When Magic Square first opened in 2018, Marcus Leow had a rude awakening. Five days a week, he and two other chefs had to run two dinner services for 18 people. The work left them exhausted and caffeine-dependent.
Three years later, the 30-year-old now splits his time between Ken Loon’s Naked Finn, incorporating his Japanese training and Peranakan roots into the seafood dishes, and BurgerLabo, Loon’s gourmet fast food joint. He also oversees the second iteration of Magic Square in its new permanent residence. Along with Gail Ho, formerly the pastry chef at Meta, they supervise and guide four chefs in their 20s: Pristina Mok, Eugene Chee, Law Jia-Jun and Jonathan Gan (pictured above).
Now known as Magic Square 2.0, the restaurant has retained its original ethos – serving as a platform for Singaporean cuisine to advance under a younger generation – but there have been a few changes. Firstly, there is a pastry chef exclusively responsible for desserts. Previously, leading chefs focused on savoury dishes. As a result, Loon felt desserts were not given enough attention.
The company has also developed a ticketing system. To reduce human involvement for reservations, guests buy tickets for their dinner seats and decide what to do if they can’t make it. Magic Square 2.0 may be the first restaurant in Singapore to implement a ticketing system, which was launched at the end of October this year.
Also joining the team is front of house trainee Jose Aw (above, second left in picture), who will be responsible for ensuring dinner service operations run smoothly. “We need to make front of house [ jobs] a true career rather than something Singaporeans despise,” Loon laments as he explains the lack of locals who take up these positions. Aw’s mentor for the wine programme is Ong Yixin, managing partner of KOT Selections and a wine expert.
Loon’s most important lesson, however, is to avoid burnout by taking breaks. He is offering each Magic Square chef two weeks off each year to visit other gastronomic destinations in addition to mentorship from three international chefs – French-Japanese, Japanese and modern-Australian.
Loon also hopes to discover the next era of Singapore cuisine by participating in exchange programmes with establishments such as Darren Teoh’s Dewakan, Malaysia’s first restaurant to crack Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2019. It is also on the 2021 extended list.
(Related: What the future of fine dining looks like)
He envisions Magic Square 2.0 as a fully functioning restaurant that is also a safe space for aspiring young chefs to flex their creative muscles without added pressure from investors and overheads. Having access to quality mentorship and being surrounded by their peers allows them to learn from one another and deal with constructive criticism.
He plans to add a compost garden, solar panels, and additional fermentation space to the gravel exterior. “We are not a school,” Loon emphasises. “We’re not here to teach them what to do.”
Magic Square 2.0 opened with Leow’s menu in November to familiarise the trainee chefs with the operation. From this month onwards, each will have an entire month to create and serve a full dinner menu. In addition to doing R&D for their dishes, they will operate multiple stations during dinner service as usual.
Chefs used to one task and one station in a typical restaurant can find it quite challenging to create a menu that best represents themselves. Even with all the available tools and ingredients, a dish could still take repeated attempts to perfect, let alone a complete meal. To quote Loon, “How do you know when a dish is done?”
Leow comes into play here. Having gained experience in balancing creative satisfaction with commercial success, he no longer considers himself a rookie. On Mondays, when the restaurant is closed, the team works on R&D, testing different combinations of flavours. While juggling both BurgerLabo and Naked Finn during the day, he offers his feedback once they complete the dishes. As busy as he is, one can’t deny the pride and conviction in his voice when he says, “Talent is like a muscle. You have to keep exercising it.”