Just nine months ago, culinary school graduate Teo Jun Xiang knew nothing about Spanish food.
He says: "I tried making tapas a few times and they turned out mediocre due to the lack of quality Spanish produce here."
However, a six-month training stint in Spain this year intrigued his tastebuds. Earlier this month, at the end of the stint, he won the International Tapas Competition with his take on the traditional Spanish croqueta. It is part of the annual Spanish Gastronomy Training Program, organised by the ICEX Spain Trade and Investment, a government agency that promotes foreign investments in Spain.
Teo, 24, says: "Spanish food focuses on clean and straightforward flavours, and ingredients in Spain taste so different. The tomatoes are very sweet and there is an amazing variety of olive oils."
The recent Diploma in Culinary Skills graduate from Shatec Institute was nominated by his school to take part in the programme, which accepts young chefs from around the world.
WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?
Chilli crab, claypot rice, and Chinese and Spanish-style suckling pig.
For the tapas competition, participants were given a day to prepare the ingredients in advance, before dishing out 11 servings of the tapa within 15 minutes.
The tapas were judged by a panel, which included Spanish food expert Rafael Anson and chef Nacho Manzano of two-Michelin-starred Casa Marcial in north-west Spain.
Teo beat 11 others. The winning tapa, which he calls Three In One, has egg and Serrano ham encased in a sausage-shaped croquette made of zamorana rice (rice cooked with pork cheeks and ears), and chorizo. The croquette is coated with mashed potato powder and topped with a dehydrated potato chip.
He says: "I was shocked for the first five minutes. It was a bonus on top of a fantastic experience."
While there, he also studied at the International School of Culinary Arts in Valladolid, toured Spain and interned at one-Michelin-starred restaurant La Botica and tapas restaurant Villa Paramesa, both in Valladolid.
He has received an offer to cook at a Spanish restaurant in an upscale hotel in Soria next year.
Teo, who is single and has an engineering diploma from Nanyang Polytechnic, says his family have given their blessings for him to kickstart his culinary career overseas.
His 60-year-old father is a butcher and his 58-year-old mother is a part-time accountant. His sister, 20, is a polytechnic student.
Teo says: "I want to immerse myself in Spanish cooking."
What was the inspiration behind your winning tapa?
I wanted to create something that captured my experience in Spain. I learnt to cook zamorana rice and fused it with a staff meal at La Botica, which consists of eggs, potatoes and chorizo.
What was the most challenging part?
Ensuring that the raw egg yolk remained intact in the croquette. I placed the egg yolk within a ring made of Serrano ham and covered it with chorizo meat before rolling it like a roulade. The egg yolk flows out as people bite into it and creates a surprise.
How did your interest in cooking start?
I worked as a part-time kitchen crew at Fish & Co for six years. The most meaningful part was working with ex-offenders and igniting their passion for food. It is not just about cooking, but also about improving the lives of people you interact with. I was a troubled teenager. I mixed with the wrong company and got into fights, but it was the scolding and mentoring by the chefs at Fish & Co which helped me to become a better person.
What are your favourite Spanish restaurants here?
I like Ola Cocina Del Mar at Marina Bay Financial Centre for the suckling pig, which is roasted with onion, leek, celery and salt. The meat is flavourful and tender and the skin is crispy. I also like My Little Spanish Place in Bukit Timah Road, which has wines and tapas that are not over-priced.
What are your favourite Singapore foods and where do you go to eat them?
I like chilli crab at Mellben Seafood in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3. The meat is sweet and I love the sauce.
I also like Long Xing Fish Soup stall at the hawker centre at Block 409 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10, as the soup is packed with flavours and has lots of vegetables and fish.
For zi char, I go to A-Po Kitchen in Clementi Avenue 2 for fish head curry, sambal kang kong and salted egg chicken.
What are your favourite tapas eateries in Spain?
I like AliOil in Valladolid for squid ink croquettes and grilled cuttlefish. Los Zagales has creative tapas such as Obama In The White House, which has fried potato skins, sauteed mushrooms and poached egg served in a white dome; and Tigretoston, which is a blood pudding that looks like a chocolate bar.
What are your favourite tapas?
I like Spanish tortilla, garlic prawn and bread, jamon croquettes, cod and crab salad on a baguette.
What is the most memorable meal you had overseas?
Suckling pig at Meson de Candido in Segovia, where the servers cut the pig with a plate and throw the plate on the floor in front of diners.
If you could choose anyone to have a meal it, who would that be?
Mr Nicholas Yap, my culinary instructor at Shatec. He pointed me in the right direction.