( This story is a continuation of G’s feature on one of Singapore’s most coveted chef’s tables – in the abode of Dr N.K. Yong.)
Melina bursts into the kitchen at 6pm, having returned from running errands. “I don’t know what I am cooking tonight,” she confesses, when we ask about the menu for the evening.
NK and Melina have organised this dinner for friends who have bid at their past charity auctions, and is planning to use this opportunity to share with them their plans for the 2017 charity event to celebrate NK’s 90th birthday. The guests are slated to arrive at about 7pm. She does know that she will serve dry laksa and mee siam first, alongside the champagne and keropok – largely for the benefit of the photography crew.
“It is always good to get your stomachs filled up first,” says the motherly figure – albeit a very elegant one – with perfectly coiffured hair and a sapphire pendant around her neck. She starts working on a sauce, and decides that freshening up is in order and exits the kitchen. We take a deep breath and cross our fingers. Tick Tock.
She emerges only close to when the guests arrive – yet everything falls into place so perfectly, and dinner progresses so seamlessly that nobody would have guessed that just about everything was impromptu. Here are her secrets to (seemingly) effortless entertaining.
01: HALF THE WORK, DOUBLE THE FUN WITH A KITCHEN PARTNER
“I will serve an egg-and-white-truffle dish,” says Melina. “I’m not sure how I should do the eggs, though. It is ok, I will wait for the chef to come.”
She is referring to Beppe De Vito, the restaurateur behind establishments such as Il Lido and Aura. On excellent terms with lots of chefs who admire her culinary prowess, Melina often gathers them for high-calibre potluck parties at her home. De Vito is one such industry friend who frequents the Yong residence – and is happy to lend Melina a hand in the kitchen when she needs. After all, it is all good fun when the like-minded gather around the stove, and the camaraderie between De Vito and Melina is apparent.
She proposes a menu featuring some produce that she had specially purchased for the evening, and he throws in suggestions on complementary sauces, sides and secondary ingredients. With the menu set, they share a glass of wine and set out to execute the different components – De Vito filleting the Dover sole, while Melina makes a saffron-hued champagne sauce that is perfectly on point; Melina stirring up an extra course in between the fish and meat dishes, buying time for De Vito who is warming up the char-grilled veal chops and charring the peppers to go with it.
“It’s like cooking with a peer – somebody who shares your ideas,” enthuses De Vito. He shares Melina’s spontaneous, ingredient-focused approach to cooking.
(RELATED: G spends an entire day with Chef Beppe De Vito.)
02: KNOW YOUR INGREDIENTS
“I like extra-large botan ebi – not the jumbo ones – that are about 20g to 24g each, because there is just enough to eat,” shares Melina as she dresses the torched crustaceans with Sassicaia extra virgin olive oil and garnishes them with crisp-fried sage and edible pansies.
The exacting chef knows her ingredients well and this knowledge gives her the ability to work a bit of impromptu magic into the dishes, depending on the produce she can get her hands on.
03: BUILD A RELATIONSHIP WITH TRADE SUPPLIERS
“These came just this morning,” says Melina, and she invites us to take a whiff of the white truffles she had ordered from wholesaler Indoguna. Years of working with the trade suppliers have given her access to some of the best ingredients available on the island. As a matter of fact, Melina’s delivery of this season’s “white gold” arrived earlier than at some restaurants. For the evening, she also got thick cuts of veal chop from Indoguna and Dover sole from Classic Fine Foods.
04: BE PREPARED
Melina’s spontaneous entertaining style is made possible by her incredibly well-stocked pantry. Apart from the premium produce such as caviar, Spanish ham and artisanal cheeses, she also makes sure that she always has on hand the rempah for her laksa and mee siam – both favourites among her friends.
05: BE GENEROUS
“This household is unique – you won’t find another with a wine expert, a food expert, and which cooks without a budget!” exclaims De Vito. And he would be right. Upon seating, the guests are treated to an edam fondue topped with a shower of shaved white truffles, priced at almost $7,000 per kg this season within the trade.
For the dinner, she ordered 200g worth of truffles. On the dish of Dover sole, she lavishes tumbling dollops of caviar, and is only too eager to open a second tin – just in case there isn’t enough to go around. Other ingredients, such as the botan ebi, are also premium-quality ingredients served at top restaurants. But, as if she hasn’t pampered her guests enough, Melina decides to throw in an extra dish after the fish course: an intense umami broth of ginger and hand-picked hairy crab roe. Perfumed with ginger, this tummy-warmer is not just a perfect example of her culinary ingenuity, but also her genuine generosity.
To match her decadent spread, NK had picked out an equally indulgent selection of wines, including the Laurent Perrier Grand Siecle, a 2007 Joseph Faiveley Meursault, a 2002 Bonneau du Martray from Corton-Charlemagne, a 1995 Le Cupole from Tenuta di Trinoro, and a 2004 Quinta Sardonia.