The Life Interview With Damian D'Silva

Chef Damian D'Silva champions Singapore heritage food despite failures

A touch of obsessiveness drives chef Damian D'Silva, a champion of Singapore heritage food and former engineer, who has faced divorce and failed businesses

Chef Damian D'Silva, 60, is known for cooking that evokes old Singapore.

The menu at two-month-old Folklore restaurant, where he is executive chef, showcases the food he ate growing up in a Eurasian and Peranakan family.

Foodies laud his dishes such as masak lemak, where sweet potato leaves, spinach and kangkong are simmered in a coconut milk gravy with prawns. He is less famed for his Western cuisine, though some fans get rhapsodic over his pasta.

Ironically, D'Silva never intended to become a chef. "I didn't choose to become one," he says.

It was only in midlife that the former aircraft engineer switched careers after a devastating divorce.

Still, the roots for his career as a chef run deep in the past.

He is the eldest of three children born to a Eurasian, who worked in banking, and a Eurasian-Peranakan housewife. He learnt meticulous cooking techniques from his grandparents from both sides of the family.

He used to visit his maternal grandmother, who was Peranakan, during school holidays and helped out in the kitchen. Chillies made his hands tingle and burn as he ground spices for rempah using grandma's batu giling, a traditional granite implement comprising a rectangular slab and a rolling pin.

His Eurasian grandfather, who was living with his family, was initially reluctant to let the boy, aged about 11 then, into the kitchen.

It took a child's candour to convince him.

"Granddad said, 'What do you want to cook for? I cook, you eat.' I said to him, 'I want to learn to cook because one day, you're going to die. Who's going to cook for me then?'

"He kept quiet. Then he said, 'You don't do anything, you just watch.'"

The boy proved to be a keen observer.

Each year, three months before Christmas, granddad would start to make cakes and condiments such as achar and pickles, recalls D'Silva.

Granddad always cooked feng, a traditional Eurasian curry of pig offal, on Dec 23 and it involved cleaning, cooking and boiling the stomach, liver, kidney, intestines and lungs. The liver had to be cooked a just-done pink and diced "2.5 to 3mm".

Labour-intensive dishes with a similar attention to detail are found at Folklore restaurant, which is located at Destination Singapore Beach Road hotel, a few strides away from Golden Mile Complex.

D'Silva's singgang, a piquant Eurasian dish, involves deboning wolf herring for a few hours. And he reckons his rendang takes eight hours to make.

The slower rhythms of heritage food meant that, early on, he got frustrated with customers who voiced their impatience over delays in being served. "I was a very angry chef then," he admits.

That was when he was in his 40s and first started working in the food business. But before that, he had another very different career.

After completing his studies, he plumped for a job in the aviation industry. He says: "I loved planes. I loved meddling with things and trying to find a way to fix them."

He trained to be an aircraft engineer at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida in the United States, got married and had two sons. But at 40, he was divorced. He now has two young grandchildren.

He blames the breakdown of his 12-year marriage in part to a driven, slightly obsessive work ethic.

If I want to learn something, I'm 100 per cent hands-on. I tend to be a perfectionist. I don't think I'm a workaholic who works for money. I love what I do to the extent of being a little bit mad. I don't think it was a choice."

As an aircraft engineer, he sometimes clocked seven-day weeks, working with clients from the US and Asia. "Sometimes I wish I had paid more attention to my kids and ex-wife," he says.

His divorce left him fumbling without a sense of direction for about three years.

He was tired of the aviation industry after 15 years and quit his job. He drank heavily for a while and supported himself in various ways such as selling old furniture he refurbished.

Resurrects fading or dying dishes

"I was really lost. Then an Italian friend said to me, 'Why don't you come and cook in Italy?'"

His friend, Mr Marcello Caglieri, was working in a Singapore hotel at the time and had dined with him at his home on several occasions. Mr Caglieri's father owned hotels and restaurants in Italy.

D'Silva says: "I went not to run away; it was to find myself again. I didn't know what I wanted to do."

So in the late 1990s, he spent 11/2 years working in restaurants in places such as Sardinia, Rome and Naples. He returned with a renewed appreciation for traditional food that was not confined to the 300-year-old ragu recipes he had seen.

"Being a chef was never in my mind until after I came back. The only reason I wanted to do it was seeing all this heritage food disappearing here," he says.

He faced plenty of obstacles in the capricious food and beverage industry. In 1999, he set up a catering business, Rent-A-Chef. After it closed several years later, many customers urged him to start a restaurant.

He did and a revolving door of short-lived business ventures followed. Soul Kitchen in Purvis Street, a Western and Peranakan restaurant, opened in 2001 and closed about four years later. Immigrants, a gastrobar in Joo Chiat, closed in 2015 after three years.

He ran hawker stalls twice, in the Commonwealth area between 2008 and 2010, and for several months last year at Timbre+. He also worked as a private chef.

There are different reasons for each closure. Customers found it too hot and the music too loud at the stall at Timbre+ in Ayer Rajah Crescent. And he was not enamoured of the tapas concept at Immigrants, where he had business partners.

D'Silva, who says he had invested and lost about $500,000 in his businesses, admits: "I know I'm not the best businessman. I think I'm best left in the kitchen because that's where my heart and head are."

Currently an employee at Folklore restaurant, he says he has mellowed as he now understands better that most people were not brought up steeped in a culture of heritage food like he was.

He says he was somewhat of a food "nazi" in his Soul Kitchen days, once telling an impatient customer to go across the street to a McDonald's instead.

But he is generous in wanting to pass down his heritage cooking. He once told a guest how to improve a dish of pork trotters and salted vegetables by adding a dash of good brandy.

He has also influenced other chefs.

Pang Kok Keong, the chef-owner of Antoinette and a friend of more than 10 years, says: "I feel he should have more recognition as a chef. He's unfortunate that he doesn't have much luck on the business side."

He says D'Silva taught him his aglio olio pasta recipe, an outwardly simple dish that involves frying garlic for 15 minutes at low heat, and chopping Italian parsley just before it is added to the pasta to retain its "lemony essence".

Aglio olio is one of the most ordered dishes at Antoinette, says Pang.

K.F. Seetoh, founder of Makansutra, a company that focuses on food culture, says D'Silva is "one of the last few soldiers of this culinary legacy of ours".

"He's 'raceless' when it comes to Singaporean food. He's Eurasian, but he does Chinese, Indian and Malay food too. He likes what he does and he's stubborn about it. He doesn't change much the purity of the idea of the dish," says Seetoh.

He adds that D'Silva "resurrects fading or dying dishes" such as loh kai yik, a traditional Cantonese dish whose ingredients include pork, chicken wings and fermented tofu.

This quality of having a "narrative", of a local heritage dish that originally came from south China, is attractive not only to Singaporeans, but also to the millions of tourists who visit, says Seetoh.

D'Silva's elder son Nigel, 33, an account manager in the food and beverage industry focusing on bars and clubs, says that while his father wants to educate people about heritage food, he is able to take a "chill" approach these days.

"He's not too worried about what tomorrow brings, he's more a 'today' kind of person."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2017, with the headline Chef Damian D'Silva champions Singapore heritage food despite failures. Subscribe