when he has to worry about the meal service for the entire restaurant. Apart from the novelty, dining at a chef's table isn't always comfortable - it's warm and noisy, although the buzz and excitement of being so close to the action makes it a literally hot table to be at.

At My Humble House, though, there's none of that. The kitchen is sealed off so you won't hear any cussing or pot banging - not that the quiet and efficient chefs in there are prone to any of that. Chef Leong works quietly and efficiently within, sending out the dishes, coming out to serve the last dish of a barley-rice porridge pimped up with slices of lobster sashimi that's comfortingly decadent.

The private room itself is a great venue for small parties as it can be dressed up to suit the occasion. A well-thought out selection of wines (displayed in the wine storage wall along one side of the room) lets you pair your food with good-value wines.

Indeed, Chef Leong's cooking - Chinese at heart but modern in approach - is well-suited for wine pairing, and the staff do well in picking a choice Riesling to go with the rich braised shark's fin in brown sauce with firm steamed crab claw served with a demitasse of intense morel consomme. Or a fruity red to perfectly match a crisp-tender fried kurobuta pork rib served with a red berry sauce and braised eggplant.

'All the dishes are new,' says Chef Leong. And they are reserved only for guests who book this exclusive menu. Highlights include fresh momotaro tomato marinated in a wasabi-soya oil and konbu dressing, fresh crabmeat filled rice paper rolls with avocado salsa, and poached white asparagus with Spanish ham.

With only one table to look after, Chef Leong even handpicks the fruit that's served at the end of the meal - ripe juicy quincy melon, sweet mangoes, lychees or crunchy persimmon. 'You can get good fruit in Singapore but you have to know when it's in the best condition to be served,' he says. It's something he picked up in Japan where he was inspired by the way fruits were always sold in peak condition.

Of course, if you want tips on fruit-buying, cooking or just want to enjoy the chef's company - just like the group of women who have already booked him a few times - Chef Leong is happy to oblige. Who knows, this could be the start of a new dining trend.

Eric Teo

Dolce Vita 

Mandarin Oriental Singapore 

5 Raffles Avenue 

Tel 6885-3551

ERIC Teo probably couldn't decide whether he wanted to cook or be a comedian when he was charting his career path, and finally decided to be a funny chef.

As it turns out, the executive chef of the Mandarin Oriental Singapore has parlayed his penchant for wisecracks into a part-time TV career as an actor and most recently on Channel 8's cooking and reality shows like Star Chef and Buzzing Cashier, where well-known chefs help struggling hawkers to rework their recipes and rebuild their businesses.

What with him juggling responsibility for the hotel's restaurant operations and his role as president of the Singapore Chefs Association, Chef Teo hardly gets behind the stove to cook for paying customers. That doesn't stop regular guests from occasionally asking him to whip up a favourite or two for them, which he's happy to oblige when he can. For this month at least, you can catch him - albeit fleetingly - at Dolce Vita restaurant where's he's signed up to personally helm a chef's table for two Friday dinners.

The chef's table idea was spurred by a recent sell-out event - a molecular tapas promotion by Mandarin Oriental Tokyo's chef Jeff Ramsey - which prompted the Singapore hotel to make better use of the bar-dining concept at Dolce Vita restaurant.

'We got comments from guests that it was a good way of using the space,' says Kelly Tan, public relations manager. The pool-side Mediterranean eatery boasts a circular counter that seats eight people, facing an open kitchen where orders are prepared for diners in the main dining room. So, while the hotel's top management were brainstorming on how best to use the bar area, the idea dawned: why not introduce a bar-dining concept where Chef Teo and his executive sous chef Mario Corti - himself a Michelin star import from Germany - take turns to cook exclusive dinners for parties of eight?

Bingo - and already the first two instalments of the hotel's Friday-only dinners for eight at $1200++ have been booked up. The first one took place yesterday with Chef Corti and he will cook again next Friday, while his boss Chef Teo takes the June 19 and 25 slots. Only bookings of eight people will be accepted so if you're taking clients out for dinner or if you're hosting a small dinner party, this would make for a dinner with a bit more flourish than the usual restaurant reservation. Right now, the plan is only to offer the chef's table for the month of June, although if demand is strong, they will think about extending it.

'We think there's a market for unique dining concepts,' says Chef Teo. 'Guests always like it when the chef pays full attention to them and we get to interact with them too.' There's no shortage of interaction for sure with the effervescent Chef Teo, especially when his cheerful demeanour and his keen comic timing make a meal with him more like dinner theatre.

Still, there's no funny business involved when he's cooking, and budding home chefs can pick his brains on anything from the right way to cook a steak to the best kind of chopping boards to buy. In between, he serves up a luxurious five or six course meal including scallop sashimi with clear jelly cubes made with mineral water and lime vinaigrette; seared tender Alaskan king crab leg with smooth carrot puree; richly satisfying foie gras and shredded roast duck nestled in a crispy baked filo pastry boat; poached salmon in heady saffron-scented broth and a classic seared wagyu tenderloin.

Dessert is a multi-chocolate extravaganza created by executive pastry chef Ruben Jan Adriaan. The Pierre Hermes alumnus is an award-winner himself, most recently as part of the Singapore Pastry Alliance Team which won the top pastry awards at the Hong Kong International Culinary Classics last month.

At $1200++ for eight, it works out to $150++ per person - which isn't exhorbitant once you work in the high end ingredients and the personalised chef service. Chef Teo may be a funny man, but when it comes to giving value for money, he's pretty darn serious.

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