Foodie Confidential

Chef to Olympians

Chef Elson Cheong single-handedly cooked up to 50 servings of food every meal for the Singapore team at the Rio Olympics

Chef Elson Cheong, 38, is one busy man.

After returning from the Rio Olympics as the chef who single- handedly cooked for Singapore athletes, their parents, coaches and team managers, he has been busy with meal preparations for the Formula One race weekend, which ends tonight.

The executive sous chef of Pan Pacific Singapore led his culinary team to victory in July in the Formula One TrackChef Culinary Competition, when they were crowned overall winners and won two other awards - Best Friday Menu and Best Sunday Menu.

These winning menus are served to guests at the hospitality suites during the race weekend.

One of the highlights from his team is a crispy crab cake topped with caviar and yuzu pearls that oozes molten salted egg yolk when cut into.

"Diners are supposed to go 'wow' when they try this dish," says the affable chef, who believes in being inventive with his culinary creations without compromising on flavour.

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

    My mother's braised pork belly with red fermented beancurd. She marinates the pork with garlic, chilli and spices such as cinnamon, star anise and cloves. The result is very tender meat and a very fragrant dish.

A case in point? His durian fried rice, with seafood, peas and sambal belacan.

It sounds like an odd combination of ingredients that is unlikely to work, but he executes the dish well.

"Durian flesh is very sensitive, so if you subject it to high heat, the entire dish will look off-colour," he says.

The dish tastes just like fried rice at first, then the sweetness of the durian comes through.

Married with the slightly salty and spicy sambal belacan, durian fried rice is a surprisingly melodious medley of flavours.

His version of the dish is inspired by his first mentor, chef Tony Chin, whom he has known since he was 20.

Chef Cheong worked under him as a kitchen assistant for eight months at a now-defunct hotel, where he learnt how to prepare and cook local dishes.

After that, he joined The Westin Singapore as a cook and subsequently worked his way up the ranks in different hotels here and abroad.

Some of his career highlights include being the head chef of a private restaurant in Mauritius and being a part of the opening team for hotels in China, Macau and Malaysia.

His title may have changed over time, but his cooking principles have not. He believes in being patient and focused.

"I always tell my team to concentrate on the taste, texture and colour of the food as they cook. They must also use their heart to cook," he says.

"No dish can be rushed."

While many chefs do not cook on their days off, he makes it a point to cook for his wife, a 38-year-old housewife, and their two children - a six-year-old boy and a 10-month- old girl.

"I believe in preparing home- cooked meals to encourage my children to dine at home in the future," he says.

How did you learn to cook?

I learnt by watching my mother prepare meals at home for my four older siblings and me. I grew up eating her dishes, such as steamed minced meat with preserved vegetables and steamed fish.

Is your mother your greatest culinary inspiration then?

Yes, but so is one of my older brothers, who is 12 years older than me and cooks Japanese food in Macau. I learnt a lot of my knife skills from him.

Did you always want to be a chef?

Yes, it has been my ambition since I was 10 years old.

My mother's relatives used to run a kopitiam in my hometown of Selangor, Malaysia, and I helped to prepare food during the school holidays.

I love to eat and I realised that I loved the idea of being able to eat something that I had cooked.

Have there been any dangerous encounters in the course of your work?

In 2008, I was involved in the soft opening of a hotel in Foshan, China, when an earthquake struck Sichuan on my first day of work there.

Although the earthquake was a two-hour plane journey away from where I was, its effects were keenly felt.

Lighting fixtures in the hotel swayed from side to side, cups toppled and cutlery fell off tables.

I was on the 51st storey of the hotel. I gathered all the staff and we ran as fast as we could down the stairs. Thankfully, we were all okay and the hotel was not affected.

What do you prepare for your family's home-cooked meals?

They must always consist of these four dishes - chicken, fish, vegetables and soup. It sounds very traditional, but I was brought up on these.

I like to make pork rib soup with papaya and white fungus, blanched ladies' fingers with just a few drops of light soya sauce, steamed fish with ginger, garlic, coriander, spring onion and sesame oil, and braised chicken with potato and mushrooms.

How were you picked to be the chef for Team Singapore in the Rio Olympics?

Pan Pacific Singapore was the official hotel for the Rugby and Billiards teams at last year's SEA Games and the HSBC World Rugby Singapore Sevens in April this year, so I have had experience preparing meals for athletes.

The hotel has also had good relations with the Singapore Sports Institute for many years. The institute approached Pan Pacific Hotels Group to recommend a chef to prepare meals for the athletes at the Singapore House for the Rio Olympics.

So what was that experience like?

It was a challenging experience as I was the only chef cooking up to 50 servings for each meal.

I had to prepare 11 dishes every day - five for lunch, five for dinner and one dessert - all by myself.

I had brought 40kg of pastes to Rio, but everything else had to be sourced locally.

Many times, I made tweaks to the dishes. For example, I used spaghetti in laksa and angel hair pasta in mee siam.

Did the athletes have any special requests?

Oh yes, they asked me to make dishes such as prawn noodles, nasi lemak and chicken curry.

Olympic gold medallist Joseph Schooling asked me to make chye tow kueh (fried carrot cake) for him the day before he won the gold medal.

He said he wanted it very sweet. I had managed to take dark soya sauce there, but I had no sweet sauce, so I had to make a sugar syrup instead.

I had no rice flour, so I went to the local market to look for it and succeeded in buying that with the help of Google Translate.

I also had no preserved radish, but I managed to find red turnips from the market, which tasted similar.

Is there any memorable dish that you made in Rio?

I made a three-tiered birthday cake using 12kg of watermelon flesh for some of the Singapore athletes celebrating their birthdays there.

So it was literally a fruit cake which I decorated with figs and berries.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 18, 2016, with the headline 'Chef to Olympians'. Print Edition | Subscribe