For this winning Singaporean chef, taste triumphs above all else

Delicious, tasty food. That’s all it boils down to for Jason Tan. Everything else, as the old trope goes, is just gravy. The gentle-mannered chef/patron and co-owner of Corner House says that, like a good sauce, his culinary philosophy can be reduced to those three words. It’s not the answer you’d expect when looking at the exquisitely plated, complex compositions that Tan and his team dish out—each one a symphony of colours, textures, impeccable produce and flavours that orbit around the “gastro-botanica” theme.

It’s been four years since Corner House transformed what was once the home of the assistant director of the Botanic Gardens, EJH Corner, into a restaurant that pays homage to its verdant UNESCO Heritage-endorsed location. In that time, Tan has earned himself not only the admiration of his peers and fans, but also a coveted star from Michelin’s inspectors.

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“My culinary philosophy here has always been, and will always remain, about gastro-botanica”

Though the evolution of his cuisine and restaurant has been obvious to those who have paid attention, Tan says that it’s completely unplanned. “My culinary philosophy here has always been, and will always remain, about gastro-botanica,” he affirms. “Yes, we’re always evolving the cuisine, but when you work with it daily, you really don’t think about charting its course. It’s more about exploring various ways with the theme. Like right now, I’m thinking about doing a dish using different parts of a plant.”

While many dishes change, there are some perennial signatures such as Tan’s Interpretation of My Favourite Vegetable. This four-part dish, centred on the Cévennes onion, comprises a soft egg served with caramelised onion purée in a baked onion cup, a paper-thin onion chip, an equally fragile onion tart and an onion broth infused with Earl Grey tea.

“People say the dish tastes better today than it did two years ago,” says Tan. “And I would hope so. When you work with the same dish over time and pour your heart into it, you realise that little things like a change of temperature or the size of a pot makes a difference. Over the years, I’ve realised that cooking the onion confit in a small pot delivers better texture. We’ve also made slight changes to the onion tea by adding lemon zest to brighten the flavours.”

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An onion is hardly an ingredient you’d expect a chef to use for his signature offering, but Tan argues that there’s no reason why an onion or a beet should be less precious than, say, wagyu beef or lobster. “Creating a good dish isn’t about using truffles to elevate it; it’s about applying the best treatment to make the ingredient shine on its own,” he says.

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The same goes for the humble tomato, which Tan showcases in his new Variation of Tomato dish (now called Tomato “Les-Jardin de Rabelais”) that recently debuted on the menu. “The first version was on the menu for more than two years,” he explains. “I’d wanted to change it, but every time I tried something new, it was never as good as the original. So, I took the dish off the menu for more than a year. Recently, we were working on something else, and we made a yuzu and basil sorbet. It just happened that we had all the elements of a tomato dish on the table, so we played around with it and realised that it was really good.”

“The thought process behind every dish here is to first source the right ingredients—the best we can find— and then create the best taste possible”

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Like all his other dishes, this tomato creation looks elegantly twee on the plate, yet it’s rooted in simplicity and good taste. The kitchen blanches French cherry tomatoes to remove their skins, dresses the fruit with basil oil and serves them with strawberries, berry consommé jelly, yuzu-basil sorbet, basil seeds and olive-oil caviar. “It’s a riff on a classic combination,” says Tan. “I think it’s good not to be too clever. The important thing is that it tastes good.”

In a region and an era where the camera eats first, Tan maintains that the least of his interests is how a dish looks. “The thought process behind every dish here is to first source the right ingredients—the best we can find—and then create the best taste possible. If it tastes good, but doesn’t look good or doesn’t seem gimmicky enough, we’ll still launch the dish. But if it doesn’t taste good, I won’t launch it. It’s always about real, delicious food for our guests. To look pretty for Instagram is easy—just buy a lot of micro-cress and flowers, and arrange them on the plate. But the ingredients must be there for a reason: to taste good. That’s all.”

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  • PhotographyAllen Tan / BAM Visuals
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