Singapore’s top celebrity chef Justin Quek talks about food with both pragmatic sense and refined taste of someone who has known hard work in the kitchen intimately and has sought to achieve more over the years.
“You can do shortcuts when cooking, but that will show in your end product. It will not taste as good. You will lose the natural flavors of the food,” he told Manila Standard during the presentation of his degustation menu at Red Lantern in Solaire.
Take his wok-fried Maine lobster Hokkien noodle. He used 200 lobster heads to make 10 liters of stock—an indulgent pursuit of exceptional and natural seafood flavor for his signature dish. The noodles are topped with lobster meat, squid, and slices of pork belly that provide a crunchy texture, and on the side is sambal with calamansi to taste. And I must say, for someone who is not fond of spicy dishes, Chef Justin’s sambal is so good I poured the entire ramekin-ful on my noodles.
“You need a good foundation—the balance of your flavors must be good that they do not attack the senses. What we want is to bring comfort food such as Hokkien noodles to a luxe level,” said the sneaker-wearing hands-on chef known for his Franco-Asian flair.
Quek’s foie gras xiao long bao, a signature item in his JustIN restaurants in Singapore and China, marries his East-West blend.
“Inside, it is French with the creamy foie gras and truffle consommé. Outside, it is very Asian. It is an explosion of flavors,” he said.
His chendol dessert in fresh young coconut creatively uses sea salt to elevate the sweetness of the Indonesian gula java ice cream made from palm sugar.
If his signature dishes appear to embody a metamorphosis of sorts from what is usual to what can be considered luxury, it is, perhaps, because Quek himself underwent the same transformation.
The son of a fruit stall owner who started cooking as a seaman at 19 years old before he even had formal culinary training, Quek knows there is no substitute to grit and perseverance.
“I cannot be a mechanic or an engineer without formal training, but I can be a cook,” he said, recalling his first salary—a meager SG$8 for 15 hours of back-breaking labor.
Quek studied the basics of cooking two years after and decided to travel to France to improve his knowledge and technique, armed only with his life, quite literally, and his life savings.
“I worked for free in France for a year, just so I could learn. I was totally broke. I returned to Singapore without a penny to my name,” he recalled.
His name and reputation, however, were enough to land him a job as the first Singaporean chef to serve the French ambassador in the island city-state. He would later become a partner and the opening chef de cuisine for the famed French fine dining restaurant Les Amis, and served as the principal chef for Marina Bay Sands’ 240-seater fine dining restaurant, Sky on 57.
And last week, he was at Solaire in his first visit to the Philippines as part of the hotel’s “Culinary Masters Series.”
“The Culinary Masters Series is another example of providing the best experience to our guests that is distinctly Solaire,” said Knut Becker, Solaire’s vice president for food and beverage.
Becker continued, “By bringing in renowned and internationally decorated chefs from all parts of the globe, Solaire gets to share the fascinating ingenuity and creativity that are behind some of the best gastronomic creations that have garnered praise and recognition, and at the same time, widen the culinary horizon of our patrons.”
Despite his achievements, Quek seems to have retained not just passion but fascination with food.
“Masarap?” he asked me when I tried his mushroom cappuccino served with a piece of toast on the side.
“Don’t use the fork. Just use your hands to eat the toast. Dip it in the soup. Don’t be shy,” said Singapore’s most internationally acclaimed chef. How very Asian, and comforting, and normal.
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