From a head chef at a two-starred Michelin restaurant in Norway to a culinary maestro creating “progressive Singaporean” dishes, these four new gen homegrown talents are bringing new perspectives to the way we eat.
Who: Marcus Leow, 31, chef de cuisine of Naked Finn’s group of restaurants which include the namesake eatery, BurgerLabo, 2280 Burger and Magic Square
When he started cooking: 21
Road to culinary fame: Leow started out working at a cafe for two years after his A’ Levels. He made his first foray into fine dining at Iggy’s, and then joined Whitegrass as a chef de partie. At 26, he was selected to be part of F&B incubator Magic Square, where he created his own food menu. He progressed through the ranks to become chef de cuisine of the entire restaurant group, and now develops dishes of different concepts.
Biggest food inspiration: “Being born into a Peranakan family, I was always exposed to smells and the sound of cooking in the kitchen. I’m inspired by Peranakan culture and its ingredients, taking advantage of seasonality. Our menu at Naked Finn is woven with Peranakan flavours and infused with ingredients from all around the world. The end result is dishes which are Peranakan in their backbone but unique and original as well.”
What sets his cooking style apart: “My cooking style is ‘progressive Singaporean’. Creating layered dishes that look simple but taste complex. I love using Peranakan ingredients to accent dishes and showcase flavours that are in season through different preservation and ageing techniques I’ve been lucky enough to learn throughout my career. I create dishes that sound and taste different, but with familiar flavour profiles so people can relate to them.”
His signature dish: “The Corn Salat (pictured), a kueh salat made totally from corn, paired with a tea of its corn leaf and silk. It has never really been done before and clearly reflects the style of my food: a progressive take on Peranakan cuisine where I use the whole ingredient and waste very little in the process.”
Pet peeves in the kitchen: “I absolutely hate it when people are not punctual and do not label items properly and things get in a mess. Our chefs always talk about something we colloquially call ‘bushido’, which is morals in the kitchen. For example, looking after each other, helping each other, always owning up to their own mistakes and speaking up when something is not right. I try to make sure all the chefs I work with cultivate these habits.”
Most underrated ingredient: “Salt. Seasoning is extremely critical for us and we use it in our ferments. Salt is required to allow fermentation to start, to cure our fish and to age our fish properly. We use a different range of salt for different things − just thinking about which salt to use for different purposes is a step on its own.”
A dish he wished he had created: “I’m not a big fan of sweets but I do love a good binka ubi! I’ve been obsessed with making the best version but the ones by Chalk Farm and Rempapa by Chef Damien (D’Silva) are really the ones to beat! Using something that is ubiquitous in Southeast Asia like cassava and making it into a soft, bouncy and super fragrant cake is such a unique form of pastry-making.”
One dish he is experimenting with right now: “A new dish that uses seasonal ingredients like peas, broad beans charred over charcoal, with ice cream made of white asparagus, pear and botan ebi prawns. The star of the dish is the prawns marinated in a fish sauce we made from the shells fermented over a year, and a sauce of belimbing − another one of my favourite ingredients.”
Most unique dish he has created: “The prowfish, which is one of the fishes we import ourselves. Similar to pork belly, it has a layer of fat. Being a seafood restaurant, we try to avoid using other animal products. So over a three-day process of drying and oil basting, we created a dish called the prowfish ‘Siew Yoke’ (pictured) where the skin mimics the flavour and crisp one would associate with crispy pork belly. Paired with the fish is a sambal of fermented mustard seeds and juniper berries.”
How he hopes to continue pushing the envelope in his work: “As I progress as a cook, I have been reading fewer recipes and more about scientific processes and theories behind a method of cooking or fermentation. I’ve been lucky that I have the chance to experiment and put new items on the menu. Experimenting, asking questions and being curious have always been the key to improving.”
New ventures in the kitchen: “2022 is a big year for us with new concepts on the pipeline, but currently I am really excited to be working with a very good chef and mentor − Kenichi Takatsu from Restaurant Takatsu in Shimonoseki. We’ll be doing a four-hands collaboration and bringing his minimalist French-Japanese cuisine to our restaurant, which my pastry chef Gail and I are absolutely thrilled about.”
One interesting fact about him: “I’m actually quite an introvert. The modern chef now has to constantly market themselves, speak well, be very active on social media and always be interacting with guests, so more guest interaction is something that I have been working on the past year. The service staff have an inside joke regarding me having a ‘low social batter’ and always ask if ‘my battery is charged’ before requesting if I could speak to some guests at a table. Still cracks me up till this day!”
Who: Mathew Leong, 28, executive chef at two-Michelin starred restaurant Re-Naa and Matbaren Bistro by Re-Naa in Norway
Age he started cooking: 13
Road to culinary fame: Leong competed in culinary competitions in secondary school, which sparked his interest in culinary arts and gastronomy. He went on to work with veteran local chef Jimmy Chok, who took Leong under his wing and mentored him. Upon graduating from Shatec with a diploma in culinary arts, Leong worked in established hotels and restaurants here such as the The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore, Marina Mandarin, Tippling Club and Open Farm Community before moving to Norway for a year-long stint at Re-Naa.
He then returned to Singapore and became chef de partie at Liaise, a Michelin Plate restaurant. Within three years, he rose up through the ranks and was promoted to head chef. Leong is now based in Norway as head chef at Re-Naa, and was the youngest candidate ever to represent Singapore at Bocuse d’Or Final 2021 – a prestigious world chef championship held in France.
Biggest food inspiration: “My main inspiration stems from nature, and architecture around me. I am always thinking of ways to recreate them into edible food. The theme for Bocuse d’Or Final 2021 was nature and sustainability, and I took strong inspiration from one of our most iconic architecture and attractions – the Gardens by the Bay. I was able to conceptualise and bring to life other elements and attractions like the Supertrees and Cloud Dome through my food (pictured), by employing the use of innovation and technologies – both which I strongly believe will shape the future of food.”
What sets his cooking style apart: “After spending close to seven years in Norway working in different restaurants, I have established my style of cooking as Nordic with Asian flavours. My background as a Singaporean has greatly influenced my style of cooking. Whenever I create a dish, I’d always make sure to infuse Asian flavours into them.”
His signature dish: “Rather than a signature dish, for every dish I have created, the star factor is the sauce. My design and culinary philosophy when creating dishes is that everything on the plate has to be ‘clean’ with style and flavour. Sauces are an important component in providing that extra flavour to the food, hence I place a huge emphasis on creating sauces for dishes I make.”
Pet peeves in the kitchen: “When the kitchen / individual station is dirty and in a mess. My team knows that no matter how busy the service is, each of their individual stations has to remain tidy and clean at all times. The same goes for their uniform and apron.”
Most underrated ingredient: “Stock, the key to creating good stew, soup and sauces.”
A dish he wished he had created: “I was hoping to include more green attractions in my food when I was competing in Bocuse d’Or Final 2021. But due to the various rules and requirements in place, I was not able to. I would have added more elements on my takeaway box to make it resemble a garden too.”
One dish he is experimenting with right now: “With the new season approaching, I am working towards creating new dishes for our menu using seasonal ingredients. Currently, I am experimenting in creating a dish that consists of grilled lamb belly, ramsons and seaweed (pictured). As we enter summer, which is all about the sun, gardens and flowers, my new dish is shaped in the form of a flower and is garnished with edible herbs and flowers.”
Most unique dish he has created: “The two dishes I created for Bocuse d’Or Final 2021. I also had to design and conceptualise the platter and takeaway box for the two dishes. The platter challenge centred on a hot dish, and showcased a whole braised beef paleron (pictured) for the first time ever. With Singapore in mind, my sustainable takeaway box was inspired by Singapore Botanic Garden – an attraction that is recognised by the world due to its commitment in highlighting the importance of sustainability.
The amount of effort and time spent in planning and designing the food, platter and sustainable box were worthwhile because both finished products turned out exactly the way I had envisioned, and I was able to showcase two of Singapore’s iconic attractions – Gardens by the Bay and Singapore Botanic Garden − at the world culinary championship.”
How he hopes to continue pushing the envelope in his work: “I will be competing again in Bocuse d’Or Final 2025 and my goal is to make history as the highest ranked Asian candidate. I hope to represent both Singapore and Asia to stand on the podium and showcase Asia’s culinary expertise to the world. My next aim after Bocuse d’Or is to open my own fine dining restaurant and be awarded with my first star by the Michelin Guide within the first year of opening.”
New ventures in the kitchen: “There are plans in the pipeline but I am not allowed to disclose anything at the moment.”
One interesting fact about him: “I hold a second-degree black belt in taekwondo.”
Who: Maxine Ngooi, 30, executive chef and co-owner of homegrown patisserie Tigerlily and old-school confectionery Chin Mee Chin
Age she started cooking: Seven
Road to culinary fame: Though without formal culinary training, Ngooi’s talent won her a place in the kitchens of Michelin-starred fine dining institution Les Amis. She grew under the tutelage of renowned pastry chef Cheryl Koh, and subsequently worked with her to launch Tarte by Cheryl Koh. Ngoii then joined the ranks of three Michelin-starred Joel Robuchon Restaurant, and eventually joined Robuchon alumni Vianney Massot’s restaurant as head pastry chef. She then ventured out on her own to start Tigerlily.
Biggest food inspiration: “I draw a lot of inspiration from flavours that I personally love, experience with food and ingredients that I frequently see at home or throughout my working career, and occasionally even food that I’m craving at the time.
My first experience with hazelnut praline was a jar of hazelnut butter that my mother brought back from her travels in France. This has translated to my Chocolate Hazelnut Tart (pictured) where every single-serve tart has a spoonful of homemade piedmont hazelnut praline at the base that oozes out when cut. With my savoury food, a lot of it was inspired by the Peranakan and Eurasian food that we see on our dinner table at home. This reflected very evidently in my Curry Captain Sausage Rolls, which appeared in my very first bake box with Tigerlily.”
What sets her cooking style apart: “I tend to play with flavours that are quite familiar and approachable, given that a lot of my inspiration comes from the food that I enjoy eating. Paired with my experience in fine dining where I’m exposed to premium ingredients and French pastry techniques, what results is a balance of refined pastries with homely flavours.”
One dish she is experimenting with right now: “I won’t divulge too much but recently I’ve been craving some really good cheesecake. I was recently reminiscing about my very first part-time job on the same stretch of road that Tigerlily is now on, Joo Chiat Road. Back then, I was working the service counter at a cheesecake shop. I would love to do a classic cheesecake paired with some fruits of the season, and perhaps even using some interesting Japanese produce.”
Her signature dish: “The Beehive cake (pictured), where I enjoy the intricacy of creating the honeycomb and the curves of the beehive. And it definitely helps that it is aromatic and fragrant from the lemon thyme and litchi honey used.”
Pet peeves in the kitchen: “Kitchen towels that are not folded and kept neatly at the side of the table! To some it may seem like a small thing to be picky about, however, I think it speaks volumes on the discipline of the individual to upkeep this habit. Having a neat table also does wonders for keeping a clear and focused mind, and encourages smooth work flow despite a hectic and busy schedule.”
Most underrated ingredient: “Flour! Especially in a bread dough that has very few ingredients, the quality of the flour can change the texture of the bread greatly.”
A dish she wished she had created: “Mochi doughnuts! I love pastries with a playful textural element and the idea of an airy doughnut that’s fried to be crispy on the outside, but chewy on the inside ticks all my boxes. My version will probably be served with ice cream, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with nuts on the top for a bit of crunch.”
Most unique dish she has created: “I’ve always been a fan of toeing the line between sweet and savoury. For an event themed ‘unexpected matches’, I created a cake made with dark chocolate and Jerusalem artichokes, accented with flavours of walnut and cinnamon.”
How she hopes to continue pushing the envelope in her work: “Continuously trying new things and stepping out of my comfort zone, because that’s where the most amount of growth happens.”
New ventures in the kitchen: “Since moving to Joo Chiat and selling our pastries a la carte, I’ve been keen to revisit our initial idea of selling bake boxes. This time, I would make it more of a discovery box with an exclusive set of pastries that changes seasonally, to create an avenue for more experimental flavour pairings, while playing with seasonal produce.”
One interesting fact about her: “I don’t (currently) have any tattoos!”
Who: Mark Tai, 33, head chef of one Michelin-starred Cloudstreet
Age he started cooking: 16
Road to culinary fame: Tai studied at the Culinary Institute of America, Singapore, and trained at famed New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park. He rose up the ranks from a stagiaire at Restaurant Quince to head chef of 28 HongKong Street. Prior to his current role at Cloudstreet, he was also head chef at Cheek by Jowl for two years. In 2021, Tai also clinched Singapore’s first Michelin Guide Young Chef Award.
Biggest food inspiration: “Interesting and lesser used ingredients. I enjoy going to the market where there is an array of produce that could perk my interest. For example, the kingfish chayote dish came about after a trip to the wet market and visiting a stall selling fresh chayote.”
What sets his cooking style apart: “My cooking style focuses more on understanding the flavours of individual ingredients and then combining and building flavours to create a dish. I think it is important to not only let the original flavours of ingredients shine, but elevate these flavours in a balanced way by complementing them with other ingredients in a dish.”
His signature dish: “Every dish in Cloudstreet is a team effort. Among the dishes that I have been a part of, my favourite is the smoked kingfish with chayote, clarified watermelon and horseradish (pictured). I feel that its appeal stems from the use of chayote, a vegetable not commonly used in western cuisine; as well as the fact that we used clarified watermelon juice as a savoury dish instead of a dessert. The play of textures, flavours and temperatures is something I really enjoy.”
Pet peeves in the kitchen: “A messy workstation equates to a messy mind. Cooks need to stay organised in order to know what they are doing and working on. Also, a blunt knife. When someone brings a blunt knife to work, it shows me that they are not prepared for their work as a knife plays an important role for a cook.”
Most underrated ingredient: “Garlic and bak choy stems.”
A dish he wished he had created: “An Italian tripe stew with pig trotter. It was a dish which I had at an Italian restaurant in NYC. In my version, I would slow braise the beef tripe in the pig trotter stew, then create beef tendon puffs to provide more texture in the dish.”
One dish he is experimenting with right now: “Guinea fowl. We are looking at using different poultry and proteins for repeated guests and are trying out different cooking techniques for the guinea fowl.”
Most unique dish he has created: “Beef tendon chips with potato foam. It was one of the first few dishes which I created as a bar snack at 28 HongKong Street.”
How he hopes to continue pushing the envelope in his work: “I always believe in the fact that we should never stop learning. It is also very important to work together with people of similar interests and direction.”
New ventures in the kitchen: “Nothing specific at the moment, but we are working hard to bring Cloudstreet to greater heights as stopping at one Michelin star is not our end goal.”
One interesting fact about him as a chef: “I prefer to build a dish by focusing on vegetables and fruits as the main ingredient first, instead of proteins.”