In 1990, a black and white of Marco Pierre White was published in his seminal cookbook White Heat. Shot by legendary photographer Bob Carlos Clarke during White’s meteoric rise, it portrayed him with a piercing stare and an unruly black mane framing a handsome face gaunt from the brutal demands of the restaurant world – and cemented him as the proto chef-as-rock star. Wielding a knife became as sexy as picking up a guitar.
While White’s mentors and predecessors were often portly and almost always French, the new breed of chefs came from all over. They were lean from working with an intense, almost masochistic passion and had a predilection for tattoos and substance abuse, as detailed in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.
Once anonymous and kitchen- bound, they were suddenly thrust into the spotlight, appearing on TV shows and in the tabloids. White, of course, was a regular feature. In the ensuing decades, running a restaurant became a cultural phenomenon accompanied by enormous media attention. Suddenly, everyone was a foodie.
(Related: There’s a duck neck sausage at Pollen)
Like all forms of art, however, trends tend to be eventually met with resistance. If chefs were rock stars, then I – at the risk of stretching an analogy too far – posit this: now is the time of the indie chef. For every Mick Jagger, there’s a Bon Iver and for every swaggering, Michelin-starred culinary artist promoting his bouillon cubes on YouTube, there’s another squirrelled away in his kitchen, cooking exciting, soulful cuisine for a cult following.
One fine example is Sydney-based Josh Niland, whom the Sydney Morning Herald once described as having a “breathtaking lack of charisma”. At his restaurant Saint Peter, Niland’s rewriting all the rules of seafood, which includes breaking down a fish like one would an entire cow, making trout charcuterie and taking the nose to tail approach to wild-caught produce. So one could be surprised by fish-eye crackers and cod fat caramel. It’s exhilarating.
The same has been happening here. Young chefs are leaving the relative stability of established restaurants to plunge into personal ventures and slinging food any way they can – at their homes and through delivery or pop-ups. While the luckier ones might get a space to call their own, all are characterised by clever, fiercely independent cooking and, often, reticence.
At the private dining pop-up turned full-fledged restaurant Mustard Seed, I witnessed Gan Ming Kiat run an entire service alongside his partner Wu Shin Yin. The food is one of the best expressions of modern Singaporean I’ve had in a while – restrained, delicious and comforting.
Savour this: frog legs marinated in turmeric and coated in crushed Japanese rice crackers before being deep-fried to a delicate crunch, hearty, brothy carb courses and abundantly stuffed ngoh hiang. Nary a whiff of truffle shavings anywhere.
Elsewhere, Wine RVLT has built a reputation with fervent foodies. The rowdy atmosphere belies inventive, detailed dishes of the fine-dining variety, thanks to reticent head chef Sunny Leong. Century egg terrine (fabulous with Champagne), seafood perched on an almost magical, glass-like block of dashi, homemade chicken nuggets worth every extra dollar measured against the fast-food version.
Today, these chefs, while still often quiet and kitchen-bound, are far from anonymous. Talent has a habit of attracting attention and if the Internet democratised the publication of music a decade ago, then the same has happened for restaurants.
Critics and advertising are no longer required to get the word out. Just great, interesting food and a social media handle will do. This may seem like an existential threat to my job but I, for one, welcome this new wave of gastronomy.