Before Ms Michelle Ling took on the role of programme director of The Michelin Guide Singapore, she did not dine out much at restaurants.
The reason, she says, is that when her children were young, she and her husband preferred to dine at home or at the homes of friends. The 44-year-old has been married for 19 years to a 45-year-old accountant. They have a daughter, 17, and a son, 13.
So she turned into a domestic goddess instead, picking up cooking and baking, and hosting home parties regularly. Her house in the Commonwealth area has two kitchens, one outdoor and the other in a room converted from a dining area, where a huge island in the middle serves as both a food preparation area and dining counter.
What used to be the living room is now the dining room, where she entertains family and friends.
For the photo shoot for this interview, she whipped up two dishes, a pomelo salad with frozen coconut and pan-fried barramundi with champagne sauce.
Her cakes look like works of art, with intricate designs or are crafted according to themes. She used to take orders for them, but now bakes only for friends.
She helped set up Robert Parker Wine Advocate here three years ago where, as a director, she managed the finance and administration side of the respected wine guide. The publication, which started in 1978 in the United States, now has its headquarters here after Singapore investors bought a majority stake in it.
WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?
Prawn cake cooked by my mother. I’ve never eaten it anywhere else. It’s like oyster omelette, but cooked with prawns.She would add corn flour, chopped spinach and eggs and fry it like a pancake. And it’s eaten with chilli sauce. I ask for it for my birthday every year.
The company is also collaborating with the Singapore Tourism Board and the Michelin Guide to launch the prestigious restaurant guide here. The first edition of The Michelin Guide Singapore will be unveiled at a gala dinner on July 21.
How did you get started in cooking?
I did not know how to cook until about 10 years ago.
When my kids were just a few years old, it was not easy to go out to eat. We would go to dinner at a friend's home every weekend, where the kids could run around.
But I couldn't host because I didn't know how to cook. So I learnt from a friend and the first dish she taught me was roast chicken. She gave me tips such as roasting it with lemon and stuffing it with rosemary.
With that, I started inviting friends to my home. But in the beginning, every time they came, they would get roast chicken.
How did your repertoire grow?
Through the years, I started to pick up more recipes.
I have never gone for classes, but asked friends or observed what they did when I visited them. Slowly, I became more adventurous and did a lot of research on the Internet. I like to read tips such as how to make chicken tender.
And when I dine out, I'd try to figure out how a dish I like is cooked.
My pomelo salad, for example, is inspired by something I ate at Wild Rocket. It's not the same because I dared not ask the chef for the recipe, but I added what I thought should go into the dish.
Do you still make roast chicken?
I do, for normal family dinners on days when I don't know what to cook. It's still the same recipe and I have a rosemary plant in the garden, which is very convenient.
What else is in your repertoire?
I cook steak quite often. I like my beef more charred, so I pan-fry instead of roasting it. My friends like USDA Prime ribeye with red wine sauce. But I also make other sauces - white wine, peppercorn or even rendang - to go with it.
I also cook mushroom risotto and, instead of sprinkling parmesan cheese on it, I serve it in a cheese cup.
Do you cook only Western dishes?
I can't really do Chinese, which I find very difficult, especially when it comes to getting the wok hei in the dishes. But when Robert Parker was in Singapore a few years ago, I invited him to dinner. And we had invited winemakers who were visiting too.
I didn't want to cook Western for them, so I tried Asian dishes such as fried Hokkien mee, kueh pie tee and bak kut teh. But I would tone down the spice levels to suit Western palates.
How about other Asian cuisines?
I cook Thai food too. I go to Golden Mile Shopping Complex to buy the ingredients for dishes such as pineapple fried rice, which the kids like, or a Thai-style roast chicken and tom yum. I prefer to cook the tom yum from scratch rather than use a paste because I can control the level of spiciness.
Have you had any disasters in the kitchen?
No, usually the only mistakes would be forgetting to buy an ingredient or not turning on the oven. Sometimes I go through a lot of trials before the actual day of the party.
One funny incident was when I wanted to cook onsen eggs to put on noodles for 24 people. I didn't want to buy a sous-vide machine just to cook eggs, so I had to figure out how to do it on the stove. I tried first with one egg, then four. And I realised that the cooking times required for one egg and four eggs were different. I finally succeeded after a week of trials and 90 eggs.
What do you bake?
I'm not just into making a butter cake or chiffon cake, but I also like decorating.
For example, a friend would say her daughter likes a particular stuffed toy and could I create something that looks like it to put on a cake. So I'd do something like that. But a lot of these toy characters are copyrighted, so I can do them only for friends.
How did you learn to do that?
I went for a basic class on how to handle fondant and then figured it out from there. My first cake was for my niece and it was topped with figurines of Dora The Explorer. But I didn't know how to get them dried properly and all the heads ended up falling off. But now I can do them quite well.
With your job, do you make an effort to dine at Michelin-starred restaurants when you travel?
Yes, I've dined at Michelin-starred restaurants such as Ishigaki Yoshida (one star) for teppanyaki and Sukiyabashi Jiro (three stars) for sushi. Both are in Japan.
The rice for the sushi at Jiro has a very distinct vinegar taste, which my husband and I like. We had the honour of having Jiro Ono prepare the sushi for us.
I've also tried Kam's Roast Goose (one star) in Hong Kong.
Have you gone to check out restaurants in Singapore that are likely to get stars?
We've been dining out occasionally as a family, so it's not just because the guide is coming here. Where we go depends on what we feel like eating on the day.
But for Chinese, we like Jade Palace at The Forum because its cooking is consistent. We also always bump into friends there and everyone brings wines. So it's a lot of fun pooling our wines for dinner.
One of my favourite dishes there is frog legs that are deep-fried with slices of ginger.
My children also like the dim sum there and because they are used to the taste, they do not want to go anywhere else.
Where else do you eat as a family?
On Sundays, we usually eat out for brunch and dinner. We'd try different places each week.
The brunch places we like include Common Man Coffee Roasters in Martin Road and Ronin Cafe in Hongkong Street.
For dinner, we have been exploring the eateries in Emporium Shokuhin in Marina Square recently, going to one each week. We like the shabu shabu, where we order different cuts and grades of beef.
If you could choose anyone in the world to have a meal with, who would that be?
I have a friend who suffered a stroke two years ago and is confined to her bed. She is conscious, but does not respond. We used to work together and it is so hard to find a friend at work.
If I can dine with her, that would mean she is well again. We would eat at a hawker centre because she likes hawker food.
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