You’ve heard of chef’s tables, now be introduced to the chefs’ table. This is the table shared by some of the most prominent chefs worldwide, from Tetsuya Wakuda to even Joel Robuchon – he who holds the most number of Michelin stars in the world. Members of royalty in the international wine scene – from winemakers such as those from Chateaux Latour and Lafite, to Serena Sutcliffe M.W., head of International Wine Department at Sotheby’s London and New York – have also sat at the very same spot, clinking glasses of fine vintages and partaking of world-class cooking.
This isn’t some special table at a historical Michelin-star establishment in Europe or the latest members-only underground restaurant in the States. This is the plain dining table at the home of Dr N.K. Yong and Melina Yong, right in the heart of Singapore. Even their neighbours might not know this, but the Yong residence in Swettenham Road is a veritable congregating ground for the biggest names in the food and wine industries. Having spent more than a quarter century collecting wines – including sought-after vintages such as 1945, 1953, 1959, 1961, 1970, 1975 and 1978 – the retired heart surgeon and his wife have amassed not just a formidable collection of over 10,000 bottles, but also an invaluable network of the world’s most important winemakers, chefs and like-minded connoisseurs.
For his 80th birthday in 2007, they planned a celebration like no other: a three-day charity event with 62 renowned wine producers from around the world gathering in Singapore, raising $800,000 for Kidney Dialysis Foundation, the Singapore Children’s Society and Dover Park Hospice. For his 85th birthday, $1 million raised from a charity dinner, auctioned wines and wine tastings were donated to St Andrew’s Autism Centre; Autism Resource Centre (Singapore)’s Employability & Employment Centre; and Autism Association (Singapore)/Eden Centre for (Autism) Adults – three charities that provide vocational training for young adults, those who have completed their normal school education.
“Melina and I started our Charity Wine Dinners with Auctions in January 1984 featuring the iconic 1982 Bordeaux vintage, with Serena Sutcliffe M.W. and her husband, David Peppercorn M.W., as guest moderators, and Sutcliffe also acting as Guest Auctioneer. The proceeds were donated to the Singapore Children’s Society, in honour of my late father who had passed away in 1982,” says NK.
Since then, 10 such charity wine dinners, auctions and tastings have been conducted and plans are underway for a similar charity event in 2017, “Celebration 90”, to mark his 90th year. “Melina and I hope that with the help of our dear friends, Serena Sutcliffe and David Peppercorn, our winemaker friends from around the world, and our Singapore friends and supporters, we will be able once again to raise substantial funds for the same three charities,” says NK.
However, NK and Melina are famed not just for these mega-events. They are also known for some of the most extraordinary home parties with a guest list that spans bigwigs of the F&B industry, top policymakers and other movers and shakers. (If you ask Melina, she’ll just laugh and say she likes feeding hungry friends.)
These people come not just for the company and the opportunity to imbibe some rare drops from NK’s cellar, but also for Melina’s cooking. As he is renowned as an international authority in wine, so too is she respected internationally as a master in the kitchen. Given her reputation, one might be surprised to learn that she picked up cooking only in the ’80s, after marriage.
Growing up in a Hokkien family that believed that the kitchen is no place for a lady, she fired up the stove out of the need to feed her busy husband who had just started private practice and had scarce time to dine out. From private suppers of steak and salad and the occasional caviar on toast, she went on to entertain friends at weekly wine tastings held at home. As their little wine club grew, she soon found herself feeding parties of 20 or 30 people on a regular basis.
Having a sensitive palate – a requisite for any wine connoisseur – a refined taste and natural talent certainly help, but what makes Melina an extraordinary home cook is her professional training. After a gourmet trip to France and Switzerland, which saw the couple eating through a string of Michelin-star restaurants, collecting 21 stars in just five days, Melina realised that a foundation in basics was required to move to the next stage as a cook.
In 1987, she enrolled in an advanced cooking course at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London, mastering European techniques. She even did stages at the likes of Michel Roux’s Le Gavroche in London and Alain Sendersen’s Lucas Carton in Paris, and would later have a stint as guest chef at one-Michelin-star restaurant Le Montrachet in France.
Her in-depth understanding of wine, roots in Asian culture and foundation in European all come together to allow her to create a truly cosmopolitan repertoire, making wine dinners at the Yongs a true 360-degree experience. Her ability to break out of the stereotypical, continental menus to match wines has won over even winemakers. In April 1996, Bruno Prats, one of Bordeaux’s most respected wine producers, invited her to cook at two press luncheons at Chateau Cos d’Estournel to demonstrate how his wines would pair with Asian food.
But lest you think that meals at the Yong residence are all chichi bites, their home parties almost always start with champagne and – rather than dainty hors d’oeuvres and canapes – keropok. And her signature dishes include self-created renditions of dry mee siam and laksa, served in heaving communal portions. The dry laksa, in particular, has also gained renown as Wakuda’s absolute favourite nosh in Singapore.
With Melina’s professional-level cooking and NK’s wine collection that can easily rival those of the best restaurants, it is clear to see why an invitation to dinner at their residence is the most sought after in town.
At Home with NK and Melina
An exercise in elegant, genuine hospitality.
The hostess was busy in the kitchen when the guests started trickling in at around 7pm. No matter. For this smartly dressed party is perfectly at home at the Yong residence, some popping into the kitchen to help themselves to more keropok, others lounging by the grand piano, champagne in hand.
Among this group of 16 were Beh Swan Gin, chairman of EDB, Aw Kah Peng, general manager of global commercial strategy development at Shell Eastern Petroleum, Thomas Pang, CEO of Keppel Telecommunications & Transportation, Michelle Ling, finance director at Robert Parker Wine Advocate, and Shirley Crystal Chua, CEO of Golden Equator Capital. It might seem like an eclectic mix, but they have one thing in common: they have all successfully bid for auction items at the Yongs’ previous charity events.
Another thing they have in common is a love for food and wine – particularly that curated by the Yongs. “One of my favourite dishes is Melina’s Heng Hwa noodles and a lovely wing-bean salad that goes well with the wines NK picks. You usually associate fine wines with Western cooking, but Melina and NK are able to do a great pairing with Asian dishes,” shared Beh.
NK brushes such compliments aside. “Good wine will go with good food. It is simple as that!” And indeed it was an evening of good taste.
After being plied with champagne and heaping communal portions of dry mee siam and laksa, guests were ushered to the dining area, where dinner commenced, with NK at the head of the table giving a short speech on the couple’s plans for the 2017 charity event to celebrate his 90th birthday. “There is no such thing as a free dinner!” the spritely 88-year-old teased. The rest of the dinner continued in a convivial mood, as guests swopped travel tips, and tasting notes.
“What I really appreciate about NK and Melina’s parties is their attention to detail,” said Aw over a steaming bowl of buboh cha cha, as the dinner came to a close. Earlier in the evening, Aw was called away from the dining table due to work and Melina made sure her servings, kept aside, maintained optimal.
“From picking the right wines and the right glasses to go with these wines, to simple things like putting a piece of foil over food to keep it warm – it makes you think of things you normally wouldn’t have done yourself,” said Aw.
For a peek into how Melina runs her kitchen, come back tomorrow (Saturday, 22 Jan) for the exclusive.