Foodie Confidential

Always up for a challenge

Chef Lynnette Tay has taken part in 17 cooking competitions - and she is only 25

Some chefs shy away from the high-pressure world of cooking competitions, where they have to make complicated dishes in front of hundreds of people while the clock counts down.

Not chef Lynnette Tay who, at 25, has taken part in 17 cooking competitions, both locally and abroad, in places such as Greece, Taiwan and Thailand.

Now a chef de partie at Curate restaurant in Resorts World Sentosa, she started taking part in competitions when she was a Culinary Skills student in the hospitality institute Shatec.

She relishes the adrenaline rush and learning opportunities.

Ms Tay grew up in Bangkok, but moved here in 2009 to pursue her culinary studies. The singleton lives with relatives in Singapore.

When she attends competitions, she is sponsored either by her school or the Singapore Chefs Association. The travel, food and logistical costs are covered.

Chef Lynnette Tay with a dish of amadai fish pan-fried with one of her favourite ingredients, butter. ST PHOTO: FELINE LIM


    Clear chicken broth with vegetables, mushrooms and tofu.

Her biggest win so far is emerging second runner-up at the prestigious Global Young Chefs Challenge that was held last month in Lyon, France. In the biennial competition, she was up against seven other chefs under the age of 25 from countries such as Sweden, Germany, Italy and the United Arab Emirates.

Her challenge was to cook six servings of a three-course meal from a list of ingredients. She chose to make an appetiser of pan-fried halibut with brioche, scallops and mussel cream; a main course comprising sweet and sour sweetbreads inspired by the zichar classic, sweet and sour pork; and a chocolate parfait with Earl Grey pudding for dessert.

Although her routine for the three-hour competition was well rehearsed, a faulty induction stove threatened to upset her plans.

The power kept tripping and slowed her down. The sauces took a longer time to be reduced and the veal had to be cooked longer in a sous vide machine.

"It was nerve-racking," she says.

But she kept her head and recalculated the cooking times. Her competition assistant, who was tasked only to handle the desserts initially, also stepped in to help prepare and cook the first two courses.

Despite the unexpected hold-up, the judges, who included local veteran chef Otto Weibel, said the meats were "perfectly done".

Cooking runs in Ms Tay's family. Her Singaporean father, 55, and Thai-Chinese mother, 50, own a catering company in Bangkok. She has two younger brothers: one is a commis pastry chef, 21, and the other is 18 and a business undergraduate.

Next on her plate is the Chaine des Rotisseurs cooking competition in Perth in September.

On handling stress in these competitions, she says: "I treat them as if I am cooking for my family and, if I face problems, I will just have to find an alternative way to get the dishes cooked on time."

How did your interest in cooking start?

Growing up, I helped out at my parents' catering company. I did tasks such as rolling dough, making sandwiches, stuffing filling into pastries and serving customers.

My mum, who also studied at Shatec, trained my palate by getting me to critique her dishes at home and testing me on the condiments used in her food. She taught me how to cook Thai food such as green curry and massaman chicken curry when I was 14.

My dad greatly influenced me to become a chef as he likes to discuss cooking techniques with me and share stories behind heritage food such as Teochew-style bak chang (rice dumplings).

What is your favourite food and where do you go to eat it?

I love the Teochew dish that my aunt cooks. It is braised pig skin with white radish, tau kee (beancurd skin) and dried scallops and squid. The spiciness of the radish cuts through the oily and tender pig skin.

I also enjoy Fengshan Satay Beehoon in Fengshan Market and Food Centre. Its combination of the thick and rich satay sauce, noodles and fresh ingredients, such as squid, pork liver and cockles, is perfect.

I eat mala hotpot once a week at a foodcourt stall in Kang Kar Mall in Hougang. I always order sweet potato noodles with seaweed, beansprouts and Sichuan peppercorn. It is my comfort food. Whenever I return from Europe, I always crave this spicy and pungent dish.

What is the best thing that you have eaten?

My mum's speciality, braised pork leg in tom yum soup, which she cooks on special occasions. The chilli and lemongrass help mask the oiliness of the pork and makes the dish less cloying.

What are your must-eats when you are home in Bangkok?

I return home twice a year. I always visit The Local Restaurant in Bangkok, which serves historic Thai palace cuisine from the reign of King Rama V. I like dishes such as fried egg with bai niang, a sweet Thai herb; and steamed fish with lemongrass, ginger, Thai parsley and fish sauce.

I always look forward to my mum's cooking too. I need to have her seafood fried rice, which is very peppery, and braised pork leg in tom yum soup.

What is your favourite ingredient when it comes to cooking?

Butter, as it always enhances and opens up the flavours of any dish, whether it is vegetables, meat or fish. I especially like pan-frying potatoes with butter. The butter caramelises the potatoes and gives them slightly charred edges.

What do you cook at home?

I make it a point to cook a hearty breakfast every day. I make scrambled eggs and a spinach and banana smoothie to detox my body. I have also come up with a savoury oat dish that includes Vegemite and turmeric powder.

Another stress-free dish that I often whip up is Teochew-style steamed fish, with salted vegetable, plum and ginger.

What are your professional cooking ambitions?

I hope to work in restaurants in Spain, where there is easy access to fresh seafood and the cooking techniques are simple and straightforward, or in Japan, where chefs have a lot of respect for the ingredients and favour lighter cooking styles.

One day, I would like to open a restaurant that serves cuisines that reflect my parents' heritage, Thai and Teochew, and Singapore dishes too.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 19, 2017, with the headline 'Always up for a challenge'. Print Edition | Subscribe