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More Singapore chefs win international culinary competitions

Singapore is a force to reckon with in international cooking competitions. How did our chefs got to be so good?

Every four years, the Olympics and the World Cup take place. No, not the one about sports and soccer, but the Culinary Olympics and Culinary World Cup, both of which follow the same time table.

Unless you’ve been following the scene, Singapore chefs’ prowess at the competitive level isn’t all that well known. But the country has been taking part in international competitions since the 1980s, with its first major win in the World Culinary Contest in 1982, when a young Berlin-born and Singapore-based chef named Peter Knipp won a gold medal for his cold platter of black chicken stuffed with forest mushrooms.

  • Matthew Tham won the recent International Young Chef Olympiad.

In that same decade, the Singapore Chefs’ Association (SCA) was formed, recruiting a Singapore Regional Culinary Team which scored a number of awards from the Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt in 1984, including eight individual gold medals and a gold Grand Prix medal. They also came in second at the Expogast in Luxembourg in 1986.

Randy Chow, current Head of Competitions at the SCA, says that Singapore now takes part in 40 per cent more competitions than back in the 80s, and it has consistently made it into the top three or five positions.

“We have always been considered a powerhouse in the culinary field, and this has been consistent over the years,” says Chow. “Whenever we travel, people always look at whatever trend or style we bring with us. There are a few big name countries in the competition scene like Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, USA, and Singapore is among them.”

The major competitions that Singapore usually takes part in are the Culinary World Cup, Culinary Olympics, and the Bocuse D’or, which is a prestigious biennial world chef championship. The SCA also sends their junior chefs – defined as chefs under age 25 – to compete in a number of regional competitions like Food & Hotel Asia, to train for a potential future in the big league.

Chow himself has been taking part in competitions since the 80s, and he started out as an apprentice under his sous chef Peter Knipp at the Hilton International Singapore back in those days. Now, he is a level A judge as approved by the World Association of Chefs’ Societies (WACS), and last led a team at the IGEHO Salon Mondial in Basel in 2013, where they won silver and gold medals in the hot, cold and pastry categories.

Despite Singapore’s strong track record, Chow highlights that it can be quite challenging to find new competitors who are willing and able to devote the amount of time and effort that is required to go through the training process.

“Times have changed and manpower is now very tight. Imagine being away for two weeks for a competition – that can be quite costly for restaurant chefs running their own businesses, and it’s tough to convince the restaurant owners to allow their staff the spare time. Priorities are different nowadays,” he says.

That’s why for chefs like Yew Eng Tong of Ocean Restaurant, having that kind of support is one of the key reasons he has managed to take part in the Bocuse D’or for the last 10 years – first as a commis, then later representing Singapore as the main contestant.

“Resorts World Sentosa supports me and my training schedule, and they even gave me a training kitchen. I train whenever I can, but it’s still not as much as some other countries where chefs train every day because they get paid just to do competitions,” says Yew, who took part in the Bocuse D’or Finale in Lyon earlier this year, where Singapore ranked 16th out of 24 participating countries.

During the same stretch of competitions in Lyon in January, Singapore was also represented in the World Pastry Cup (Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie) where it came in ninth; the Global Young Chef Challenge (third place), as well as the International Catering Cup (third place).

This was the first time Singapore participated in the International Catering Cup, and the contestants were a two-man team made up of Singapore-based F&B veteran Patrick Heuberger, and local head chef of Le Bistrot du Sommelier Brandon Foo.

Though they spent a full year training and forked out over S$20,000 from their own pockets – some competitions can easily cost up to S$100,000, according to Chow – Heuberger has no regrets and hopes to be able to form a Singapore team in every future edition.

“It was an amazing experience, and I learned a lot that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise,” says the Swiss-born chef, who currently works at Huber’s Butchery. “A simple example is that we learned how to make tartlets. I’ve been a chef 26 years and Brandon has 10 years, and we can make basic tartlets. But the beautiful ones with a perfect edge and texture, we didn’t know how to make that before. Now we can do it with our eyes closed.”

For Jaan’s chef de cuisine Kirk Westaway, representing Southeast Asia in the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition 2015 gave him the opportunity to network with reputable chefs, as well as to put his own skills to the test.

“I had to prep, cook, and plate everything on my own. Though I only had to cook one dish, it consisted of 18 different elements that had to be prepared in 310 portions in 10 hours. It really tested my ability as a chef as I was not used to the volume and speed of delivering all that alone,” he says.

If you’re wondering what these chefs usually cook at these international competitions, Chow shares that the menu usually depends on which region the competition is taking place in.

He recalls with a laugh: “In Asia we tend to be more playful with Singapore flavours, as they are more adaptable. When we go to Europe, hold back because their palate is different. Things like durian for dessert would be suicide. Fermented beancurd and salted fish as well. Even sambal, to them it smells like a dead rat. We learned this through a painful experience, so now we’re much more careful.”


THE COMPETITORS

1. Ong Jing Qin, 23
Head of Junior Chef Club, won Alen Thong Golden Coffee Pot Young Chefs Challenge at SIAL 2016, Abu Dhabi

Ong Jing Qin’s love for food started with one of the most traditional dishes we know – bak chang. She learned to make this glutinous rice dish when she was just nine years old, with guidance from her Peranakan grandmother.

“We used to go over for dinner every day after school, and I enjoyed watching her cook. When I was younger I would just help with plating, but as I grew older she taught me the recipes, how to make bak chang, kaya, and chicken rice because my grandfather was Hainanese,” she says.

Now, Ong heads the Singapore Junior Chefs Club, and led the Singapore National Junior Culinary Team to win the Alen Thong Golden Coffee Pot Young Chefs Challenge in Abu Dhabi last year.

Their team of 12 (made up of six main chefs and six assistants) prepared a buffet for 44 pax in 48 hours consisting of a cold soup, freshly-baked bread, salads, seafood and meat platters, tapas, cakes, and desserts. They also had to prepare a hot lunch with a chicken main course and a hot dessert immediately after – all surviving on little sleep.

Since that competition, Ong has been busy working at the upcoming Dempsey Cookhouse and Bar by chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, which opened on Mar 3 – a job she got after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America last year.

She says: “I think this year I’ll take a break from competitions to focus on work, then next year maybe participate in a few more. I would love to take on a mentoring role in future for the upcoming young chefs, because we are currently already training them for competitions. They are still in polytechnics, but we are preparing them early.”

2. Matthew Tham, 24
Champion at the International Young Chef Olympiad 2017

It never crossed Matthew Tham’s mind to become a chef when he was younger, even though his father – who works in the food industry – made it a point to take him to various restaurants and expose his young palate to good food.

“He’s a big part of why I’m interested in cooking now, but it just didn’t hit me when I was a child,” says the 24-year-old, who only realised his interest when he turned 18 and decided to join ITE’s pastry course before enrolling at the At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy.

“I like how cooking is very personal – I believe it’s a very direct display of love, and I like the constant learning because you can never reach a perfect standard of cooking. I find even the long hours addictive and fun,” he explains.

He has come a long way too, as earlier this year Tham represented Singapore in the third edition of the International Young Chef Olympiad which was held in India, and emerged the champion.

For now, competing will have to be put on hold as he intends to focus on his career, starting with working a year at the modern European restaurant LeVeL33. It’s all part of his six-year plan to open his own establishment by the time he turns 30, and one of the stepping stones will be to join a local Michelin-starred restaurant (he has his sights set on Odette) to gain experience.

Says Tham: “When you’re young, you have this sort of carefree mentality, and I want to take advantage of that while I can. I feel like the culinary scene in Singapore is booming now, and my dream one day is to see all the Michelin-starred restaurants in Singapore headed by Singapore talent – I think that would be pretty cool.”

3. Lynnette Tay, 25
Third in the Global Young Chefs Challenge 2017

When Lynnette Tay was a child, she found that she loved art. So her food-loving father told her food is like an art, especially when flavours, textures, and colours come together.

“He always shared with me his childhood memories about food, and though I didn’t get to taste what he did, I could imagine the flavours. He would bring me to markets to see new ingredients and explain what goes well together, like blue cheese and grapes,” she recalls.

Tay was born in Singapore, but moved with her family to Thailand for 14 years when her parents started a catering business there. She started helping out with the business when she was 12, doing simple tasks like packing and cleaning, before moving on to helping her mother out in the kitchen.

After applying to the Singapore Hotel and Tourism Education Centre (SHATEC) when she was 17, Tay took part in cooking competitions, starting with the Food & Hotel Asia 2010. Earlier this year, she represented Singapore at the Global Young Chefs Challenge in Lyon, and emerged the second runner-up.

“Out of the 17 competitions I’ve taken part in so far, this was the most memorable, because of all the training and hard work we put into it. I had to do up a menu in only three to four months, so to be in the top three is quite satisfying,” she says.

Down the road, Tay’s plan is to help her parents out with their catering company, and expand it in Thailand and perhaps one day to Singapore. “After that one day I want to open my own restaurant serving a fusion of Thai and Singapore cuisine with a French twist – that would be my ultimate goal.”

4. Aaron Wong, 25
Best Commis Award – Bocuse D’or Asia Pacific Shanghai Selection 2014

If Batman and Robin were to take part in a cooking competition, Aaron Wong is quite happy to be Robin – the supportive commis chef instead of the head honcho. And he does a good job of it too, after working with Singapore’s representative chef Yew Eng Tong for two editions of the prestigious Bocuse D’or competition, and even snagging the Best Commis Award at the Bocuse D’or Asia Pacific Shanghai Selection in 2014.

“To be a good commis, you have to be attentive to your chef. You have to know exactly what to do on the day of the competition, because it’s all about following the timeline and getting everything prepared for your main chef on time,” says the 25-year-old.

“Normally the main chef will do the more important things like cooking the main meat and fish ingredients, while I do the garnish, cutting, and measurements. It’s a supporting role but I’m very happy to do it,” he adds.

Wong first learned to cook out of necessity, when his father taught him to make lunches for his sisters at age 16. He later spent six months working in a hotel kitchen back in his hometown in Sarawak, Malaysia, becoming coming to Singapore and studying at the At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy.

His first cooking competition was at Food & Hotel Asia 2012, where he won a silver medal and was inspired to continue joining competitions including the Bocuse D’or while working at Resorts World Sentosa’s Ocean Restaurant under Yew.

On whether he will ever take part in competitions on his own, he says: “I enjoy being a commis for now, because while supporting others, I can also learn from them. I don’t think I’m ready to handle a competition just yet, but in four years I aim to become a main chef, and maybe take part in a competition then.”

Adapted from The Business Times.