A Taste of Home: Noma’s Head Chef Kenneth Foong on Where to Eat and Drink in Singapore
This story was first published on July 13, 2021, and updated on September 14, 2021.
In 2018, Kenneth Foong left Cure in Singapore where he was head chef to take up an internship at Noma in Copenhagen. Just two years later, he was thrilled to be named Noma’s new head chef. Working closely with renowned chef-owner Rene Redzepi, the team has finally been awarded three Michelin stars at the Michelin Guide Nordic Countries 2021.
“I fell in love with the way the restaurant is run, the culture, the people,” says Foong. “And of course the country of Denmark itself, and Copenhagen, which is just beautiful to live in.”
That said, Singapore still holds a special place in his heart. “I miss my family, my friends, the food,” says Foong, who is looking forward to his next visit. And given the many places he shared with Tatler Dining in which to savour the best that the Lion City has to offer, it’s bound to be a food-and-drink-fuelled trip when he does make it back.
What do you miss most in terms of food and drink when you are away from Singapore?
Kenneth Foong (KF): I miss the variety and the accessibility. Food in Singapore is everywhere and there is so much variety, not just in terms of the types of cuisine but the different genres, from fine dining to local to hawker. And it’s easy to satisfy a craving as Singapore is a small country so nothing is that far away. I really miss waking up at 2 in the morning and going for a local bite somewhere. Unfortunately, that’s not something you can do in Copenhagen.
What is the first dish you eat when you return and where do you go for it?
KF: I go to Hong Kong Street Chun Kee in Alexandra Village and I have the fish noodle soup. A big part of this is nostalgia because I grew up going to that place every Sunday with my family, when we would sit down around the table and talk about life. It has that connection I’m constantly craving, especially when I come home.
Do you have any favourite restaurants in Singapore, for fine dining and for more casual experiences?
KF: For casual with Western influences, I like Le Bon Funk, which is run by Keirin [Buck]. Keirin is a friend and one of the most genuine cooks you’ll ever meet. He makes food that is so unpretentious and simple and so delicious. I’ve never had a bad meal, and it feels like he is cooking just for you, whether it’s a whole roasted bird, really delicious pasta, or the charcuterie that he makes himself.
Burnt Ends is definitely a favourite, too. There’s something magical about stuff cooked over fire, about taking really good ingredients and roasting them over embers and enjoying that flavour and smoke profile. It’s something that Dave [Pynt] does really well, and it’s simplicity at its best. It’s so understated. I think, as a chef, you crave foods that are simple yet just so delicious.
And in terms of fine dining, the last time I was back I dined at Zén, which is [acclaimed Stockholm restaurant] Frantzen’s outpost in Singapore, and it was tremendous. It’s just delicious produce, delicious food, and a really incredible wine programme, too.
And for local, I’m a huge fan of the Imperial Treasure group of restaurants. From a chef’s perspective, it’s a dream restaurant to have in terms of being able to have that level of consistency. If you go to any Imperial Treasure restaurant in Singapore it tastes almost the same and it’s always delicious; they have found that magic formula that every chef is chasing. Whether it’s dim sum or Peking duck, every time I’m there I’m amazed because the food is almost unparalleled in terms of consistency and deliciousness.
If you have visitors or guests with you, where do you ensure you always go to give them a real taste of Singapore?
KF: It depends on whether they have an idea of what they would like to try and how tolerant they are of heat and the concept of outdoor dining. For something a little more air-conditioned, I would take them to Ah Yat Seafood Restaurant in Turf City. It is the quintessential fish tank setup, where you pick your seafood and they cook it on the spot however you want it. For a more local dive, I take guests to Sin Hoi Sai in Tiong Bahru, which is similar in style with the fish tanks, but you are sitting in alley and you get that hot breeze of Singapore with a nice cold beverage.
Do you have any favourite Singaporean heritage dishes and where do you go for them?
KF: My favourites are Cantonese dishes and the more home-style cooked foods, like the fish soup I mentioned, shrimp paste chicken and, of course, chicken rice. And for most of them I would go to Alexandra Village. Beyond that, everyone is always talking about where the best laksa is or where the best chicken rice is, but for me it’s preference. Some people like their rice cooked a certain way, and it’s not that one is better than the other.
Where do you like to meet up with old friends?
KF: I like to go to RVLT for wine. There is an excellent range of natural wines on offer, and the owners are personal friends. Ian [Lim] and Alvin [Gho] started off in the fine dining industry, like me, and I would describe them as people who take their craft very seriously but don’t take themselves too seriously. And this shows in their wine selection. If you go there, you have a laugh, one bottle leads to two, and then three, and you order a little food and suddenly it’s 2am.
Shin Gi Tai is another bar that I like, as it has a kind of bespoke bar experience. If you have ever been to D.Bespoke, which is a very high-end Japanese Ginza-style bar, Shin Gi Tai is similar. Anthony, the bartender who runs it, is Singaporean, but he trained in Ginza, Tokyo and has brought back all these skills and know-how. Whenever I go, we never have a menu. We just sit there and have a conversation and he’ll ask what I feel like having today, and I’ll say, ‘I feel like a brown spirit’, and he’ll go down that path with the conversation and then he’ll make the best Old-Fashioned I’ve tasted in a really long time, or a really nice Manhattan. If you are with someone who really loves their libations, Shin Gi Tai will easily impress.
Do you have a favourite café in Singapore?
KF: I love coffee. And in Copenhagen we are spoilt for choice; the coffee here is amazing. But in Singapore, one spot I keep going back to is Nylon Coffee Roasters.
Is there anywhere else that you never miss visiting when you are back?
KF: I always go for sushi at Shinji by Kanesaka. The lunch is amazing and great value for money. It’s probably the best sushi I’ve had outside of Japan and New York City, and it’s a place I constantly go back to.
I also go to Din Tai Fung for dumplings. It’s just so good and it’s everywhere. It’s similar to the Imperial Treasure group of restaurants in that you can always pop into one and they’re just so fast. I always order the same thing––a basket of ten dumplings and fried rice––and I’m done in 30 minutes. It’s such a joy when things are so efficient.
Is there anything you always take with you when you leave Singapore?
KF: Personally, no. But my mother always packs Bee Cheng Hiang bakkwa, or Chinese-style pork jerky, for me. It comes in small vacuum packs and it’s nice to snack on, especially on the plane.
Where do go to find authentic flavours of Singapore when you are back in Copenhagen?
KF: There is Chinese food in Copenhagen, but not necessarily Singaporean food. I think the concept of Singaporean, or even Southeast Asian food, is yet to reach the Nordic regions, so I usually cook at home and invite some friends as an excuse to make a lot of food. Lately––and especially during lockdown––I’ve been trying my hand at dim sum, including making the doughs, the wrappers and the fillings. There’s something fun about making it from scratch, and the technicality behind it is mind-blowing. Dim sum is something you take for granted, but it takes a lot of work. Lately, I’ve also made a lot of Hainanese chicken rice––poached chicken with chicken fat rice––which is just delicious.