Cover Lee Yum Hwa, famously known as the pasta artisan BenFatto 95 (Photography: Gan)

He shares his journey from accountant to self-taught chef

For most of us, ordering pasta is a decision dictated by the accompanying sauce, whether we’re hankering for arrabiata or pesto. For Lee Yum Hwa, however, these embellishments merely overshadow the real star of the dish: the pasta itself.

This was the guiding light of his private dining venture, Benfatto95, a curated experience centred around the wide world of freshly made pastas. From tortellini to rigatoni, each dish is served elegantly simple, free from distracting pageantry. It’s nigh on impossible to secure a seat at Lee’s table—with a one-year waiting list—which becomes all the more impressive when you learn that the 39-year-old Lee is entirely self-taught.

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Lee’s foray into the culinary scene began in 2015, inspired by a trip to Italy. He had had the pleasure of feasting on a pasta dish that he simply could not find in Singapore. It led to an obsession, spurring him to recreate the pasta himself. Serendipitously, Lee was also at a crossroads in his career, and he had to make the choice: continue his finance career or pursue his newfound passion.

“I was [then] at my tipping point. I took that as a timely nudge, spurring me on to embark on something different,” explains Lee.

Despite his inexperience, Lee found himself a unique position running the mezze (Middle-Eastern appetisers) station at his long-time friend Chef Bjorn Shen’s restaurant Artichoke. And, it was through this unique opportunity—putting together dishes in the mezze station—that Lee formed the foundations for his culinary venture.

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He started chronicling his pasta-making journey on his social media account, Benfatto95, on a whim. Slowly, he realised that his informative content and captivating visuals were drawing in the right engagement, but Lee knew he needed more than content to truly convert the food enthusiasts and culinary connoisseurs.

“Given I have no peer as a pasta artisan in Singapore, I found that being connected to the correct personalities was important. And, social media [namely Instagram] was a platform that facilitated many exchanges with these individuals. It broadened my knowledge base tremendously, and just with their recognition and endorsement, it lent me gained credibility that was indispensable to my growth professionally,” Lee explains about the critical connections he made that propelled him to where he is today.

Importantly, he also aced the technical aspect of pasta-making, adding substance to his endeavour. “While my work remains indisputably within the sphere of Italian cuisine, my approach as a pastaio is certainty different from what a typical Chef’s focal point would be, as my dishes centred around the elegance and technicality in pasta fabrication,” he explains.

Now, as Singapore’s foremost pasta artisan, Lee is the sole purveyor of his unique pasta ‘omakase’ private dining experience. And, with the culinary climate taking a paradigm shift due to the safety restrictions often changing in response to the pandemic, Lee recognises that it’s time to move on to the next phase.

“Pursuing private dining will always be a great passion for me, but it was never the endgame—especially with the prospect of the current restrictions prolonging—it now serves as my launchpad. A starting point for what has always been on the pipeline: a
comprehensive pasta production program,” said Lee about his next step.

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