Chefs turned food consultants

To revamp or create menus, restaurants are hiring chefs from other eateries to help them inject fresh ideas and perspectives

When rooftop bar Loof at Odeon Towers was looking to refresh its menu earlier this year, it did not look in-house for help, as it did for its two previous menu revamps.

Instead, the 11-year-old bar worked with chef Bjorn Shen, chef-owner of Artichoke in Middle Road, which serves Mediterranean food, and Bird Bird, a fried chicken restaurant in Ann Siang Road, to revamp the menu.

The result: a modern Singapore take on bar grub, with quirky dishes such as bak chor mee grilled cheese sandwich and chilli crab fries.

Mr Wee Teng Wen, 35, managing partner of The Lo & Behold Group, which runs Loof, asked the chef to come onboard as a consultant as he has been impressed by Shen's creative and versatile cooking styles.

What sparked the deal was when Mr Wee tried a Milo-flavoured popsicle from Shen's Neh Neh Pop ice-cream brand.

"This fits with Loof's menu of creating a fun play on Singapore flavours which remind diners of their childhood," he says.

"Bjorn has a tongue-in-cheek personality and unique views of Singapore culture and we want our food and drinks to echo that."

Besides Loof, two other restaurants are also working with homegrown chefs to develop their menus.

Red Tail Bar in Clarke Quay is collaborating with sandwich cafe Park Bench Deli's owner Tan Huang Ming.

And the cafe in Gallery & Co at the National Gallery Singapore has tied up with chef Anthony Yeoh of French restaurant Cocotte in Little India. Both new menus are available now.

These chefs usually work with the restaurants for about a year and their services include developing menus, designing new seasonal dishes and, if needed, setting up the kitchen.

Mr Wee adds that getting a well-known name such as chef Shen to create Loof's menu creates anticipation and excitement among diners.

Gallery & Co hopes that its first menu overhaul can generate the same kind of buzz as a previous collaboration when Chef Yeoh created two French dishes for Gallery & Co's cafe in March this year, to tie in with an exhibition that was co-curated by France's Centre Pompidou.

Ms Amanda Bay, 26, food and beverage manager at Gallery & Co, says of the collaboration: "It creates a refreshing experience for diners, as they may be curious to try his other dishes beyond French food."

Red Tail Bar, Zouk Singapore's first food venture, needed a strong food and beverage concept so it could grow with the nightlife giant's international expansion plans.

It was looking for someone experienced to create a menu which has "a fresh twist to Asian taste".

Mr Benny Heng, 38, Zouk's managing director, says: "With Ming's recent success at Park Bench Deli, we feel that he understands Asian cuisine and the pulse of the local F&B scene.

"He's happy to push the boundaries when it comes to exploring ideas in menu creation."

The slew of collaborations between home-grown chefs and eateries here reflects a growing awareness of and confidence in home-grown culinary talents.

Chef Shen, 34, attributes this to the spillover effect from the SG50 celebrations last year.

He says: "SG50 put the spotlight on all things Singaporean, including home-grown chefs, and this gave us more opportunities, such as doing pop-up events and cooking collaborations."

These menu consultancy projects have given chefs a platform to explore their ideas about other cuisines, which may not be suitable for their own restaurants.

Shen adds: "Much as I love my restaurants, there are only so many food ideas that I can express in there and I don't want to limit myself to just these cuisines."

He sees his maiden consultancy project with Loof as a career milestone.

He says: "Besides being successful in your own right, it is great that your opinion is valued enough for others to engage you."

Chef Yeoh, 34, also sees the consultancy gig as an opportunity to "push his creativity" beyond the rustic French cuisine that he has been cooking for six years.

He says: "I can push myself to use the ideas and inspiration for all sorts of cuisines that I've been keeping in my 'toolbox' whenever I travel."

Chef Tan, 29, says he looks at consultancy projects as learning opportunities, from conceptualising food ideas to planning a kitchen's workflow.

"It is like playing Tetris (a puzzle game) or Lego blocks," he says.

"This fuels a constant exchange of information in the industry, which allows it to grow stronger."

He adds that working with Zouk has also given him insights into the extensive planning that goes on in a large company.

"You get to see how they plan projects with the potential to multiply and with more foresight, and that is something that you don't get to see when running a smaller business."


Junk food made good

CHEF BJORN SHEN AND LOOF

Where: 03-07 Odeon Towers Extension Rooftop, 331 North Bridge Road

Open: 5pm to 1am (Monday to Thursday); 5pm to 2am (Friday and Saturday); closed on Sunday

Info: Call 6337-9416 or go to www.loof.com.sg

When chef Bjorn Shen was living in Australia more than six years ago, he often cooked one of his favourite Singapore dishes, bak chor mee (minced pork noodles).

Once, he ran out of noodles during a "bak chor mee party". So he decided to use the minced pork in grilled cheese sandwiches. He started to use minced pork as a sandwich filling whenever he ran out of noodles.

Today, this food memory has become the B.C.M Grilled Cheese ($18), a sourdough cheese toastie that is stuffed with minced pork and mushrooms. The sandwich is one of about 14 dishes he created for the revamped food menu at the rooftop bar.

He thinks that Loof's home- grown identity is a good match with his quirky brand of "Dude-Sin" (Dude Singaporean) food, which he describes as "bro-friendly elevation of junk food using good cooking techniques".

For Loof, he tapped on his "unique Singapore stories" for inspiration.

The Twisties Charred Corn ($13), a grilled curry mayonnaise corn cob that is topped with shaved cheese, is a throwback to his childhood dilemma of having to choose between cheese or curry-flavoured Twisties, a corn-based snack.

With the exception of the popular Loof Original Ramly burger (beef patty wrapped in a thin omelette), all the skewers, sandwiches and chip bowls on the menu are new.

Beyond bar bites, more filling dishes have also been added. They include Ichiban ($18), fried rice with ebiko, sakura shrimp and edamame, and buns such as The Pork Chopper ($19), which has cream cracker-crusted pork chop and salted vegetable slaw sandwiched between brioche buns.


Traditional food, new look

CHEF ANTHONY YEOH AND GALLERY & CO

Where: 01-05 National Gallery Singapore, City Hall Wing, 1 St Andrew's Road

Open: 11am to 9pm (Sunday to Thursday); 11am till late (Friday and Saturday)

Info: Call 6385-6683 or go to www.facebook.com/GalleryandCo/

After nine months, the food at Gallery & Co's cafe has morphed from dishes with South-east Asian flavours to offerings with a stronger Singapore focus.

Chef Anthony Yeoh says: "The dishes have traditional ingredients that diners are familiar with, but they are presented in interesting and modern ways."

He adds: "This can be linked to the National Gallery Singapore, where modern artworks are housed in a heritage building."

Some of his creations include Crab & Shrimp Fritters ($15), deep fried vegetables, crab meat and prawns cooked with spices such as coriander, cumin and turmeric.

It calls to mind Japanese kakiage (fried vegetable tempura) and Indian pakoras (fried potato and gram flour dumplings).

In Otak Otak Tacos ($17), a slab of fried battered otah is folded into a tortilla with tangy corn salsa and herbs such as laksa and basil leaves.

The menu now comprises appetisers, salads, main courses and desserts, compared to the old one, which featured sandwiches and some main dishes.

To target office workers who work in the vicinity and gallery visitors who want a quick meal, chef Yeoh has come up with mixed grain plates (from $17).

The Spiced Roast Chicken Leg is accompanied with coriander and garlic pesto with fried eggplant salad and the Dry-Rubbed Barramundi is served with kaffir lime aioli and fried eggplant.


Fun Asian sharing plates

CHEF TAN HUANG MING AND RED TAIL BAR

Where: 01-04 Block 3C Clarke Quay, 3C River Valley Road

Open: 6pm to 2am daily

Info: Call 6738-2988 or go to www.redtailbar.com

At this 65-seat Asian-themed restaurant-bar, expect fun contemporary Asian sharing plates that showcase familiar flavours in an unexpected light. The bar is named after the nocturnal red panda that is found in Asia.

Take the umami-rich yun cheong (Chinese liver sausage), for example. Chef Tan Huang Ming uses the preserved sausage, which is usually found in claypot rice, on a pizza ($25) that is also studded with caramelised onions, fried shallots and cheese.

Another dish, Seabass Nori Taco ($29), is an unconventional take on the tacos. Instead of taco shells, a piece of nori is used to wrap a piece of fried Chilean seabass, which sits on a disc-shaped spring onion crepe and is topped with kanpyo, ginger and malt vinegar mayonnaise.

A black century egg is wrapped in minced prawn and kurobuta pork in the Scotch Century Egg ($9).

Paying homage to the popular zi char dish of coffee pork ribs, the Coffee Pork Collar ($18) is tossed in coffee sauce and drizzled with coriander and laksa leaf pesto.

Chef Tan hopes that these dishes reasonate with "young and cosmopolitan foodies" who are keen to expand their food horizons.

He says: "Recently, there has been a palpable sense of pride for local flavours among diners who are looking for a new edge in familiar flavours."

With the space primed as a networking and pre-clubbing drinks spot, the food is designed for sharing and can be paired with about 16 cocktails that are designed by spirits company, Proof & Company.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 25, 2016, with the headline 'Chefs turned food consultants'. Print Edition | Subscribe