Danish chef goes to Dempsey Hill and NTU to pick wild plants to cook with

Danish chef Mads Refslund (right) and chef David Pynt from Burnt Ends (left) picking wild edible plants at Nanyang Technological University’s Community Herb Garden. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Danish chef Mads Refslund (right) and chef David Pynt from Burnt Ends (left) picking wild edible plants at Nanyang Technological University’s Community Herb Garden. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

Danish chef Mads Refslund went to Dempsey Hill and NTU's herb garden to pick wild plants to cook with

Pluck, sniff, then straight into the mouth.

That is the usual sequence when one is foraging for wild plants - think weeds - in the Singapore jungle.

Under the sweltering late morning sun last week, Danish chef Mads Refslund, 37, executive chef of popular new Nordic restaurant Acme in New York, stared, touched and tasted his way through what must have been about 50 native plants at Dempsey Hill and at the Community Herb Garden at the Nanyang Technological University. These included flowers, buds, fruits and leaves.

The chef said he tries to forage in most places he visits to get a sense of the locality of produce in each area. In June last year, he went foraging on an island near Hong Kong.

Refslund, who was in town recently to cook at gastronomic pop-up event 4 X FOUR, is a strong advocate of foraging, a global trend that has also been catching on here, where people, typically chefs, source for wild, uncultivated plants to include in dishes.

He said: "I may live in New York but I'll always be Danish. I can't run away from who I am - a Nordic. New Nordic is a philosophy, a way of thinking and using the ingredients around you."

At Acme, he uses ingredients that can be obtained within a 480km radius. He is so particular that he does not even use olive oil or avocados in his cooking.

On last week's foraging expedition, he was led by Mr Bjorn Low, 33, co-founder of urban farming consultancy Edible Gardens, who has a strong interest in local plants and foreign varieties that grow well here.

Other chefs on the trip included David Pynt, 30, chef and co-owner of grill restaurant Burnt Ends in Teck Lim Road off Keong Saik Road; and Bryan Chia, 32, chef and co-owner of sharing plates restaurant Morsels in Mayo Street off Jalan Besar.

Singapore, believe or not, has plenty of edible uncultivated plants that grow in gardens or forested areas. These include wild passionfruit, mulberries and Southernwood, which looks like dill.

One simple trick to find out if something is edible is to see if insects are eating it too.

"If there are ants eating it, it's safe," said Refslund.

He found himself intrigued by everything he tasted. His eyes glistened as he thought about the dishes he could create with these distinctly earthy, nutty and citrusy shoots and flowers. "I am creating dishes in my mind," he said.

Still, he is always mindful of what he tastes and touches, especially when in unfamiliar territory.

The chef learnt that the hard way.

When he first arrived in New York four years ago, he did not know about poison ivy and its effects. He was so attracted to the plant's beauty that before anyone could warn him, he had already immersed his hands in the weed, which later gave him blisters on his arms.

He has also been burnt in France. While foraging there, he came across a fruit that "looked good". It burned and numbed his throat, but fortunately, that wore off.

Refslund, who grew up foraging the parks and hillsides in Copenhagen, is seen as one of the founders of new Nordic cuisine, along with chef Rene Redzepi of Noma fame.

The two were in fact the founding chefs of Michelin-starred and now world- renowned restaurant Noma in Copehagen, which topped the coveted World's 50 Best Restaurants list four times in the last five years.

Even though Refslund left Noma six months after establishing it in 2003 - he and Redzepi, though good friends, had different working styles in the kitchen - he said he does not resent Noma's or Redzepi's fame.

A year later, in 2004, Refslund opened his own restaurant MR in Copenhagen, which garnered rave reviews, but closed in 2010 during the global financial crisis.

In Singapore, the group trotted through the mulch and undergrowth in the area outside PS. Cafe, then stopped under a large tree near the carpark.

They squatted on the grass to pluck weeds of wood sorrel which look like clovers, and pennywort, which resembles miniature lilypads.

Near House@Dempsey, a narrow overgrown path led to a soccer pitch.

There, in the drains were weeds called shiny bush or peperomia, which have a subtle spiciness. The chefs pulled out several bunches.

Refslund stopped and stared intently at a wild tapioca plant. When this reporter turned around to tell him that the leaves are poisonous, he grimaced and he quickly spat out the leaf he had been chewing so enthusiastically.

"Now, you tell me," he said with a laugh.

By 1pm and after visiting two sites, the chefs had gathered enough weeds, flowers and plants for a small feast.

Chefs Pynt and Refslund headed into the Burnt Ends kitchen where they prepared five dishes: Charred frog legs with curry leaves; a salad with wild greens including sweet potato leaves and Okinawan spinach, a non-native plant that thrives well here; king fish with radish, yellow pea flowers, ground ginseng flowers and wild passionfruit seeds; kingfish with fresh holy basil oil, cucumber rings and Asiatic pennywort drizzled with creme fraiche; and a salt-baked snapper with Southernwood and shiny bush.

The creations were exciting and fresh, new and inviting on the palate.

Refslund, whose girlfriend Kelly Elvilo, 34, is in property sales, said: "To be inspired, you need to be a child of the earth, to have both feet on the ground.

"The day I stop being inspired by what's around me, will be the day I stop cooking."

rltan@sph.com.sg

Follow Rebecca Lynne Tan on Twitter @STrebeccatan