Cover (Image: S.Pellegrino)

The sous chef's win affirms Singapore’s reputation as a hotbed for top chefs

Young chefs from some of Singapore’s hottest restaurants have once again done this island state and feted food capital proud.

Following the S.Pellegrino Young Chef Asia regional finals on Wednesday (September 10), held at the Ecole Tsuji Tokyo culinary school in Tokyo, Japan, Kevin Wong, a sous chef at Meta Restaurant, was crowned the winner and will represent the region at the finals in Milan in May next year.

He came out on top in a group of 15 finalists, which included four of his peers currently working in Singapore; namely Ashlee Malligan of Nouri, Yi Cin Lim of Restaurant Jag, Tor Aik Chua of Restaurant Zén and Fahmi Jamaluddin of Subrosa Dining.

This year, contestants are mentored by their current head chef, and Meta chef-owner Sun Kim praised Wong for showcasing “the strongest technical skills, genuine creativity and an exceptional personal belief about gastronomy”, winning the judges over with his signature dish dubbed a “celebration of a duck”.

This is also the third time a Singapore-based chef has taken the regional title, following Jaan’s Kirk Westaway in 2015 and Burnt Ends' Jake Kellie in 2017. 

To reflect S.Pellegrino’s belief in and support of the transformative power of gastronomy and its impact beyond the kitchen, three new awards were added to this year’s regional finals. And in another nod to Singapore’s talented young chefs, Tor Aik Chua, mentored by restaurant Zen’s Tristin Farmer, received the Acqua Panna Award for Connection in Gastronomy, which was established “to emphasize the growing trend in global gastronomy of chefs without borders”.

Voted by the regional mentors, the winner of this award produced a dish that represents diversity and recognises the beauty of different cultures coming together to create something fresh and exciting. Chua achieved this with his serving of a whole Kinmedai “with Malaysian elements’.

“I used all parts of the Kinmedai, even the eyeballs, which were used in the ragout,” Chua tells. He also used the fish’s roe to make bottarga, while the tail was cured and smoked, and the bones fermented for six months and used to make fish sauce. “I’m from Kedah, Malaysia,” Chua continues, explaining that it is a city located in the country’s north, where “Chinese culture” and the culture of fermentation are strong. “Soya sauce and fish sauce are very familiar flavours, and I learnt a lot about fermentation (working) at Zen”.

Weathering The Storm

This is the fourth edition of the S.Pellegrino Young Chefs competition, and the young competitors were as driven and focused as before. Not even a typhoon that hit Japan the day the chefs arrived in Tokyo could break their spirit.

It did, however, make sourcing for their desired ingredients at Toyosu market the next morning difficult, to say the least. Some chefs were forced to go back to the market the morning of the finals.

Team Meta, on the other hand, had a plan in place. Sun and Wong had acquired the help of their friend Luke Armstrong, previously the head chef at Bacchanalia, who is now working at Mandarin Oriental Tokyo, to source for their star ingredient—the duck. Because in Japan, they could get the fresh duck, not just frozen ones, they made a trip to the hotel a few days before the competition to check on the quality of the duck.

And the effort paid off as Wong admits he felt relief having spent the last six months preparing for the competition. “If you prepared correctly, you just follow what you trained for,” he adds.  

One of the judges, Julien Royer from Odette, pointed out that the “most important thing is the flavour, not the presentation or any other things”.

So, it helped that Wong had prepared the dish every weekend for Sun to taste. He also showed innovation in using dried duck bones to make a glaze, as he wanted “to express the spirit of the duck”. He also shared how he was inspired by the popular roasted duck found at many hawker centres in Singapore. But instead of molasses, he used a reduced a mixture of mirin, Saikyo miso and kinome leaves (from the Japanese prickly ash tree).

For the dish, Wong pan-roasted the duck breast before brushing it with the aforementioned mixture and finishing it over a charcoal grill. He also made Japanese style meatballs and charcoal grilled it in front of the judges.

He had picked up this tip from Louis Han, the chef at Kimme, who had taken part in the competition last year. He advised grilling the meat a la minute as this elevates the flavours, according to feedback Han had received about his barbecued quail dish.

Cooking With Positivity

Working in Singapore exposed Wong, who was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to with wide range of local flavours that he loves to incorporate into his dishes, “but in a harmonious way”. Much like what he did with his winning dish, seasoning the duck heart with curry powder.

He also acknowledged the importance of the harmony he sees in his “team”, which not only involves his colleagues in the kitchen, but also the producers, and artisans they work with.

“I feel the future of gastronomy is bright,” shares Wong who believes food is truly a “universal language”, citing how more people are connecting through it. He sees something inspiring in how the love of food can bring people together; it is, after all, one of the “purest forms of love”.


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