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Chef Justin Quek: To be a good chef, go outside the kitchen

Chef Justin Quek: To be a good chef, go outside the kitchen

In more ways than one, it’s clear that Chef Justin Quek is fiercely proud of his Singaporean roots. Back in the 1990s, he was the first Singaporean to be the personal chef to the French ambassador in Singapore. “All the chefs before that were French,” he muses, “In fact, the ambassador thought I was French too, but I said, ‘No, I’m Singapore born and bred!’”

Despite being French-trained, Chef Justin’s latest restaurant concept, CHINOISERIE Modern Asian by Justin Quek, also pays tribute to his roots. Think haute cuisine with dishes such as Truffled Foie Gras Xiao Long Bao and King Prawns Sambal Capellini. As we’re seated in his restaurant, he shares that “Chinoiserie” refers to a decorative style in Western art that is characterized by the use of Asian motifs. Gesturing to everything around us, he beams, “It suits my cuisine. It’s a harmony.”

To say that Chef Justin had humble beginnings would be an understatement. “I started as a seaman. Back then, I had no experience, no education, so the only thing I could do was to join the merchant ship.” He didn’t even start out in the kitchen – he cleaned alleyways and handled generic chores, and only had the chance to enter the kitchen after some time. His words are unembellished and there is no arrogance in his voice, only a grounded, quiet earnestness: “The moment I stepped into the kitchen, I liked it, and I wanted to learn. That’s how I started my career.”

Interviewer: There are many amazing chefs out there, but what does it mean to be a good Singaporean chef?

Chef Justin: The Singaporean palate is very versatile. We’ve created our own kind of dining culture. Yes, we’ve adapted from the Italians, the French… but we’re different.

The Europeans are good at fine dining – their culture and traditions are rooted in fine dining – whereas here in Asia, we’re more about street food and communal dining. We don’t have the culture to frequent fine dining restaurants, and a lot of people aren’t exposed to that kind of dining spirit.

I think that’s what spurred many Singaporean chefs today to create their own style of dining, which is why you see a lot of unique fusion restaurants these days. A good Singaporean chef has to go according to the needs of the market, especially since our market is small.

I: Personally, do you have a proudest moment as a chef?

J: Definitely! My career is driven by passion. My proudest moment would be cooking for the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew for the last 21 years of his life. It was a great honour.

I was the first Singaporean to be the personal chef for the French ambassador in Singapore. While cooking at the French Embassy, one of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s sons tried my food, and invited me to cook for Mr. Lee’s birthday. Mr Lee tasted my food once, and subsequently invited me to cook in the Istana. I’ve cooked for people like Bill Gates, Jiang Ze Min, and many many more! And, most significantly, every year on Mr. Lee’s birthday, I’ll cook for him.

I: Outside of the kitchen, do good chefs need to be adventurous eaters as well?

J: Yes – to be a good chef, you must eat enough. If you don’t invest in your eating and compare notes with other chefs, how can you know if your food is better than others’?

More than that, a chef needs to be many other things outside of the kitchen. It’s a very tall order, but a lot of people don’t know that. You’ve got to go sourcing in the markets first thing in the morning. I’ve been cooking for 35 years, and I still go to the market almost every day. It’s only after sourcing your products that you can plan your menu so that it’s well thought out. Do you steam, pan fry, roast, barbecue, or smoke? What kind of clients are you targeting, and what kind of cuisine do you want to serve?

Costing is another issue – you basically have to be an accountant to make sure you’re making money. You could buy a luxury product at a low cost, and that’d be value for money; but the tricky part is that the cheapest products sometimes just aren’t good enough.

So, a chef is a lot of things.

I: Has there been any particularly memorable dining experience that has influenced your cooking?

J: When I travel to different countries, I like to visit their markets. European markets really inspire me – my favourite has got to be San Sebastián in Spain, since seafood is as fresh as it gets in coastal cities like these. And when I go to these markets, I get to see how the people live, and ideas sprout from there.

People give me inspiration, too. When you’re eating at a restaurant, you’re here to worship them; to thank them for the good food. And, good or bad, it’s an experience either way. That’s why it’s always interesting to travel and to eat, to experience something new.

For a chef, experiences like these are a lot like people going to see a theatre show, or, say, a play in London’s West End. You’ve got to be there to experience it.

I: You also mentioned the many hats that a chef has to wear. What’s a day in your life as a chef like?

J: When you’re a chef, you’re working for someone. It’s different from being a chef-owner – a chef-owner is in charge of everything, even procuring the furniture in the restaurant. The napkins here at CHINOISERIE are Italian – they’ve got a different touch and feel. The chinaware adds to the fine dining experience. Even the bonsais on each table are specially custom-grown for me.

After sourcing my products in the morning, it’s all about sharing my concept with my team. A restaurant is a team business, and I’m nobody without my kitchen team.

That said, it’s very hard to hire good people in the F&B industry, and equally hard to get them to understand what you want to achieve. And understanding is best achieved by showing – showing them that you can cook; showing them your concept; showing them your direction – and inspiring them with it.

I: Seeing that it’s so important to have a cohesive team running the kitchen, what would you say your leadership style is?

J: I believe in giving people chances. When I started my career, I wasn’t qualified, but someone fought for me and gave me a chance. And because of that, I made it. I’ll never forget that. So, I’ll always give my team chances to prove themselves. When they don’t know something, I’ll teach them; when they need direction, I’ll guide them.

I’m also a very logical and upfront leader. If something isn’t good, I’ll tell them that it isn’t good. That’s how they can learn from it and correct themselves. That said, chefs are very sensitive, and we all have our own ways of cooking. It’s important to be open to each other. If your method is better, we’ll follow yours; if mine’s better, we’ll follow mine.

Respectful communication is important, too. I can bang and shout, but it’s because of the work, not because of the employees themselves. If it’s because of them, then they’ll be out of the job! When I scold someone, it’s not because I don’t like them, but because they did a bad job, and I want to bring out their potential. On the flipside, when they do a good job, I’ll make sure that they’re rewarded.

I: To end off, do you have any advice to aspiring chefs – especially Singaporean chefs?

J: What’s most important as a chef is your foundation. Only with a strong foundation can you continue to build things up. You can’t be a chef in one year – it took me 10 years of training before I could even be a cook! Learn first, build a foundation, and go from there.

Bear in mind that building a foundation, and everything that comes after, takes time. Singapore’s F&B scene is not an easy market to break into, and it’ll take time to build up your restaurant business here. I normally set 3- to 5-year goals. Any shorter – say, a year – is just, well, too short.

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