Foodie Confidential

Lessons from the family farm

Chef Andrew Nocente learnt to use every part of the pigs and cows his family raised.
Chef Andrew Nocente learnt to use every part of the pigs and cows his family raised.PHOTO: 5TH QUARTER

Cooking was a way for chef Andrew Nocente to escape the daily grind of farm life.

Growing up on his family's 24ha fruit and vegetable farm in Queensland, Australia, he would wake up at 5am to harvest crops such as apples, pears and snow peas and juggled school work with packing produce into cartons before they were delivered to the markets.

The Australian of Italian parentage says: "Working on the farm was not my calling. It is so much harder than working in a kitchen as the work never ends."

A two-week stint as a kitchen apprentice when he was 15 fired him up and he decided he wanted to become a chef. Working in a small Italian restaurant in his hometown, he got hooked on what he describes as the "fun and intense action behind the stoves amid the controlled chaos in the kitchen".

After high school, he worked in restaurants across Australia and was head chef of banqueting at the Hilton Perth Hotel.

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Now 34, he is executive chef of contemporary grill restaurant 5th Quarter in Hotel Vagabond in Syed Alwi Road. The four-month-old restaurant is part of hospitality group Unlisted Collection's stable of restaurants.

Its name comes from "quinto quarto", an Italian term for offal and secondary cuts such as collar and brisket. The nose-to-tail restaurant features dishes such as tripe seasoned with salt and pepper and pan-fried sous vide pork jowl with apples and basil. There are also more than 30 types of charcuterie made in-house.

At his family's farm, Nocente was taught to maximise the use of the pigs and cattle raised. Every part of the animals was used, with the liver and kidneys going into pies and the bones being simmered to make broth.

He says: "It is crazy to throw out a valuable piece of meat just because it is not too tender. We would pan-fry beef brains and have them for breakfast. They have a texture similar to marshmallows."

 Interior of 5th Quarter, a contemporary grill restaurant focusing on cured meats and charcuterie. 5th Quarter is housed in Hotel Vagabond, a new luxury boutique hotel in Syed Alwi Road.
 Interior of 5th Quarter, a contemporary grill restaurant focusing on cured meats and charcuterie. PHOTO: 5TH QUARTER

After working for close to a decade, he chanced upon a "life-changing job vacancy". He uprooted to London to work as a sous chef in Maze Grill, one of British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay's restaurants and once headed by chef Jason Atherton.

In 2010, he was part of the opening team for Atherton's modern European restaurant, Table No. 1. It is located in The Waterhouse at South Bund, a boutique hotel in Shanghai that is owned by Unlisted Collection.

While in Shanghai, he met his wife, a Singaporean who works as an events manager, and settled here four years ago. The couple have no children. His parents, who are in their 70s, have since sold the farm and are semi-retired. His father is a community volunteer and his mother is an eldercare assistant.

Salted Caramel Ice Cream from 5th Quarter, a tenant run by restaurateur Loh Lik Ping’s Unlisted Collection in Vagabond Hotel at 39 Syed Alwi Road.
Salted Caramel Ice Cream from 5th Quarter. PHOTO: THE UNLISTED COLLECTION

When he got to Singapore, he worked as chef de cuisine at Skirt, a steakhouse in W Singapore Sentosa Cove before an opportunity to partner with Unlisted Collection's Loh Lik Peng came up.

The youngest of four children says: "When I left the farm, I never imagined that I would have a restaurant where I could cure my meats. It is quite a cool opportunity."

How did your interest in curing meats start?

It was part of farm life. From when I was six, or old enough to hold a knife, my dad showed me how to slaughter and break down different parts of a pig and cow. To reduce wastage, we made charcuterie.

What are your fondest memories of food?

They are centred around massive family dinners cooked by my mum. We would have dishes such as roast pork, chicken or beef and a lot of pasta with Bolognese sauce, chicken Parmigiana and casseroles. Family drama may happen during the day, but at the dinner table, everyone would be eating, talking and having fun over beer.

Which are your favourite ingredients?

I love using romanesco cauliflower as a garnish for my mains. It has a cool-looking appearance and is crunchier than regular cauliflower. I also love adding grated nutmeg when seasoning my charcuterie to inject some spice and a depth of flavour.

Which are your favourite cuts of meat?

Thick skirt steak. It is a secret cut that butchers would keep for themselves. It is a lovely little cut that is tender and flavourful, but it is quite under-rated.

I also like pork jowl. It is tender as the muscles have worked a lot more.

Which is the most challenging meat to cure?

Bone-in meats such as prosciutto are the most risky to cure. It requires more effort to clean the insides of the meat and bone as it is difficult to make sure that no remnants of blood are left, which can cause the whole leg to rot.

What are your favourite Singapore foods and where would you go to eat them?

I love chwee kueh from Bedok Interchange Food Centre. I love the savoury bits of preserved radish with the rice cakes. It doesn't taste like anything I have ever tried.

I like the char kway teow at the Old Airport Road Hawker Centre, with lard, Chinese sausages and cockles. I also like laksa from a stall in Queensway Shopping Centre for its rich coconut gravy mixed with chilli. My tolerance for spice has increased after four years of living here.

If you could choose one cuisine to eat for the rest of your life, what would that be?

Italian, as it reminds me of home and it is so diverse that I can never get bored of it. Some of my favourite Italian dishes include lardo (back fat of a pig) with honey on bread; porchetta, either on its own or with baguette; and pasta from spaghetti to pappardelle. I like Etna Italian Restaurant in Upper East Coast Road as it reminds me of the Sicilian food that my mum cooks.

Do you cook at home?

I cook if I am allowed to. It is usually a mess as my home kitchen is small. I like simple and homey dishes such as roast chicken, roast pork shoulder, salads and pasta, and charcuterie with cheeses.

If you could choose anyone to have a meal with, who would that be?

I would like to have a meal with Daniel Humm, executive chef of Eleven Madison Park Restaurant in New York. He is quite an inspiration and I want to pick his brains on how he runs his restaurant, his cooking philosophy and how he treats his staff.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 03, 2016, with the headline 'Lessons from the family farm'. Print Edition | Subscribe