Making culinary magic

Chef Benjamin Halat unveils new menus that delight the senses and tells us about the Michelin chefs he has collaborated with at CURATE

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CURATE’s chef de cuisine Benjamin Halat. PHOTO: RESORTS WORLD SENTOSA

New resident chef Benjamin Halat has called CURATE at Resorts World Sentosa - Asia's first Michelin-starred chef showcase restaurant - home since February.

In the months since he came on board, the German-born 31-year-old has already worked alongside three Michelin-starred chefs, built up good rapport with his culinary team and launched two menus at CURATE.

Starting out as a dishwasher in a friend's beer garden when he was just 10, he worked his way up through the ranks, snagging a one-week stint with Königshof Gourmet Restaurant when he was 17.

That was his first brush with Michelin-star fine dining, and the experience ignited his passion to achieve culinary excellence.

"I was so fascinated by the products, the textures, the cooking methods and the perfection that I quit school and started my culinary apprenticeship there for three years," he recalls.

Since then, he has worked at restaurants famous for their culinary offerings in Germany, Switzerland and most recently, Malaysia, where he picked up local slang like "lah". He also embarked on prolific food treks through Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, China and Singapore.


Asian influence

Hailing from Munich, Germany, Chef Halat took his first flight out of Europe for a four-week backpacking trip to Thailand seven years ago.

He recalls being "mind-blown" upon his arrival in the country's capital, Bangkok, where he felt overwhelmed by the "big buildings, chilli from the wok burning (his) eyes, and the pungent durian aroma in the air".

He also travelled from Chiang Mai in the north to Krabi in the south.

"After I returned to Germany, I kept thinking about Asia the whole time," he says.

What particularly impressed him was how Asian culture, food and family could come together, and so seamlessly at that. He also observed that in Asian restaurants, sharing food among families was a common sight.

At CURATE, he wants to replicate the heart-warming and cosy ambience of a gathering with family and friends.

To achieve this, he removed the show plates so that his guests could relax and feel at ease, and not worry about whether they are using the right cutlery or be conscious about how they behave.

"You can then just have a nice evening with your family and friends," he says.

Yen for Japan

Chef Halat is intrigued by Japanese ingredients and the country's culinary philosophy. In fact, he is awed by the Japanese quest for perfection - chefs work tirelessly on improving a single dish for decades and farmers develop innovative ways to improve the fruits and vegetables they grow.

He is also keen on exploring ways to bring out the fifth taste - umami, or "natural MSG (monosodium glutamate)" that is savoury - in his culinary creations through his use of Japanese ingredients such as miso (fermented soybeans), nori (seaweed), nuka (rice bran) and mirin (rice wine).


Exquisite tastes

CURATE's huge, open kitchen sets the stage for an interactive theatre of chefs at work behind gorgeous marble and stainless steel that bear accents of copper and gold.

Among them is Chef Halat, presiding over the dishes before they go on the pass.

My attention turns to the menu on my table, which bears mouthwatering pairings that underscore Chef Halat's modern classic style based on French culinary techniques with Asian-inspired touches.

The amuse-bouche offers fun surprises, from marinated tuna sashimi with nori "pebbles", to crisp "pillows" filled with a cold curry, and olive oil jelly.

The five-course menu ($158++) has a more distinct Asian slant, while the eight-course menu ($198++) is skewed towards classic European.

"I don't want to recreate dishes like laksa or bak kut teh. I wanted to bring the tastes of Singapore and South-east Asia into the dishes, to take hints of these familiar flavours and evoke a little bit of childhood memory," says Chef Halat.

Alaskan king crab with bamboo shoot and nashi pear. PHOTO: RESORTS WORLD SENTOSA

During my tasting session of the five-course menu, I was enthralled by the Alaskan king crab with pale discs of bamboo shoot and nashi pear, dusted with chilli powder and arranged like a flower.

The bamboo shoots are freshly harvested from a farm in Malaysia and cannot be kept for more than two days, otherwise the woody flavour would overpower the dish. Both the bamboo shoots and nashi pear are cured between kombu (Japanese kelp) for that umami boost.

"It's all just red and white on your fork, but one is salty and the other is sweet. It plays with your senses," says Chef Halat.

Spanish carabinero prawn with laksa glaze and calamansi gel. PHOTO: RESORTS WORLD SENTOSA

Other highlights include the Spanish carabinero prawn paired with a house-made laksa glaze and served with bean sprouts, sliced chilli and calamansi gel on the side; Belon oyster paired with coconut and rosella from Tangerine's herb garden; and Iberico pork chop with white pepper and choux pastry reminiscent of our comforting, peppery pork bone tea soup.

I also had a tasting of the eight-course menu that features Chef Halat's impressive foie gras parfait with passionfruit, langostine tartare and pecans. It is like a delightfully nutty "surf and turf", punctuated with zesty citrus tones of passionfruit. The twists to this dish are a base made of kueh lapis, and the goose liver cooked in a broth of kombu that infuses it with a deep, umami flavour.

Braised oxtail in red onion and black truffle. PHOTO: RESORTS WORLD SENTOSA

To my surprise. the braised oxtail was served wrapped in a red onion on a bed of potato espuma and topped with dark curls of freshly grated black truffle.

For the uninitiated, there is a delicate art to handling the onion, which is first peeled and cooked, and hence already very soft when the braised oxtail is put in.

Those privy to Chef Halat's method of curing beef between kombu overnight - to achieve a result similar to air-drying over three weeks - will be excited to try his Wagyu sirloin. The tender and flavoursome meat is outstanding, but above that, I was amazed by the smooth and buttery smoked bone marrow.

The preparation process involves placing the Wagyu bone marrow in an ice bath until it turns completely white, and the blood is gone. This can take up to three days. It is then made into a fluffy butter, smoked and mixed into the beef jus.

Chef Halat goes to great lengths to source his products, evident in his Brie de Meaux dish. This top French brie cheese is paired with chorizo, potato and rambutan-scented honey - personally hand-carried from a Thai family-owned farm in Krabi that grows rambutans and rears bees.

Other gems on this menu are Hokkaido scallop with peas, umeboshi and lardo; turbot fish with pig's head and chives; and kaffir lime with sugar cane and freshly picked aloe vera from neighbour restaurant, Tangerine's herb garden.

Both menus offer a Hokkaido sweet corn dessert, served both hot as a chawanmushi (Japanese egg custard) with purple sweet potato and saffron chip, and cold as realistic corn-shaped ice cream.

My advice to you, however, is not to wait too long to try this selection as Chef Halat is known to refresh his menu every now and then, so you may be surprised by something entirely new at your next visit.

Chef Alexandre Dionisio from two-Michelin-starred La Villa in the Sky. PHOTO: LA VILLA IN THE SKY

Michelin mentors

Every quarter, CURATE welcomes chefs from Michelin-starred establishments abroad as part of its Art at Curate series.

Earlier this year, Chef Halat worked alongside other guest chefs from Michelin-starred establishments such as Masayasu Yonemura from Japan, Richard van Oostenbrugge from Amsterdam, and Kang Mingoo from South Korea.

"Chef Yonemura used ingredients that fascinated me, such as live turtle in a risotto and organs of the sea cucumber. From Richard van Oostenbrugge, I learnt the technique of using dashi (a Japanese stock usually made from kombu and dried bonito flakes) instead of chicken stock to give foie gras a deep, umami taste," he says.

But it was Chef Kang who, with his intricate and precise culinary methods, left the deepest impression on him.

Says Chef Halat: "Just for a small rice cake, he ferments the dough for over eight hours and steams it at three different temperatures.

"I'm honoured to work alongside him. You can see his passion and energy as a chef. His mind never rests and he will change up something on the fly if it can be improved. That spark energises and inspires me."

From Oct 5 to 12, CURATE will welcome its eighth guest chef, Alexandre Dionisio from two-Michelin-starred La Villa in the Sky, in Brussels, Belgium. Reservations are now open for lunch and dinner. And expect more exciting names and new emerging chefs in the series next year, he says.

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