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Corner House: Chef Jason Tan on Winning His First Michelin Star

August 12, 2016

So did you expect this at all? Kind of? I sort of expected it after they issued Asia’s 50 Best [where Tan won a coveted spot last year]. I think the menu now really stands out. So that’s something that we sort of expected.

Do you think that the Michelin Guide is really important in any way, especially in Singapore? To me, as a French-trained chef, the Michelin Guide is very useful and it is the first standard, the most prestigious. There’s something there. Since I was a cook, I already knew what the Michelin Guide was, and how important it is for chefs. I think, for now, the formatting has definitely changed, but personally, since the age of 15-16, Michelin Guide has been the biggest and most respected of its kind.

But do you think people generally think about the Michelin Guide in Singapore? A lot of people were saying more negative than positive things about the launch for example, “These restaurants weren’t included.” Or the Bib Gourmand only had 30 out of 10,000 stalls on it.The controversy is something that, anyway, whatever result comes out, everybody will talk about. There will always be another group who’s talking about it, not happy about it, sad about it, you know? I mean it’s never-ending, I’m sure. Everybody has a different opinion. So it’s never-ending.
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Were there some of your colleagues or fellow restaurants that you think deserve to be on that list? Yes. There’s a lot of good stuff out there.

Do you feel more pressure as a Singaporean chef to do better here in Singapore, especially since there’s quite a few foreign imports working in high-end kitchens here? Actually, no. I mean, I wouldn’t want to be competing with the French chef or foreign-based chef in Singapore as a Singaporean. I want to compete with them, on the same platform. So there’s no pressure. We are cooking our own cuisine, and I earned my star doing my own cuisine. So we are all just doing what we think is best. So I’m not pressured because I’m not competing with them. So I’m sure it’s a common question talking about why is there so little Singaporean restaurants on here? But what’s more important is the quality of the food.

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You speak about French technique a lot, but how do you kind of marry that with your Singaporean heritage then? Is it as important, or nothing takes precedence? In my cuisine, I somehow marry the Singaporean heritage, but it’s not deliberate. It just happens when there are special occasions, then you do something like that. Just like let’s say when you have kaya or pili Kaya or peanut butter Kaya. I don’t say “Oh, I’m Singaporean. I want to put this element into my dish.” I put that because I like this thing, so I create a dish with this thing. The result is very much global flavors.

Your menu Gastro-Botanica tells a story that produce and protein are just as important as each other. Is that difficult to do in this country or are there a lot of Singaporean ingredients to play around with? No. The thing is, the vegetable we get from Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia is not really tasty. So I still rely on vegetables from Europe, some in Holland, Spain, and then Australia and New Zealand, and then Japan. Japan has one of the best vegetables in Asia.

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Are there any local ingredients that you really like? Of course. We like things like pandan, some tropical fruits.

Is it more important for you that the ingredient is good rather than if it’s local? Yes, yes, yes. Now there’s farm-to-table. Some chefs are focusing only on ingredients from this region or this area or something like that. I mean, of course, everybody has different directions to do their cuisine. That is not mine. My intention was just to translate anything delicious on the plate. That’s more my first thing than to force myself to do certain things because I need to do certain things. I felt like that would be doing something just for some purpose. If it’s right, it’s right. If you want to do a very good dish, it cannot be pushed. This thing has to come really naturally. So that’s why we say our specialty cuisine is French cuisine. It’s because I didn’t want to push it. I wanted more space and freedom to express anything. You don’t want to limit yourself.

You described your process, and each dish goes through a lot of trial and error. What inspires you to create these dishes in the first place? It’s usually the restaurant itself actually. Here, there’s a lot of view. So we spend a lot of time sitting outside, a little bit, and we view the surroundings. We are very much inspired by the garden. Sitting outside I saw the ground, some small flowers there, some small plants, some morning dew, and then I’m going to show you how we’re turning it into a dish now—this plate with green moss. I think most of the dishes are inspired by everything!

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What’s the weirdest source of inspiration you’ve had then? Was there something, like, you wouldn’t expect would turn into a dish? Where do you do most of your thinking? Actually, you know, I mean I do a lot of thinking on the toilet! I don’t know how to say this in a nicer way! I always felt that I was not inspired by what I see there. But I do a lot of thinking there. I sit down and do thinking at this time, so I continue thinking about the restaurant. So, yeah, one of my favorite places, actually. I’m used to thinking there because the environment is really enclosed. I’m by myself. I can think really naturally, and no one is disturbing me. I mean, in the restaurant, someone is always calling for me. So I’m always thinking, or always doing something… So maybe something comes through but I forget it.

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You’re often called the suitcase chef—what was the last trip that you went on that really inspired you in terms of cooking? To be very honest, throughout these two years I haven’t been travelling a lot. I wanted to spend more time—all of my time—in Corner House to establish Corner House first. So these two years, a lot of the inspiration of the dish has come from my previous travels. But now of course, it’s time to move on again to the next act. So, I’m leaving for two weeks to go to Australia.

All the produce is great there. Yes, yes, yes. First time exploring their landscape because I usually do Europe. So, this time, I really want to explore Australia, because I haven’t been there as long, very very short. And then because I usually go four, five, six days. I really want to go exploring, hunting, then of course visit more restaurants. So, that’s why I want to mark a new beginning for me and for Corner House. Pick up inspiration and do something new. So this trip, I really planned to be long. I really wanted to just relax and try to free my mind, vacation after two years. 

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What was your favorite food memory as a child? Or the first one? One of my favorite childhood memory for food is what we ate last night…

The kaya? So, just to explain, here’s a little background on how Singaporeans eat breakfast. A typical normal family in the morning eats bread for breakfast at home. Some tea, coffee, Milo… Usually they would have a condiment like butter, jam, coconut jam or kaya…Usually my parents would pick traditional flavors and go for coconut jam, then the kids always go for peanut butter. I started thinking, “Maybe we can put both together.” Peanut butter is more savory, kaya is more sweet. So if you put it together it would be nice. So I only spread one on each side, then put them together. But this is not something a lot of Singaporeans would do. Actually a lot of people before me… would say “No! Never!”

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What’s the most important lesson you learned while cooking in other people’s kitchens that you brought here at Corner House? In my first culinary experience, I learned different things because my training was with Alain Passard. So I saw the driven perspective of professionals. I learned in Robuchon more traditional techniques. There is modernity but in the restaurant, the chef is actually still quite traditional, so they do a lot of classic dishes. When I moved on to Macau, that was the experience that actually almost changed me. Honestly, there was a lot of antagonism. So I changed everything because after a year there, I came back, I realised that what is very important actually is the discipline of a chef in order to secure the high level of everything. So that’s one thing I learned… And of course perfection of a dish…I think it’s all learning 24/7 even until today.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten? There’s a lot! 

Or dish you thought, “I wish I made this.” Okay. Maybe one of the recent ones actually was Fat Duck. Because always, for many years, I always wanted to try Fat Duck. Two years ago, before I opened Corner House, of course I always wanted to go and try. So at the time, you really see all the gimmicks of the dish, the menu, the way they serve on the Internet, on Facebook, you think you know everything about it already. So when I was there, I was surprised that I’m still wrong. Because, firstly, I was wrong actually about the taste of the dish. So they look very gimmicky, but they also taste wow. I was very impressed. The taste really hit the spot. Every dish. It’s not like maybe 50% of the dishes. It’s really every dish. I was impressed. Very very impressed.

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What is the future of Singapore food for you? It’s hard to tell you. I don’t think that far, because I myself is trying to think of what I’m doing next. But I see Singapore has recently become more of a restaurant and dining city. Because maybe some six-seven years ago, some people would say, “Okay. Not too bad.” But I think with innovations, the whole city has changed very much. Asia’s 50 now includes Singapore, so I think Singapore has become the city to eat when you travel. If you look at ten years ago, it wasn’t like that. You have a lot to try, a lot of cuisine to choose from.

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Pamela Cortez Pamela Cortez

Pamela Cortez writes about food full-time, and has honed her craft while writing for publications such as Rogue, Town and Country, and The Philippine Star. She once rode on a mule for a mile just to eat mint tea and lamb in Morocco, and has eaten a block of Quickmelt in one sitting. Her attempt at food photography can be viewed online @meyarrr.

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