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Foodie Confidential

Chef Martin Foo's secret weapon: A spreadsheet tracking customers' tastes

Martin Foo keeps an Excel spreadsheet of his customers' dietary preferences

Veteran Singapore chef Martin Foo has a steady following because of one precious document: an Excel spreadsheet that records his long-time customers' dietary preferences.

The 50-year-old executive head chef of modern Chinese restaurant VLV at Clarke Quay says in a mix of Mandarin and English: "People will call and ask, 'Do you remember the fish I ate for my previous meal? I want that fish again, but maybe cooked in a different style.'

"Or they will ask me to plan a different set meal from the one they had before because they are hosting tourist friends. I will then price the meal accordingly because I already know what the person's budget is like."

Mr Foo, who has almost 30 years of experience, cultivated his attention to detail when he started out at Lei Garden at Chijmes in Victoria Street. The then 22-year-old had just finished national service.

After 17 years at Lei Garden, he worked with the TungLok Group for nine years - where he was most recently the senior executive chef at Tong Le Private Dining at OUE Tower in Collyer Quay - before joining VLV. The multi-concept restaurant and lounge opened last September.

On spending many years at just two restaurants, the chef says, "I'm so devoted, right?", and adds that the younger generation now tends to job-hop.

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

    I would like to eat all the delicacies in the world and open manybottles of champagne.

While he was not interested in cooking in his younger days, he helped his sister-in-law when she ran a chicken rice stall at East Coast Lagoon Food Village in the 1980s.

"Chicken rice doesn't taste the same anymore. The texture and flavour of chicken are not the same," he laments.

He is married to a 42-year-old dental laboratory technician. They have an 18-year-old daughter who is studying green building and sustainability at Temasek Polytechnic.

Continuing to rue how the quality of ingredients has deteriorated over the years, Mr Foo says: "Last time, when you opened a pack of Jinhua ham, the whole kitchen would smell so good. Now, it's not as fragrant.

"In the past, I could get Australian lobster at $30 for 1kg. Now, the same amount costs $150 and the quality is not as good.

"Young chefs would not know all this. But we (the veteran chefs) can tell the good quality from the bad and we have the skills to make the ingredient taste just as good."

Still, he has had to roll with the times and learn modern culinary techniques, such as cooking with a sous vide machine.

"Thirty years ago, a dish such as dong po rou (braised pork belly) would be cooked in a wok. Now, we sous vide the meat for 48 hours, although we ensure that the flavours are still Chinese."

But he says that such methods are not necessarily a bane of traditional Chinese cooking. He says: "It's good because, last time, customers who see the fat will be scared and may not want to eat the meat. But when it is sous vide, people can accept it, and the fat and juices are locked in for more flavour."

What are your childhood memories of food?

My late father was a fisherman, so I'd eat fish every day. He would come home with 20kg of fish and we would distribute the extras to our neighbours.

My late mother, a housewife, would use the fish meat and make the best fishballs. Now, all the fishballs you get outside have no fish taste. You just get a lot of flour.

What is your favourite cuisine?

I love Japanese food and my favourite restaurant is the oneMichelin-starred restaurant Shinji by Kanesaka at Raffles Hotel and The St Regis Singapore.

The restaurant was at OUE Tower in 2012, where Tong Le Private Dining is. I loved to watch the chefs at work. We (Chinese chefs) think that storing fish at minus 18 deg C is okay, but they do it at minus 60 deg C to keep the fish even fresher.

Is that why there is a Japanese influence in your dishes at VLV?

Yes, and I like to use bonito. For the steamed egg with crab dish, I mix bonito stock with the egg to enhance the flavours. We also shave dried bonito flakes on top when the dish is served to customers.

At VLV, we don't just pair food with wine, but with sake too.

Based on your experience, what do the different diner demographics like to order?

Businessmen who are in their 50s and 60s are not very adventurous. The younger customers are generally game to try anything. I notice that tourists love to eat meats such as beef and our Peking duck is always a hit.

I don't mind customers who are troublesome. I'd rather they voice their opinions than not say anything and then go online and write a bad review. If you don't say anything, you don't give me a chance.

What do you eat at home?

Just a simple meal with three dishes - fish, prawn and vegetables - and soup. I'm also happy to just eat nasi lemak or plain porridge.

Are you an adventurous diner?

Not really. My most exotic eats would be whale and horse sashimi in Japan. I won't eat bugs.

What's your favourite tipple?

Champagne, so that every day is a celebration.

If you could have a meal with someone dead or alive, who would you pick?

My late parents, as I did not have the chance to treat them to a meal after working my way up as a chef.

They never objected to me being a chef and would worry about me not having enough rest because I would start work early and end late.

What are your thoughts on young chefs?

I'm willing to teach if you are willing to learn. If you work hard, it is possible to make a name for yourself at a young age.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 05, 2017, with the headline 'Chef 's secret ingredient'. Print Edition | Subscribe