Month: April 2010

Mod Sin & The World Expo

A few months ago, I was approached by a friend with a really interesting request. Would I be interested in shooting photographs of local food to be showcased as part of an interactive exhibition in the Singapore Pavilion at this year’s World Expo in Shanghai? Of course I said yes. Repeatedly. The 2010 World Expo, which opens in just a few days, is expected to draw some 70 million visitors. To have my pictures seen by even a small percentage of these people, supposedly coming from all corners of the globe, would be pretty darned awesome.

Plus, I had an pretty immediate idea for the kind of photographs that I wanted to shoot. Or rather, I knew how I wanted the food to be portrayed. I didn’t want to shoot the dishes that were selected — obviously iconic Singaporean foods — in their traditional forms. I wanted to shoot them as re-imagined and re-invented by one of our most talented chefs. I wanted, through the photographs, to portray both our heritage and our innovativeness. In some ways, for me, this project wasn’t just about food but about our culture and where we’re headed.

To help pull off the food I’d be shooting, I called upon a chef whose culinary concepts and continued exploration of our cuisine have always impressed me. To my great satisfaction, Willin Low, chef-owner of Wild Rocket, accepted my challenge and became my collaborator on this project.

The perfect Penang weekend

Several years ago, while scouting hotels for uber-sexy boutique hotel collections company, Mr & Mrs Smith, I had the pleasure of meeting hotelier and restaurateur Narelle McMurtrie and visiting her boho chic retreat in Langkawi, Bon Ton Resort. I loved Bon Ton, both for its rustic charm as well as for Narelle’s fabulous food. Since that first visit, I’ve been telling my overworked and gorgeous wife S that I’d like to whisk her off there for a relaxing weekend of doing nothing but stuffing our faces.

Fast forward a few years and I still haven’t delivered on that promise — more proof to S that I’m pretty much full of hot air and not much else.

A few weeks ago, we ran into Narelle at a gathering of food media and Southeast Asian jury members of The San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants survey — Narelle, S and I are all members of the jury. During dinner, Narelle told us about her latest venture, a cool set of residences in the historic district of Penang, Malaysia. The Straits Collection is, in her words, “an eclectic mix of retail, restaurants and residences” spread through two separate rows of heritage Chinese shophouses in Georgetown. Narelle suggested we drop by, to check out the property and to do some serious eating. Of course, I said “sure, we’d love to”, thinking we’d get around to it someday, but probably not that soon. But as it turned out, we were actually able to identify a free weekend this month. This is a real rarity for us. We’re usually commited to something or other most weekends several weeks, if not months, in advance. So, we quickly blocked out the dates, jumped on the Internet and booked some budget airline flights and emailed Narelle. This fat fella and his fetching femme were heading to Penang for the weekend! Super-host extraordinaire that she is, she informed us that she’d fly in to hang with us during our stay.

Candlenut Kitchen

Chef Malcolm Lee in his new kitchen

It’s always great to discover a new, fabulous little restaurant. Even better still when the chef-owner is a bright, earnest, young guy that you’ve watched grow from strength to strength.

One of the most rewarding things about producing The Miele Guide (Asia’s only truly regional and independent restaurant guide) each year is that, thanks to several partners, we’re able to give out scholarships to young Asians looking to fulfill their dreams of attending a world class culinary school and kickstarting potentially great careers. Since we started this tradition, we’ve awarded scholarships to two students a year to attend professional classes at the At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy. One student each year has been a Singaporean while the other student has come from another country in Asia. The very first Singaporean recipient of the scholarship was a young man named Malcolm Lee.

Malcolm was an impressive candidate. While attending the Singapore Management University, he took over one of the university’s cafes and literally turned it around. He revamped the eatery’s menu, transforming what I’ve been told was a very so-so place into a campus favourite. Through what was meant to be an extra-curriculur activity, Malcolm found himself and found his calling. Then, while attending At-Sunrice, his teachers reported to us that he was scoring ridiculously high marks. No one, my colleagues and I were told, scores all As. But Malcolm was, even winning a few A+s along the way. This guy, we all said, was going to go really, really far. Months before he graduated, we started to speculate which great chef would bring Malcolm under his or her wing.

Mmmmm. Pig noodles.

There are some restaurants or cafes or coffee shops we go to because of one specific dish. You know the ones. The things you just have to order every single time you visit. The dishes you can’t fathom dining at these places without ordering. The dishes you crave. The ones you’ll even visit a place for even if everything else is less than amazing. The ones you think about at random times of the day. The ones you dream about when you should be paying attention in an oh-so-important but really, dreadfully boring meeting. Yeah, you know exactly what I’m talking about and I bet you’re thinking about some of your own personal favourites right now.

One of those dishes for me is the pork trotter vermicelli at Paradise Inn, the quick service chain owned and operated by the Paradise Group. If you’ve had it, I’m sure, like me, you’re a fan. If you haven’t, imagine a fatty, moist, tender, succulent, braised pig trotter, tossed with thin noodles, and spiked with just the right amount of shitake mushroons, spring onions and blanched green veggies. It’s a fabulous, fatty fantasy in a bowl.