The concept is simple: a year-long pop-up where young local chefs take turns to showcase their menus on a monthly basis. Here, you will find three well-coiffured lads under 30 years of age, dressed in crisp white stand-collar shirts and smart navy-blue aprons, and all looking pretty intense while firing up dishes. The imaginative fine-dining style dishes they serve up have been positively lighting up social media: for instance, a kaya tartlet topped with hand-shelled peas, and a miniature bouquet of bitter local greens served with tamarind caramel.
Desmond Shen, Marcus Leow and Abel Su – previously unknown names to the public – have been making quite a sensation. Within two months of their first dinner in May, the 18-seater that hosts two communal sessions five evenings of the week was already enjoying brisk business, with reservations for the weeks ahead filled up. Magic Square, conceptualised and set up by restaurateur Tan Ken Loon – the creative force behind The Naked Finn and Nekkid Bar – has no doubt catapulted them into the limelight, but the platform was not designed for fame and glory. Like swans paddling furiously underwater, the chefs are pulling longer hours than they ever had, and stretching resources like they never did, in order to meet the tight budget set by Tan.
TRIAL BY FIRE
To set up the 1,000 sq ft space, Tan sunk in about $60,000 of his money – “And I am not counting on getting it back,” he says, calling the project his way of paying it forward. It all started because he felt that the talent of Shen – whom he has known since the latter started out at The Naked Finn when he was just 19 years old – deserved a stage of its own. Says Shen: “We’d been talking about this for years and, initially, it was meant to be something small, like a place with just a table for 10.” Along the way, the concept evolved into what it is today. Through special ad hoc sessions, Tan also invites other young local talents, such as Masterchef Asia finalist Lennard Yeong, and Ethel Hoon, the Singaporean sous chef of Faviken in Sweden, to use the platform.
Shen, Leow and Su further tap their networks to rope in other local chefs for guest stints. Tan says: “Ultimately, we aim to groom the next generation of Singaporean chefs who can and will direct the future of Singaporean restaurants beyond what’s existing.”
It might sound like a feel-good playground where young guns are given carte blanche to do whatever they like. But this incubator for local culinary talent isn’t just about creative expression. It is also about gaining first-hand business experience and industry resources – and learning to find one’s culinary identity within practical constraints. “We thought it would be fun to not work under a chef – we could do everything and anything!” recalls Leow of their initial thoughts. They soon learnt otherwise.
Though Tan shouldered the set-up costs, the chefs – who draw a monthly salary – are expected to sustain the place with earnings from the dinners. So, while the three are extremely lucky to have been given the opportunity to dive deep into the complex world of running a restaurant, and been gifted a creative space to call their own – even for just a year – their work at Magic Square is not all fun and games.
Granted, they are privileged to have premium German name Miele sponsor the kitchen set-up, but they had to adapt to using appliances designed for the home – a different animal from the top industrial equipment they were used to. Instead of support from a brigade of kitchen staff and service personnel, they have to personally fill every role – from cook, server to steward. And where they once trimmed prized ingredients to its most prime parts to deliver “perfect” looking plates, they have had to find inventive ways of incorporating what might have been binned in their previous kitchens, in order to stretch the dollar. “Some days, I wish we have liquid nitrogen,” says Leow. “Or a blast chiller so that my desserts can set in two hours, rather than take a whole day.”
In the pop-up’s first week, a malfunctioning exhaust system forced them to modify their processes to create dishes with minimal finishes before serving – or the entire dining room would have been filled with fumes. And all the dishes had to be served with bite-sized portions – simply because they couldn’t afford cutlery and had only chopsticks. “We were totally winging it,” admits Shen, who previously worked at Blackwattle, opened by Australian chef Clayton Wells of acclaimed Sydney restaurant Automata. He had worked at Narisawa and Odette prior to that. Su, who came aboard in June after almost three years at Odette, chuckles as he remembers, prior to joining, the other two at midnight sending him images of a mountain of dirty plates to be washed, after a nine-course dinner. And no, they don’t have a dishwasher.
While technically nothing that they are doing is new to them – apart from having to manage the finances and be accountable for every dime spent and every gram of wastage – “this is worse,” says Leow, comparing the workload at Magic Square to that at his previous workplace, the Michelin-starred Whitegrass. Bear in mind that he has served full-house dinners with multiple seatings, working in a tight culinary team that has fewer than six people at times. His co-workers fondly nicknamed him “The Cockroach”, simply because “he can take any kind of sh*t”. But the fatigue experienced at Magic Square – especially in the early months, when it was just Shen and Leow – is of another level. When they had less than 20 hours to complete the prep for a new monthly menu, the duo simply pulled an all-nighter. “When the guests left (at around 11pm) on Thursday, we looked at the amount of work that had to be done to serve up my menu on Friday – and realised that there was no way we could get any sleep,” says Leow quietly, as if remembering a bad dream. “We were literally shaking from all the caffeine during service the next day.”
To think that they had imagined this stint to be a sabbatical of sorts.
UTOPIA IN HELL’S KITCHEN
Yet they come in almost every single day of their own accord. Despite the dark circles under their eyes, it is apparent that their hearts are light. “It is tough work, but we are taking this as an opportunity to learn and we want to get the most out of it,” says Su. “Also, this arrangement is allowing us to get back to what got us started in the first place: cooking.” Shen concurs. He says: “Large teams disconnect one from cooking. This lean set-up where we have to do everything ourselves actually gives us more drive, for we can see exactly how our efforts are translated to happy diners. I think I speak for all of us when I say that we are much happier here than anywhere else we’ve been.”
This lean set-up where we have to do everything ourselves actually gives us more drive, for we can see exactly how our efforts are translated to happy diners.
Su – who has worked as a stagiaire at progressive New York restaurant Atera under chef Matthew Lightner, and farm-to-table concept restaurant Brae by Australian chef Dan Hunter – also observes that smaller teams communicate better and are more tightly knit. “At Magic Square, we are stuck with one another for the next year, so we have to have one another’s backs – and that is very reassuring,” he says.
“This might not be a realistic set-up for the long term, but it makes us rethink how a kitchen should be run and structured. Kitchens are generally high-stress environments with an emphasis on hierarchy, where fear is an instrument to keep order. But is all that necessary?”
Out of this honest, open and equal relationship between the three chefs grows a collaborative process in coming up with the menu. Su had wanted to serve a dish of squid farce, a mousse-like blend usually used as stuffing, with a duo of sauces for his debut menu in July, and though Shen and Leow did not think it was a good idea, they agreed. “Failing is an essential part of the process,” says Shen. “But we always try to understand where each of us is coming from, even if we don’t like the taste. For example, Abel and Marcus use corn a lot. I hate corn. But I will still try their dishes and understand their ideas, before commenting.”
Su adds: “The beautiful part of the process is that we put ourselves in one another’s shoes.”
A PLATFORM FOR CHANGE
Despite losing Su to Magic Square, Julien Royer – the chef and co-owner of Odette, which is ranked No. 28 on the World’s 50 Best list – has only praises for it. “It is a beautiful platform for budding local chefs – nothing like I have seen anywhere else in the world. And I would say that there are many young talents from Singapore who are of very high calibre,” says Royer, who has spent eight years working in Singapore.
“Singaporean chefs have the advantage of being more exposed to different food cultures and cuisine styles, even within the country. Many young chefs also have the privilege of being able to travel around the world to eat, see and learn new things. This gives them an edge. So it would be amazing if this project can be continued beyond the first year.” So strong a supporter of this concept is Royer that he is already planning his second visit to Magic Square.
By putting the spotlight on local chefs who would otherwise not have been known to the public, Magic Square is also giving diners the opportunity to savour their cuisine – and they are often rooted in local flavours. “We also want to expose diners to a new facet of Singaporean food – one that isn’t hawker fare, but with comfortably familiar flavours,” says Tan. Pricing the nine-course dinner at $78 also makes it accessible to a wider audience – the younger set with smaller disposable incomes, or perhaps those who have been too intimidated by the prices at fine-dining restaurants. Combined, these two factors give Magic Square yet another dimension as an F&B incubator – that of a whole new cuisine. While Leow and Su seek new applications for Peranakan and Chinese ingredients, respectively, Shen – who was born to a Chinese family but grew up eating the food from his Indian-Muslim godparents’ kitchen – takes ingredients from everyday family-style cooking and “sees how their potential can be maximised to create something refined and elegant”.
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At a time when “Mod Sin” is still in its nascent stages – with more local chefs entering the fray with their own interpretations – Magic Square’s function as a catalyst for exploring the identity of modern local fare, for both chefs and diners alike, can be far-reaching. But Tan neither pontificates nor preaches, and admits candidly that he has no idea what this project will lead to. The chefs are also keeping their options open. “The worst-case scenario after the year? Going back to work for another chef!” quips Shen. Su, the eldest among the three but with the least number of years of experience due to his late start, says he might go back to working at other restaurants in order to learn more. As for Leow? “I’m already planning a two-week holiday.
MAGIC SQUARE’S YOUNG AND HUNGRY
DESMOND SHEN | 25 | SINCE MAY
The Temasek Polytechnic graduate was introduced to Tan through a school senior and started his professional journey at The Naked Finn. Since then he has worked in the kitchens of White Rabbit, Odette, Narisawa, Whitegrass and Blackwattle. He also spent three months at indoor farming company Farm Delight, and can tell you about different plants’ reaction to artificial lights of different hues.
MARCUS LEOW | 26 | SINCE MAY
He decided to forgo tertiary education to pursue his dream of cooking professionally, and started out at Spruce, picking up basic culinary skills. After doing a one-year stage at Iggy’s, he did a professional course at At-Sunrice Global Chef Academy, during which he did an internship at classic Italian fine-dining restaurant Gunther’s. Following that, he joined Whitegrass and was there for close to two years.
ABEL SU | 29 | SINCE JUNE
Even while studying for his degree in marketing and finance, Su would go around working at restaurants during every term break. After graduation, he was a stagiaire at Jaan under Julien Royer, followed by another stint at Bacchanalia working under Ivan Brehm. Then, on his own dime and time, he took a gamble and flew to New York for a trial at Atera – which landed him a three-month stage under Matthew Lightner. Su later joined the opening team of Odette, but took a three-month sabbatical in between to work at Brae.
ETHEL HOON | 28 | SPECIAL DINNER IN MAY (OVER)
After spending a year working with Sebastien Lepinoy at Les Amis, the Le Cordon Bleu Paris graduate did a stint at Sweden’s Faviken in 2014, and formally joined the team in 2015. Since then, she has become the sous chef of this cult restaurant and also runs Faviken’s pop-up concept, Hoon’s Chinese, which serves Chinese-influenced dishes made with locally sourced ingredients.
LENNARD YEONG | 30 | SPECIAL DINNER IN JUNE (OVER)
A self-taught cook whose interest in food was piqued by a meal at El Bulli, Yeong once spent his weekends working as a stagiaire at the now defunct Guy Savoy – while holding down his day job as mechanical engineer at a shipping company. Since Masterchef Asia, Yeong – who is known for his pedantic focus on mastering techniques – has gone on to do multiple F&B collaborations and is also in the midst of filming a series of food programmes around Asia.
ELAINE KOH | 28 | SPECIAL DINNER IN AUGUST
A graduate from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) Singapore, Koh has worked at the likes of Pollen and Odette, and is now a sous chef at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Dempsey Cookhouse & Bar.
YEO SHENG XIONG | 27 | SPECIAL DINNER IN AUGUST
With a strong foundation in French cooking, Yeo has worked at Jaan and is currently the junior sous chef at Odette. The plates he serves up at work might be painfully refined, but his view on what makes good food is simple: one that brings people together.
JOSEPHINE LOKE | 28 | SPECIAL DINNER IN OCTOBER
Also an alumnus of Odette, Loke has been through the kitchens of Pollen, Tippling Club and Open Farm Community. She now leads Andaz Singapore’s premium steakhouse 665°F as its sous chef.
LEE JIA PENG | 28 | SPECIAL DINNER IN OCTOBER
The Joel Robuchon alumnus fills the role of sous chef at progressive restaurant Tippling Club. While his cooking style is modernist, his emphasis is not just on the cutting-edge techniques, but the eventual flavours on the plate.
Magic Square is at #01-02, 5B Portsdown Road.
To book seats, call 8181-0102.