Fifteen years is a long time to be friends with someone, and especially one who has also been a loyal customer all that while.
With Patrick Tan and Matthew Ong, it’s been such a considerable length of time that the mere mention prompts a brief to and fro – as these things do between old friends – on the actual number of years.
The two met at Tan’s first restaurant, Yoyogi, which Ong patronised at the recommendation of his friends. Impressed with the food and hospitality, he followed Tan when he left Yoyogi to open Tamashii seven years ago. The 38-year-old property developer drops by so frequently that his PA has begun to call the restaurant his “canteen”.
“Coming here is like going to a friend’s place for dinner,” says Ong. “I’m at ease here.” His go-to is the omakase, which Tan prepares with whatever is freshest. If Ong opts for sukiyaki, Tan, knowing his friend’s preference, would do his portion with pork instead of the usual beef; and enliven the dish with a splash of whisky flambed to take off its alcoholic edge. Indeed, there are fringe benefits to being close to the chef. Once, as a “one off”, Tan prepared hairy crabs Ong had brought to the restaurant. “The crabs were in season and it is hard to prepare that many at home if you don’t have a commercial steamer. So I did it as a favour and served them as part of the omakase, but done Chinese-style with vinegar and shredded ginger.”
A large part of their friendship stems from bonding over a tipple. Drinking happens sometimes after the restaurant closes, and might continue at Boruto, Tan’s sake bar. As Tamashii doesn’t charge a corkage fee, Ong would often visit the restaurant with a bottle of wine – on one occasion it was a 1990 Chateau Lafite Rothschild – for his buddy to build a menu around.
And it’s a habit that has not gone unnoticed. Says Ong: “If my wife sees me leaving the house with a bottle of wine, she knows where I’m headed and asks me to bring food back.”
George Tanasijevich and Justin Quek were first introduced by Singapore Tourism Board around 2007 – even before Marina Bay Sands (MBS) opened its doors, and while Quek was still based in Shanghai and Taipei. But it was Quek’s food that connected them.
Tanasijevich first tasted the finesse of his Western creations at a demonstration Quek did for food retailer Culina. Then, during an event hosted by celebrated local wine collector N K Yong, he was treated to a full-fledged feast that included satay and laksa, as well as locally-inspired welcome drinks.
“That spread was frustrating because I wasn’t able to try everything! And that laksa, mmm…,” says Tanasijevich with a smile. To this day, that show stealer of a dish remains one of his favourites from Quek’s vast repertoire.
“I had been in Singapore for a while by then, and was not unfamiliar with the local fare. KF Seetoh is a good friend who’d shared many recommendations, so I had the opportunity to explore and better understand Singapore’s unique cuisine. Yet Justin has the ability to add a twist to all these familiar dishes, making them uniquely his.”
“His creativity – and his skills at executing both Western and Asian dishes – made me say: ‘We have to get him into Marina Bay Sands!’” says the president and CEO of MBS.
And so began the relationship between an unlikely duo – the flamboyant Singaporean Teochew chef known for his expertise in French haute cuisine, and the high-flying but uber down-to-earth Chicagoan, who proclaims he is not too finnicky about food.
It has been more than 10 years since, and Tanasijevich has had countless meals at the various dining venues headed by Quek, who also serves as a chef-consultant for local and overseas F&B ventures, including the soon-to-open modern Singaporean restaurant Cicada.
And one of the biggest benefits of being a long-time patron is that you can simply step into your chef friend’s place, and have full assurance that the experience will be just as you like it. “He knows exactly what I want and he also serves very good beef from Japan, which appeals to the Chicagoan in me!” says Tanasijevich, who can instantly rattle off a list of his favourites among Quek’s signature dishes. “I don’t have to look at the menu. In fact, he often serves me items that are not on the menu.”
Depending on the season, Quek might surprise him with a wok-fried Maine lobster with Kampot white pepper or a whole kinki fish for two, steamed Cantonese-style and filleted tableside – an unusual offering as most Chinese restaurants find the cost of the Japanese import too high.
Quek designs compact meals just for Tanasijevich: four courses, served within an hour “because he is always very busy,” says Quek. “Also, most of the C-suite diners don’t want to bother with deciding on the menu, so we work with their PAs to design something for them. Once the relationship is built, they leave it completely to us. It was the same when I cooked for the late Lee Kuan Yew. I presented him with a menu for the first dinner. In the subsequent 20 years, I cooked for his birthday and he never asked me about the menu.”
However, when it comes to knowing Tanasijevich’s preferences well, Quek has more than once been surprised by the latter’s adventurous streak. When travel show host Ian Wright visited Singapore in 2012, Quek took him out to sup at JB Ah Meng – a streetside zichar restaurant in Geylang that was as down and dirty as it can possibly get in Singapore, complete with sewer rats and alley roaches – and asked Tanasijevich if he would like to join them. “And he came – the president and CEO of MBS, eating at a place like JB Ah Meng. I was quite impressed.” Clearly, Tanasijevich trusts his friend’s the recommendations and wasn’t about to pass up on the chance to try something different.
Eating out with Quek – a revered industry veteran well-versed in the ways of both the French and the Chinese kitchen – also meant getting to sample the best of the best, and Tanasijevich was immediately hooked. In fact, he has even brought business associates and his family to dine at JB Ah Meng since then. Through Quek, Tanasijevich has also discovered other gems such as the now defunct Swa Garden Teochew Restaurant.
Needless to say, their relationship goes well beyond the simplistic “He cooks, I eat!” Tanasijevich jokingly mentions. It’s one of mutual appreciation: Quek of Tanasijevich’s intense curiosity in food, and Tanasijevich of Quek’s deep knowledge of it.
Family in the kitchen
The moment economist Song Seng Wun steps into Preludio, he is affectionately greeted as “Papa Song” by the members of the staff. It might sound strange to the casual onlooker, especially since the restaurant has only been open for a year, but as Song has been back 15 times in 13 months and his daughter works in the kitchen, the nickname is more than apt.
His fixation began when he first visited the restaurant at the recommendation of an ex-colleague. Struck by its unconventional “Monochrome” menu – everything from the food and decor to the drinks list had a black and white motif – he returned repeatedly, eventually introducing it to his family.
That’s when his daughter, a gourmand, fell in love with one of the restaurant’s signatures: La Cortina, a dish of squash agnolotti in a parmesan sauce, finished with a drizzle of 25-year-old balsamic vinegar from Reggio Emilia producers Il Borgo. She asked for the recipe and ended up staging in Preludio’s kitchen. Six months after an internship, she became a salaried staff member and is called “Baby Song” by the team.
Short of owning a restaurant, eating out doesn’t get any more insider than having a member of the family in the kitchen. For one, there’s no one better to look out for your likes and dislikes. Then there’s the fact that “Baby Song” can now prepare one of her dad’s favourite Preludio dishes by chef-owner Fernando Arevalo at home: a smoky, intensely savoury Iberico pork presa (a particularly succulent, prized cut from a pig’s shoulder) coated in squid ink panko that Song has dubbed Arevalo’s char siew.
As a private banker, who entertains regularly, Song appreciates the dynamism of Preludio. “I like to bring clients here because the menu changes regularly and the food’s interesting, so there’s always a conversation starter,” he says. “We can talk about the food, and then discuss – you know – where you want to put your money”.
His patronage has paid dividends. Song is often invited to try dishes that haven’t been released or are still in development, reveals Arevalo.
Song himself would often drop by the restaurant – the advantage of living and working within walking distance of it – for a pint. “I’ll sit at the bar and hang out with sommelier Chip Steel,” he shares.
He admits he has even asked Preludio’s pastry chef Elena Perez de Carrasco to marry him. “I really like the desserts. After my third visit, I proposed to Elena,” Song jokes.
“The good thing about this place is that everyone’s very close-knit, and we’ve become a little family.”