FOODIE CONFIDENTIAL WITH WONG AH YOKE

Framing art with food

Mr Alwyn Chong, who co-owns a cafe at National Gallery Singapore, helps to curate the menu to align it to what the gallery is exhibiting

Mr Alwyn Chong, 37, is a self- confessed foodie.

"I love food, I will choose food over health," declares the bachelor, who is the managing director of fragrance and cosmetics distributor Luxasia for China, Taiwan, Thailand and the Philippines.

The Singapore company is founded by his father, Mr Patrick Chong.

The younger Mr Chong has entered his first food venture with Gallery & Co, a retail and cafe concept that opened at the National Gallery Singapore in January.

It is a collaboration with three other partners: restaurateur and hotelier Loh Lik Peng as well as Foreign Policy Design Group creative directors Yu Yah-Leng and Arthur Chin.

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

  • Mee pok. It's a taste from my childhood and I like the texture of the noodles.

Besides helping to source for merchandise for retail, Mr Chong also gets involved with the cafe.

"All the partners give feedback as to what we like to see, how we can plan the menu with the retail promotion we are doing and what the gallery is showcasing," he says.

"The current exhibition with Paris' Centre Pompidou is a good example, where we make sure the food is in line with what the museum is showing."

During the Reframing Modernism exhibition, which ends on July 17, the cafe offers rustic French dishes such as Beef Daube en Provencal and Chicken a la Moutarde created by Cocotte chef Anthony Yeoh.

"I'd always wanted to get into food, except that I also heard how tough the industry is," says Mr Chong.

"So this project is a good introduction for me. And to have Peng along, it gave me some sort of security because there is someone who knows what he is doing."

Mr Chong is now based in Bangkok after moving there in February from Shanghai, where he had been living for the past 51/2 years.

But he returns to Singapore every month for business meetings.

What kind of food do you go for?

I enjoy fine dining, but I think local hawker food is closer to my heart. And I tend to go to the same stalls that I enjoy because it's comfort food.

Which are the stalls?

I like Zheng Yi beef noodles at Tai Thong Crescent because the broth is really good.

There's also a place that my family has been going to for a long time called Yuet Lot in the Smith Street hawker centre. It's a Cantonese zi char place that makes unique beancurd balls. It used to be in Hill Street.

I just discovered the fried Hokkien mee in Toa Payoh Lorong 4 - Kim Keat Hokkien Mee. I really like it, so I'll be going back.

Which are your favourite restaurants?

For Indian, I go to Samy's Curry.

And for Japanese, it's Shinji at Raffles Hotel and Tatsuya at Goodwood Park Hotel. I'm a sushi guy, so I go for omakase and stick to sushi more than anything else. I don't really like many of the other kinds of Japanese dishes.

But if I'm craving beef, I go to Yakiniku Yazawa in Robertson Quay. It's expensive, but the meat is good.

I also like Italian. It's simple food, which is what I like - great fresh ingredients simply cooked.

I like No Menu in Boon Tat Street, where the pastas are really good. I used to like Ristorante Da Valentino when it was in Rifle Range Road, but I'm not so sure about it after it moved to Turf City.

What are your earliest memories of food?

As a child, I would look forward to Sunday breakfast with the family. The angmohs have brunch, but we had outings to the wet market hawker centres for chai tow kway and mee pok tar on Sundays. Those are things I remember very fondly.

We lived in Yio Chu Kang then and we would go to Seletar market. But the stalls have changed a lot since and I don't go there any more.

Another memory would be my grandaunt's home-cooked dishes such as meicai (preserved vegetable) with belly pork and a stew with pig's trotters and tongue. She is now in her 80s, but still cooks these dishes for me.

What food here do you miss when you are in Bangkok?

I think about mee pok quite a lot. And home-cooked food.

Your mother's home-cooking?

Home-cooked food that's designed by my mother, but now cooked by our maid.

Which is your favourite mee pok stall?

Actually, mee pok is something I am still exploring. I can't say I have a favourite.

I recently went to one in Ang Mo Kio which is pretty good. It's in a two-storey market and you get a queue number for your noodles, but I can't remember which road it is in.

Then there is the old stall in Jalan Tua Kong which has moved to Simei.

Do you cook?

Yes, I like to cook. I just don't like cleaning up afterwards.

I cook pastas and roast meats and steaks. I also enjoy playing around with Chinese dishes. I use an app called Epicurious which has a good selection of dishes and they usually turn out quite edible.

How did you get started in cooking?

I started when I went to university in Melbourne because I got sick of eating out every day and missed home-cooked food. So I started cooking and came up with my own recipes.

I had friends over when I cooked. It's always a pleasure to cook for friends, to eat at home and have a good chat.

I would cook soya sauce chicken which everyone liked, steamed egg, beef with spring onion. I usually cooked Chinese food.

But I would also have my mum's chicken rice chilli. I still take it with me overseas, even today. She packs two big bottles, about 1kg, for me to take with me. I can't do without it.

Why don't you learn to make it yourself?

It's too much work. You have to buy all the ingredients and blend them. And you know, it's nice for the mother to know the son still needs her.

Who do you cook for now?

For myself or friends. I have held dinners in my house in Bangkok and Shanghai. But in Singapore, I stay with my family and I don't have my own kitchen, so I don't host dinners.

Do you cook for the family?

For the past six years, my two younger sisters and I have cooked Christmas lunch for our parents. We chose a cuisine and drew lots to see who cooked which course.

I've done a big pot roast, a medley of Thai dishes, pastas, steaks. I try to stay away from desserts though.

Why is that?

I don't have a flair for making desserts. I just cannot do it - they don't turn out the way I want.

I tried baking a cake, but I gave up halfway because it didn't look like what it was supposed to.

And I eat desserts very sparingly for vanity reasons.

Is there any kind of food you have not eaten, but would like to try?

Nordic cuisine. I'm not sure if it's amazing, but I want to try it. I just bought some cookbooks on it, but haven't tried any recipes yet.

Do you have any restaurants in Shanghai that you would recommend?

My favourite is Sushi Oyama, an omakase restaurant. I ate there at least once a week when I was in Shanghai.

There's also an Italian restaurant called Elefante. And for Chinese, there's GuYi which serves Hunan food that I think is very good. And, of course, there's the famous Xiaoyang shengjian bao (pan-fried buns).

How about restaurants in other parts of the world?

I like an old restaurant in Paris called Le Duc, which specialises in fish. There's also Brasserie Thoumieux for classic French cooking.

In Los Angeles, I was taken by a friend to a really good Japanese beef restaurant called Totoraku. It serves many courses and they're all beef.

It has only three or four tables and you must know the chef to get a booking. He doesn't take reservations from anyone he doesn't know.

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

The late Nelson Mandela because I've always been inspired by revolutionaries. They strive to change how people see the world, which is a very difficult thing and always requires some sacrifice.

But people like Mandela could sacrifice their lives for the better good, which is very noble.

To be able to sit with him and understand why he did what he did, that's what I would like.


• Follow Wong Ah Yoke on Twitter @STahyoke

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 10, 2016, with the headline 'Framing art with food'. Print Edition | Subscribe