Cover Photo: Lee Yum Hwa

After making waves on the private dining scene in Singapore, these culinary masters follow a winning recipe of turning their online presence into offline storefronts

What started out as small outfits, working out of home kitchens and rented spaces, have since blossomed into bustling brick-and-mortar restaurants and bakeries. Buoyed by their culinary talents and the growing appetite of local foodies, these once private chefs and bakers have found a new future—in expanding beyond home turf, and in doing so, forging new grounds in their craft.

1. Forma

Lee Yum Hwa is perhaps one of the most famous pasta makers in Singapore. At his private dining outfit, Ben Fatto 95, the self-taught chef makes everything by hand—and from scratch—to present an elegant pasta-themed dinner that is well-worth the year-long reservation waitlist.

But there will soon be an easier way to slurp down the delicious creations of this pasta artisan. Lee will helm the kitchen at Forma—an upcoming trattoria set up by The Cicheti Group. That both concepts share a similar philosophy of homegrown talents excelling in a foreign cuisine made for an easy collaboration. “I think there is still a bias that cuisine from a certain culture is only better if executed by the natives,” says Lee. “But I would like to believe that it is our shared dissonance for this school of thought that united our paths.”

Also read: How Lee Yum Hwa Became BenFatto 95—Singapore’s Foremost Pasta Artisan

When doors of Forma open, the menu will feature regional dishes “framed broadly from North to South of Italy, and into the Islands”. Pasta, naturally, will remain a highlight—and will be available in versions made by hand, as well as machine-extruded variants. “My goal has always been to produce handmade pasta with some scalability as the private kitchen gig was never my end game,” shares the pasta maker. At Forma, having more hands on deck means production capabilities can be ramped up and streamlined; and in particular, having a dedicated culinary team takes cooking out of Lee’s hands, freeing up more time for him to focus on his expertise: pasta-making.

For now, he will continue to split his time between Forma (morning to afternoon), and Ben Fatto 95 (evening). “I have always been working along and enjoyed the solitude,” says Lee. “But this should be a nice change, to have a couple more pasta pals to kick it with.”

2. Le Matin Patisserie

Pastry chef Mohamed Al-Matin has a resume as colourful as his gourmet bakes. The Singaporean baker first honed his craft at Le Cordon Bleu in Sydney and went on to work in top kitchens both locally and abroad. That includes the now-defunct Restaurant Andre in Singapore, and most recently, Noma in Copenhagen.

The baker returned home just as the pandemic struck, and began selling his own inspired creations at pop-ups (before the circuit breaker period), and out of a rented kitchen as a digital bakery called Le Matin Patisserie. Demand for his signature treats, including (and especially) the buttery kouign-aman, soared (bake boxes were snagged up almost immediately when released).

When dining out was allowed, Le Matin Patisserie moved into a permanent space at Raeburn Park. It now serves as a test kitchen of sorts where the creative cook can continue his baking magic. On the current menu (it gets updated periodically) are some of the chef’s greatest hits: wild berry jam danish glazed with mulberry kombucha, cardamom-scented buns with a fresh hit of bergamot, cashew tart dusted with saffron dust, and more.

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3. Dearborn

Granola that gets sold out in mere minutes? Under the deft hands of chef Chris Kong, what is typically a breakfast staple gets transformed into gourmet creations—and hot commodities. Foodies flock to Dearborn, a takeaway joint at Everton Park, to snag up bags of cereal that might come coated in homemade black sesame paste, or stirred with dark chocolate buttons, hazelnut, and sea salt. “Many ingredients used are either made in-house, or ground freshly by local artisans,” shares Kong. “This makes a huge difference to the final product.”

Many might find the store name familiar. Dearborn first started as a buzzy supper club in Singapore. And the man behind the stove, Kong, who used to work in top kitchens around the world—from two-Michelin-starred Waku Ghin to the celebrated NoMad in New York—would often prepare granola for guests to take home. The cereal was a hit (“I had so many requests to sell them but I didn’t have the capacity to at the time.”) much like the food served at Dearborn Supper Club, so when the private diner couldn’t continue due to the circuit breaker, Kong thought, “Why not just give it a go?” and shifted his full attention to baking granola instead.

He elevates breakfast cereal with a fine-dining approach. The provenance of ingredients is carefully considered, and organic produce is used as much as possible. Batches are also baked to order to ensure freshness. Every element has been carefully considered, right down to the preparation process, where responsible practices are incorporated. Kong shares: “Food waste is a big problem in the food and beverage industry, and we do our best to minimise it.”

Beyond take-home packs, Dearborn also serves “elaborate granola bowls” and other bakes on Saturdays for immediate enjoyment. Kong sees the production kitchen as an incubation space to flex his culinary muscle to create new things, and “showcase other things I enjoy making”—country loaf, smoked cheddar and chilli loaf, homemade butter, and more. “It’s the most rewarding feeling to be able to have a place of my own,” says Kong.

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4. Mustard Seed

Chef Gan Ming Kiat might have swapped his private kitchen set-up for a brick-and-mortar eatery at Serangoon Gardens, but the atmosphere remains just as cosy and intimate. The shophouse restaurant space seats just 13 people (this makes snagging a reservation spot just as difficult), where Gan and his team serve up what he calls a “personal interpretation of Singapore’s food”.

Having trained in the ways of Japanese cooking, and under chef Malcolm Lee of one-Michelin-starred Candlenut, has prepared Gan well. At Mustard Seed, he brings a local touch to traditional kaseiki cuisine—often creating surprising, yet comforting, dishes as a result. The seasonal menu changes every two months to keep things fresh, and the most recent iteration that ran from January to February saw a reimagination of food that people eat to usher in the new year: porridge spiced with chilli crab, fried lotus roots stuffed with ngoh hiang paste, sugee cake dressed with kumquat, and more.

5. La Bottega

Would you fork out $139 for a six-course tasting menu centred around pizza and pasta? Turns out, a lot of people would, especially when the food comes made by Antonio Miscellaneo of Casa Nostra fame.

The Italian-born chef started cooking for friends and family out of his Tembeling Road home back in 2013, serving up hearty, homey Italian plates. But the rest of Singapore soon caught a whiff of Miscellaneo’s freshly baked pies—and the interest to dine at Casa Nostra started surging. It came to a point where demand outgrew his humble apartment space. “The turning point came when our kids got to an age where they needed more space for homework and play,” shares Miscellaneo, who started finding a new home for Casa Nostra in 2019.

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He ultimately landed in Joo Chiat, where he serves up a slice of Italy at La Bottega. Diners can grab a seat at the alfresco area, designed to resemble the feeling of dining at a typical city square, or head indoors to soak up the warm vibes of a classic osteria. “In 2020 we lived in the Italian countryside … and we became very attached to that rustic charm,” says Miscellaneo. “That was the time when I discovered another dimension in cooking, and we wanted to keep a part of that memory alive.”

With a bigger space also comes bigger ambitions. “At La Bottega, I can offer more variety, more complex dishes, and better ingredients now that I have the critical mass to import everything I need,” the chef-owner says. Three ovens help crisp up his signature pies, making sure that there is plenty to go around, and two walk-in cellars come well-stocked with batches of fermented dough and house-cured salami. “We are only seven months in and I don’t think we have brought La Bottega to its full potential yet,” says Miscellaneo. “The journey has only just started.”

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