June 7, 2009
Feast for the family
Meals with loved ones are why Travis Masiero wanted to become a chef
By Fiona Low
Big steaming roasts, laughter, warmth and family all made Travis Masiero fall in love with food.
'Food meant a great time,' says the 30-year-old chef who grew up in New England in the United States, the second of three sons. 'My family loved food, eating and drinking. Through them, I grew to appreciate all that.'
Today, the American is the co-owner of Spruce, a three-month-old restaurant nestled in Phoenix Park, just off Tanglin Road. The charmingly rustic restaurant serves mid-priced Western fare.
'I was very fortunate that I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a chef,' he says. 'So from then on I was always headed in that direction.'
He started his training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, at the age of 17, after winning the National Culinary Competition organised by Skills USA, a non-profit organisation aimed at preparing high school and college students for future vocations.
He graduated with an associate degree in culinary arts from the institute and went on to the prestigious Cornell University Hotel School, graduating in 2003 with a bachelor's degree in hospitality management.
He has also worked at the oneMichelin-starred Hotel Konigshof in Germany and Clio Restaurant in Boston. Clio was voted one of Boston's 25 Best Restaurants in 2005 by Boston Magazine.
He came to Singapore in 2005 when a mutual friend introduced him to Devin Kimble, founder of Wine Garage, and helmed the kitchen of the wine bar at Riverside Point for three years. He liked it here and decided to stay on.
'There are so many great things about Singapore and as a food city, there is hardly anywhere in the world that can match it,' he says. 'The passion that people here have for food is amazing.'
When the opportunity came to open his own restaurant here with a partner, he jumped at it. Hence Spruce, which is named after a coniferous evergreen tree indigenous to his hometown, was born last March.
'We both wanted a casually sophisticated neighbourhood cafe that would serve great food with warm and welcoming hospitality,' he says.
Chef Masiero is married to massage therapist Erika, 30, and they have a three-month-old son, Lucas.
What is the concept behind Spruce?
Honest food, sincere hospitality, great ambience and real value. That's it. We really try and hit each element and always ask ourselves: 'Is it the best that it can be?' If not, we continue to refine it until we get it right.
The food is an assemblage of my travels and time in Europe as well as a reference to my humble American roots.
Do you like Singaporean cuisine?
I love it! I think it is important to try the local food in a country to really get a sense of the essence of a place. I have come to be a great fan of local food and I have a few choice spots.
The Hokkien mee from Thye Hong at Newton Circus and the chicken rice from Wee Nam Kee are my favourites. I eat these about twice a month.
But the one thing I will not try here is fermented beancurd. There is absolutely no way I can eat it. The smell alone knocks me out.
What is your one pet peeve about Singaporean diners?
The only thing I wish people would practise more here, and this goes for expatriates as well, is tipping. Service is an essential part of a great restaurant, and if you feel like the service has been exemplary, it is always appreciated if you leave a little extra for the staff.
What is the most essential item in your kitchen?
Salt, hands down. If you use it in moderation, it brings out the flavour of every ingredient and makes them taste better. I use a medium-grind sea salt as opposed to table salt, for its natural taste.
What is your philosophy when it comes to cooking and food?
Keep it simple and focus on the ingredients and technique. The better the ingredients, the better the final dish. Of course, technique is important as well.
What was the first dish you cooked?
Chicken Parmesan, which is a very American dish of breaded chicken breast topped with cheese and tomato sauce. It's simple to prepare and even though I was only nine years old at the time, it turned out fantastic.
What is your signature dish?
The Spruce Burger. It is a labour of love. The bun has to be the right thickness to absorb the juices from the burger and just soft enough so it can be chewed easily. Even its size has to be right to get a good ratio of bread to patty.
We use beef chuck for the patty and the meat is ground on-site every day so it does not lose its flavour. We handmake our pickles and cut every last potato for our fries by hand.
What has been the most important lesson you've learnt as a chef?
To be humble and never take anything for granted. You must never forget that the guest is the most important person to your success.
I believe that a chef must not cook with his ego. He must cook food that people will crave and come back for.
WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?
It would be with my family, lingering over bottles of wine and great food at my favourite pizzeria, Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, Arizona. I would have a simple meal of pizza marinara with a good Amarone wine from Italy.