Alma's new wheelchair-bound chef determined to retain star

Spanish restaurant Alma by Juan Amador at Goodwood Park Hotel was a surprise recipient of one Michelin star at the launch of the Michelin Guide Singapore last Thursday.

It opened quietly in June last year even though it is backed by German chef Juan Amador, who runs his three-Michelin-starred eponymous restaurant in Germany.

Also, the French chef that opened the restaurant and helped it earn its star - 33-year-old Christophe Lerouy - may not remain in Singapore for long. He is likely to leave when chef Amador opens more restaurants.

So it is up to executive chef Muhammad Haikal Johari, 39, and newly appointed chef de cuisine Muhammad Sufian Zaini, 36, to not only retain its current star, but also to try to earn a second one.

Lerouy says that with the transition, things will not change.

 

I told the team that our hard work begins now... To get a star is one thing, to maintain it and not lose it is another.

MUHAMMAD HAIKAL JOHARI, executive chef of one-Michelin-starred Spanish restaurant Alma by Juan Amador

"Chef Amador is still on top of everything. He was the one who chose chef Haikal."

The chef had done a one-month stage at Amador's restaurant in Langen about seven years ago.

Haikal, who was working the night the Michelin Guide was launched, says: "I told the team that our hard work begins now. Sure, it is stressful because you have to keep outdoing yourself. But it is good stress for everyone. To get a star is one thing, to maintain it and not lose it is another."

Indeed, he has his job cut out for him.

He was involved in a motorcycle accident in Pattaya, Thailand, last October and it left him paralysed from the neck down. He has regained partial control of his body and now uses a wheelchair, going for physiotherapy sessions daily at National University Hospital.

While he used to work in Bangkok for the Water Library's group of restaurants, he has been in Alma for the past four months. The restaurant opened in partnership with the Thai owner of Water Library and chef Amador.

On handling the daily kitchen operations, chef Haikal says confidently: "Cooking can be done in the head as well. I see and taste everything and watch how things are presented on the plate. The team members are my hands and legs. I may be in a wheelchair, but I can still make decisions and do tastings."

The right-handed chef has also learnt how to use his left hand, which he can move, to feed himself.

With the approval of Amador, chef Haikal is likely to tweak the menu as well.

He says: "We will have dishes to suit our climate. Some of the dishes can be quite jelak (Malay for cloyingly rich). So it is good to have lighter, more refreshing dishes."

He will travel to Bangkok to manage the restaurants there, so when he is away, chef Sufian will helm the kitchen. They have known each other for years and met while working at Asian restaurant Coriander Leaf.

Chef Haikal's foray into cooking started only after his late father encouraged him to pursue another passion. The former soccer player represented Singapore in the youth team, but kept getting ankle injuries.

Things changed when he went to hospitality institute Shatec.

The father of two children aged eight and 13 says: "I realised that cooking is more than just zi char. I learnt about managing and designing kitchens and how to do costing. When I was a trainee at Raffles Hotel, I knew that I wanted to be in the food business."

He has worked alongside local chefs such as Jimmy Chok and Anderson Ho at the now-defunct Fig Leaf, and moved to Bangkok in 2006 when chef Sebastian Ng, formerly of Ember in Keong Saik Road, approached him to be executive chef of Ember in Bangkok. He joined Water Library in 2008.

Remaining upbeat, chef Haikal says: "It was a very hard transition for me when I went into cooking. I thought cooking was more for my mum. Part of me still wanted to be a soccer player.

"Now, I just want to walk again."

Eunice Quek

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 24, 2016, with the headline 'Wheelchair-bound yet determined to retain star'. Print Edition | Subscribe