Chefs rotate at Lazy Susan: Spa Esprit Group's new dining concept

A new pop-up dining programme by Spa Esprit Group will feature a guest chef doing stints at various restaurants

Spa Esprit Group is holding a pop-up programme called Lazy Susan, starting with Canadian chef Haan Palcu-Chang. Ms Cynthia Chua (left), the group’s chief executive, met him when she dined at Le Mary Celeste in Paris, a small plates and cocktails restaurant where he was head chef. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

In Chinese restaurants, a lazy susan is the revolving tray in the middle of a round table, on which dishes are placed so everyone can get at them as they go round and round.

The Spa Esprit Group is using that concept for its new dining programme, where a guest chef goes around its restaurants, doing pop up stints in each.

Starting off Lazy Susan is chef Haan Palcu-Chang, 30, a Toronto native whose father is Taiwanese and whose mother is Romanian.

From Dec 3, he will be popping up at House at Dempsey and Open Door Policy at Yong Siak Street in Tiong Bahru, doing a month-long stint in each for breakfast and lunch.

The other restaurants will be confirmed later, but Spa Esprit also owns Skinny Pizza, Bochinche, Ding Dong and Common Man Coffee Roasters.

Ms Cynthia Chua, 44, chief executive of the Spa Esprit Group, says she met the chef through a mutual friend in Paris when she dined in Le Mary Celeste, a small plates and cocktails restaurant where he was head chef.

She says: "After I tasted his food in Le Mary Celeste two years ago, I felt that what he was trying to do with food was very interesting.

"His very diverse background played a part in the way he cooked, as he used ingredients in an interesting way to interpret his own brand of Asian cuisine."

After spending three years in Paris, Chef Palcu-Chang decided to leave and head back to Toronto to be with his family.

There, he started Mama Flo's, which does restaurant consulting, catering and pop-up dinners. He will be at House at Dempsey from Dec 3 to 27, and go on to Open Door Policy at 19 Yong Siak Street in January.

Asked why she wanted to start Lazy Susan, Ms Chua says: "The inspiration for Lazy Susan is to make cafe cuisine that is more interesting and diverse and to interpret Singaporean flavours in a different way."

Chef Palcu-Chang says he has been in love with food since he was a child growing up in a food-loving family in Toronto.

Along with three sisters and a brother, he was raised by his Taiwanese father, Mr Henry Chang, 54, who owns an advertising agency, and Romanian mother, Madam Roxana Palcu, also 54, who owns a farm.

He embraced the different cuisines that the multicultural city offers. "I ate all sorts of food, be it Indian, Chinese, Korean or Vietnamese and slowly became interested in cooking these types of foods," he says.

"Also, my paternal grandmother used to cook one of my favourite dishes when I was younger and that was roast duck stuffed with sticky rice."

When he was 21, he went to Seoul, South Korea to teach English in a private English school. While he was there, he volunteered to work on organic farms to better understand the culture.

After returning from South Korea, he enrolled in Northwest Culinary Academy of Vancouver in 2009 for a three-month course, as he decided that he did not want to teach for a living and wanted to pursue his passion for food.

After graduating, he worked at Maenam Thai Restaurant in Vancouver as chef de partie and then went to work in Copenhagen for 11/2 years.

He says: "I was obsessed with trying to work in a Michelin-starred restaurant because we don't have them in Canada. So we put them on a pedestal."

He was chef de partie in Kiin Kiin, a Thai restaurant, and Restaurant Kokkeriet, a modern European fine dining restaurant. Both have one Michelin star.

After 11/2 years there, he went to France and worked in several restaurants, including Saturne and Le Verre Vole in Paris, before getting a job as head chef at Le Mary Celeste.

He says he jumped at the opportunity to work with the Spa Esprit Group.

"The idea was very exciting and since I'm my own boss now, I can choose who I work with," he says. "I like the challenge and I can genuinely feel that she's excited to try new things in food and bring something fresh."

When he got here this month, he was taken around to try local food and to get a handle on how to incorporate these flavours into the menu for Lazy Susan.

He ate at Tiong Bahru Market, Tekka Market and also had fish head steamboat in Rangoon Road.

"What I like about the cuisine here is that it's multicultural, it's flavourful and I think it's affordable," he says.

"My favourite food so far is fish head steamboat. It was so flavourful and makes you want to eat it again, an effect I try my best to incorporate into my dishes."

He has crafted the first batch of dishes, which combine traditional Asian and Western cooking.

About 18 to 20 dishes will be available at House, including har cheong kai (prawn paste chicken) on a rice flour waffle, served with sambal maple sauce. This is his take on American fried chicken and waffles.

Other dishes include braised jackfruit sliders in barbecue sauce with guacamole and pistachios; sliced lotus root sauteed with house-made chilli jam, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf and Thai basil; and ricotta cheese on sourdough bread topped with pickled mussels and mustard greens, bean paste, chopped spring onions and fried shallots.

All these are made with produce he finds in wet markets.

Chef Palcu-Chang, who has a girlfriend, says: "I'm open to trying new and different things because that is how I grew up eating and enjoying food. The goal for me here is to give a different perspective on some of the staple foods in Singapore. "

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 22, 2015, with the headline Chefs rotate at Lazy Susan: Spa Esprit Group's new dining concept. Subscribe