What Makes a Good Chef Good? Top Chefs in Singapore Share Their Sentiments
Chef Akira Back’s zestful personality makes him as well-loved as his food (image)
On first thought, you might be tempted to call out Chef Akira Back for contradicting himself. He introduces himself as a chef with a boundless sense of adventure; so why is it that the menu at his namesake restaurants Akira Back is the same everywhere, from Toronto to Seoul to Dubai and right here in Singapore’s JW Marriott Hotel Singapore South Beach?
In an interview, he shares, “The main idea is if you can make a really good dish, then that dish works everywhere.” Sameness doesn’t mean being boring – in fact, Chef Akira is anything but. Take for instance his signature Tuna Pizza, wafer-thin slices of raw tuna brushed with a layer of umami ponzu sauce, sat atop a light, nutty tortilla that's been dehydrated for extra crisp. It’s perhaps the one dish that exemplifies his culinary creativity, and it’s a menu star at all of his restaurants internationally.
Neither does sameness mean stubbornness. Don’t ask for mee kia in your Bak Chor Mee at Guan’s Mee Pok. Or, you can try, but chef-owner Eric Chia probably wouldn’t accede to your request. And after you’ve had your first slurp of his Bak Chor Mee, you’ll probably thank him for it. He believes only the thicker, flatter mee pok works best with the dish’s special sauce to bring out its punchy depth of flavour.
Simply said, he knows what works.
Both Chef Akira and Chef Eric exhibit sameness in their own ways, but it all stems from the same reason: They’re worth their salt, and they know it.
For others like Chef Kirk Westaway of Michelin-starred restaurant JAAN, it’s all about telling a story through their food. His philosophy of "Reinventing British" is what drives JAAN’s ever-evolving menu, inspired by his childhood in England to showcase British dining in a refreshing light. Their seasonal menu has seen dishes like Rosemary Smoked Eggs, delicately resting in a bed of nutty ratte potato and sprinkled with chorizo iberico chips, and Saffron Tortelleni, elevated with sweet potato and Fontana cheese.
JAAN’s beautifully plated Saffron Tortelleni (image)
Sounds impressive? There’s more: Chef Kirk’s job doesn’t end in the kitchen. Dining at Jaan is an entire breakaway experience – and Chef Kirk has had a part to play in every littlest element, from the personalisation of bespoke tableware to the woody scent of incense filling the restaurant that’s deliberately reminiscent of home.
"Dining at a restaurant involves the irreplaceable connections forged between the diners, the space, the presentation of dishes, the staff," he shares. It’s apparent, through both his words and the way he runs JAAN, that he sees being able to curate such an experience as the mark of a great chef.
In fact, the job of a chef doesn’t even start in the kitchen, as Chef Justin Quek shares. At his latest restaurant concept, CHINOISERIE Modern Asian by Justin Quek, Chef Justin oversees the entire process – from planning the menu to the point when diners savour their first bite of the food – from start to finish. This means he begins his day sourcing for produce at the market. But because this is a significant cost for restaurants, sourcing not only involves a keen sense of culinary direction, but also business acumen. “You basically have to be an accountant to make sure you’re making money,” he asserts.
The Mark of a Good Chef
There are a lot of ways to succeed as a chef. Some go with tradition, others break tradition in order to rebuild it, while a nouvelle cuisine movement has prompted yet others to bring alive completely new approaches to food. One thing’s for sure: None of these are easy, and requires that chefs wear several hats (not just a toque blanche!) with the fierce resilience and dedication of cook, businessman, procurer, planner and many more roles combined.