SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - They have no restaurant to call their own, but three young Singaporeans show that you can find original cuisine in unexpected places.
The Mustard Seed Pop-up
For the past few months, there have been murmurings in local food circles about a young chef who has been wowing diners with his original approach to Singapore food. Even other chefs are raving about Mustard Seed, a weekend pop-up by Gan Ming Kiat which is fully booked right through to his last scheduled one in October. Some of his menu highlights include beef tartare with buah keluak sambal, served in homemade kueh pie tee shells; or homemade yong tau foo with a prawn ball, ngoh hiang, carrot and daikon in broth made with yellow beans and ikan bilis.
His meticulous approach and precise plating are a result of his training at Japanese restaurant Goto, where he worked in his early years as a chef. One of Singapore's first kaiseki restaurants, he was inspired by this oldest form of Japanese cooking to the point that he wanted to see how he could adapt it to the Singaporean context.
"I was thinking about what my future restaurant would be like and the kind of food I would serve, but I couldn't see myself cooking Japanese food. In kaiseki, there are a lot of traditional elements I can't relate to, since I'm not Japanese. So I wanted to do something that I grew up with," says the 28-year-old graduate of At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy.
His next job was at Peranakan restaurant Candlenut, where he worked for almost two years before leaving for Canberra to cook for the Singapore ambassador. Since he returned to Singapore this May, he has been holding a part-time job, while spending most of his time tinkering with recipes in his home kitchen.
Since June, he has been hosting eight people a week - the most he can squeeze into his dining room - at $35 each and he now has a waitlist thanks to word-of-mouth. He did not originally set out to do a pop-up, though. "I was experimenting and spending money on ingredients for food that no one could taste or give me feedback on. So I decided why not invite people to try it and charge a low price. As word spread, I realised people came with expectations, so I couldn't be as experimental as I wanted. But I still tweak the menu here and there," he notes.
It has helped fine-tune his cooking style. "It's not about fancy ingredients or techniques. People describe my food as comforting and I like evoking that feeling. It's not rustic either because I try to maintain a certain level of refinement."
It will be a while before the stars align for him to open his own place but, iin the meantime, this is one secret supper that is on its way to becoming common knowledge soon.
SO-CA Salon pop-up
He works a tough six-day week in a busy restaurant, yet on his days off, you will find Joseph Ong slaving at home in his own kitchen, perfecting cooking techniques while dreaming of opening his own restaurant one day.
"I imagine that when it happens, I would be using a lot of local ingredients and cooking with very traditional local techniques, so I want to get a head start on that," says the 26-year-old chef de partie of Tokyo-Italian restaurant Terra.
He started cooking about four years ago, as an apprentice with no prior experience at The Black Sheep cafe under ex-Raffles Hotel chef Ratha Krishnan. Since then, he has worked at restaurants such as Zafferano and the now-defunct Modern Asian Diner, and also done stages in a few Michelin-starred restaurants overseas.
Along the way, he also gained experience at ad-hoc events and pop-ups by groups such as nomadic theatre company Andsoforth and local farming collective Edible Garden City.
This November, he will headline his first pop-up, in collaboration with local ceramicist Elizabeth Gan. It will take place at the School of Clay Arts - the SO-CA Salon, at a co-working space called Open Fields in Tai Seng.
"The idea is do my own version of Teochew porridge, served on her ceramics. It's perfect because there are many dishes like fish, soup and a braised dish, so the food shows people how they can use the ceramics in daily life. I don't know how elevated it's going to be yet, but I'll definitely incorporate some of the techniques I learned in restaurants," he adds.
While most of the menu is still not confirmed yet, some dishes will include Teochew-style pig trotter jelly, eggplant cooked in pork fat and shiitake broth, and a version of the marinated raw snakehead fish which was once popular at porridge stalls.
"For me, the long-term goal is to have all these recipes, techniques, and knowledge of ingredients and suppliers in my pocket. I don't think I will open my own restaurant for another eight years or so, but this way when I finally do, I would have done all my homework. Then I'll be ready to come up with food that is my own," he explains.
For lawyer Lynette Zheng, a love for eggs led her to Crack - a pop-up eatery she started with two business partners early this year.
They juggled full-time jobs on weekdays and a food stall at weekend farmers' markets, or one-off events like the Kranji Farmers' Market and Singapore Night Festival, serving a small menu of egg-centric dishes that go beyond fried or scrambled. They use only pasteurised Double A Grade eggs from local farm N&N Agriculture Pte Ltd in Lim Chu Kang.
"I visited Eggslut in Los Angeles and was inspired by their concept. Most breakfast or brunch places only serve classic fare like scrambled or poached eggs, so I wanted something more street-style, injected with a bit of local flavour," says Ms Zheng, 28.
Their house favourite now is otah scotch eggs, made in-house with cuttlefish instead of mackerel. Another is a Taiwanese-style scallion pancake, topped with crispy Thai-style omelette and toasted hae bee hiam (spicy dried shrimps sambal).
Their small repertoire will grow once Ms Zheng focuses on Crack full-time, with the opening of their incubator stall at the gastropark Timbre+ in early December.
"I'm not professionally trained, but I like food so I've been studying about it on my own and learning to cook at home. Since Crack, I've been more serious and done some stints in local kitchens like Brussels Sprouts and Fat Lulu's to get experience. Initially I was concerned this concept would be contrived and I would run out of ideas for egg dishes. But it has actually been very effortless - I always have ideas that involve eggs."