Food such as century egg and fish maw may put some people off, but Australian chef Sam Aisbett relishes chewing on them as he appreciates texture in his food.
His palate was developed from an early age when his mother, a retired cafe owner with adventurous taste buds, brought home confections such as mooncakes and mochi, and glutinous rice bought in Chinatown in the Whitsunday Islands, off Queensland, Australia, where he grew up.
The 33-year-old says: “I have quite an Asian palate. I enjoy having textures in my food and it was not weird for me as my mum ate them.” The play on textures is evident in the menu of his contemporary Australian restaurant Whitegrass, which opened in Chijmes in January.
Inspired after trying century egg porridge, he added the jelly-like whites from the eggs to pair with butter-poached quail breast with black garlic, nuts and endives.
He also concocted a dessert of coconut mousse with jackfruit ice cream and ginger cake garnished with milk biscuits and meringue, after exploring wet markets here. He uses an eclectic range of ingredients, ranging from a 20-year aged Japanese soya sauce for its powerful umami punch to sugar snap peas grown in a hydroponics farm unit in his office.
Born to a family of butchers, chef Aisbett dropped out of school at 15 to work in his father’s shop. After a year of making sausages and chopping meats, he got bored and decided to pursue his interest in cooking.
He worked in restaurants in Australia and Europe before becoming a senior sous chef at fine-dining restaurant Tetsuya and the head chef of Quay, a renowned modern Australian restaurant. Both are in Sydney. He uprooted here last year to “seek a new adventure” after chancing upon an opportunity to run his own restaurant here.
The youngest of three children credits his mother, 55, for opening up his palate. She whipped up diverse cuisines at home, from Thai and Chinese to Mexican and Moroccan, picking up recipes from cookbooks and experimenting in the kitchen. She is now a housewife and his father, 63, is a gold miner.
Aisbett says: “My mother has an amazing palate and she intuitively knows what goes into dishes.” He is married to Annette, 36, the operations manager at his restaurant. They have no children, but count a shih tzu and British bulldog as their “babies”. He says with a laugh: “I am jealous of my mother’s cooking abilities. She is so talented that it annoys me.”
How good a cook is your mum?
She would read cookbooks and tweak recipes effortlessly to make the dishes taste better. I ask her for cooking tips and she has replicated my dishes after dining at my restaurant. She is better than some chefs I have worked with.
Where do you check out local ingredients?
I frequent the markets at Chinatown Complex and Tekka Centre.
I love exploring wet markets, looking at weird ingredients, from bittergourds and granadilla fruit to root vegetables and in-season fruit. I end up buying a lot of them to use in my dishes.
What are your favourite Singapore foods?
I like the laksa from Roxy Laksa stall at East Coast Lagoon Food Village, as the broth is perfectly balanced with spice and coconut milk and has so much flavour.
I also enjoy the crab bee hoon at Sin Huat Seafood Restaurant in Lorong 35 Geylang Road for the sweet and meaty crab cooked in an umami gravy. And I like the chicken rice from Yet Con Restaurant in Purvis Street – with the cranky uncle and old school ambience – and crispy, flaky roti prata with curry from a coffee shop in Everton Park, near where I live.
What is comfort food for you?
Vegemite on sourdough toast.
WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?
My favourite dishes cooked by my mum such as fried chicken with rice and homemade chilli sauce, which is so crispy and comforting; broccoli pasta with anchovies and chilli; and tacos with salsa made from scratch.
I go to The LoKal restaurant in Neil Road for it as its head chef Darren Farr, who is also Aussie, knows how much Vegemite to put on bread.
What are your favourite places to eat in Sydney?
Hartsyard, an American restaurant in Newtown that serves the best Southern fried chicken with buttermilk biscuits, oyster po’boy, cocktails and the best chilli sauce I have had in my life. It is such a fun place to hang out, I used to go there every Sunday.
I also like Marque, a fine-dining restaurant in Surry Hills, for creative and original dishes such as dehydrated beetroot with salmon roe.
What is your biggest kitchen must-have?
I love seaweed, such as Korean nori and kombu. It is umami and I use it to add texture and flavour to my dishes.
I also make oil out of seaweed trimmings and infuse salt with seaweed.
What is the best meal you have had?
It was at Kikunoi, a kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto, Japan, eight years ago. It had the whole package of a good dining experience, from great service to exquisite dishes, such as a baked salt-crusted abalone to uni to raw fish served on a beautifully carved ice block.
The attention to detail is amazing. Do you cook at home? No, there are too many places to eat out here. I can find really good food at cheap prices at hawker centres and all sorts of fancy restaurants. I will start cooking at home after I have visited all the restaurants here.