At Alter Native – the recently opened private dining-slash-exhibition experience by chef Desmond Shen – the worlds of food, art and crafts are intertwined beyond the decorative. Taking place in a terrace house on McNair Road that the 29-year-old calls home, it’s his first in-person project under his own name and roof (he’s previously hosted pop-ups in restaurants).
Every session starts with Shen greeting guests in the living room – an unexpected touch not only because he’s a one-man operation in the kitchen, but also because the space is where the first half of the meal is served.
Works of local artists and artisans are scattered across the modest yet cosy hall. Think earthy textile wall hangings and weavings by the natural dye studio Project Coal, or “farmers-turned-florists” The Flower Factory’s bucolic arrangements draping from the walls or poking out from vases and lights. Part two is set in the dining area, where vessels that resemble lost treasure hauled up from the sea – the creations of ceramic label Field Pottery – take centre stage.
Feel free to roam about the home of chef Desmond Shen when you visit his private dining experience Alter Native (that is, if you manage to get a booking – reservations for this month, when it officially opens to the public, were snapped up immediately).
Tying everything together is Shen’s elaborate 15-course menu with several of the dishes inspired by the works on show. The vividly hued dragon fruit, sorrel and mint raita, for example, evolved from a conversation he had had with Project Coal co-founder Crystal Lee on how she manipulates the pH levels in her fruit dyes to achieve the desired colour.
This holistic approach stems from Shen’s preference to keep things organic – Alter Native will run for a year with rotating groups of artists coming onboard “as and when they’re ready”. That he’s worked at some of the most progressive restaurants here and overseas in the 12 years that he’s been in the industry has also certainly rubbed off (among them: Magic Square, Odette as well as Central Restaurante in Peru, which espouses a similarly anthropological, multidisciplinary approach to dining).
The cosy abode is decorated with the works of local artists and artisans. Besides giving small, independent names the spotlight, Shen also draws from their creations and processes for his menu.
“I don’t like to set a lot of parameters with the people I work with,” says Shen. “When you trust the creator and believe that the work they deliver will be of a certain standard, that person will have more space to experiment, and you’ll be surprised at what one can do when you see the results.”
Insiders from the design, luxury and F&B scenes are already flocking to try his creations, which he describes simply as “Singaporean food”. “I’m trying to make the point that Singapore cuisine doesn’t have to be remakes of popular hawker dishes… Instead, I want guests to see Alter Native as a local project supported by local artists and craftsmen, so be open when you come and forget what you know about Singapore cuisine.”
Direction Keng Yang Shuen Photography Phyllicia Wang Grooming Sarah Tan
A version of this article first appeared in the May 2022 Taste Edition of FEMALE