Singapoean chefs working overseas

1. Rising Nordic Star: Mathew Leong

At Stavanger’s RE-NAA, the only restaurant in Norway with two Michelin stars, Mathew Leong, 27, is the right hand of acclaimed Norwegian chef and owner Sven Erik Renaa. He also helms RE-NAA’s more casual Matbaren Bistro.

Born and raised in Singapore, Leong moved to Norway to pursue his career at 21. Previously, he worked at RE-NAA for a year before moving to A’Laise, a Michelin plate restaurant in Oslo. Within three years, he was promoted to head chef.

“After completing my National Service, I wanted to sharpen my skills by working overseas. Upon sending over 100 resumes to restaurants around the world, Sven Erik Renaa was one of the three to respond. Without a second thought, I packed my bags and moved to Norway,” he recalls.

RE-NAA's chef Matthew Leong
RE-NAA’s chef Mathew Leong.

Strangers tell him how lucky he is to hold his position at such a young age. “What they don’t know is the amount of hard work and sacrifices I’ve made along the way. It’s not luck; it’s hard work and determination.”

According to the highly motivated chef, “During my early days, I would always be the first to arrive and the last to leave just so I could learn and absorb as much as possible from the senior chefs. It is no secret that this industry can be brutal, and I had to endure verbal abuse that sometimes took a physical turn. Yet I am thankful that I trained in such a harsh environment because it helped me develop a strong mentality.”

Leong was also the youngest to represent Singapore at the Bocuse d’Or Final 2021, a biennial world chef championship in France. For two and a half years, he worked full-time while training for the gruelling competition. “I worked as head chef at A L’aise from 9am to 12am. During my days off, I would train with my team for an average of 10 hours per session.”

Mathew Leong’s platter for the Bocuse d’Or Final 2021.
Mathew Leong’s platter for the Bocuse d’Or Final 2021.

Four months have passed since Leong returned to RE-NAA, where he has been tasked with creating new dishes for RE-NAA and Matbaren Bistro. He says, “In Norway, restaurants use mainly ingredients sourced locally so I had to educate myself about the many types of natural produce for each season as they determine the dishes on the menu.”

How does he view Singapore’s culinary standing? “Despite being global and diverse, it reflects our culture strongly. Here you can taste everything from Michelin-starred delicacies and international cuisines to our favourite hawker food.”

Related: Singapore chefs share their favourite food memories of home

2. Reinventing Singapore Cuisine: Jimmy Lim

Jimmy Lim.
JL Studio’s Jimmy Lim.

In 2017, Jimmy Lim founded JL Studio in Taichung City, Taiwan, a restaurant serving modern Singaporean cuisine infused with fresh Taiwanese ingredients and prepared in a French style. JL Studio became the first restaurant in Taichung to receive two Michelin stars three years later. Among the many accolades, the restaurant was also awarded the 2019 Miele One to Watch by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants and ranked 26th in 2020 and 2021.

The former national athlete, who used to work at his father’s zi char stall when he was in primary school, also operates the more casual Chope Chope in Taipei, serving Singaporean hawker food.

The 40-year-old honed his skills at acclaimed restaurants like The French Laundry, Per Se, Geranium and Noma before settling in Taiwan. “My most memorable experience working overseas was at The French Laundry in Napa Valley,” he recalls. During his 20s, he read The French Laundry Cookbook until the pages were worn out, and could barely believe it when he finally landed a job there. His first day at work sent shivers down his spine as he stood in the kitchen. “It was just like the cookbook I had seen a million times!”

Bringing a slice of Singapore to Taiwan

Chef’s Pumpkin Lamb Curry.
Chef’s Pumpkin Lamb Curry at JL Studio.

Success didn’t come easily, however. “At that point in my career, I was so hungry for knowledge. I practised every day after work to perfect the craft,” he says. “I would imagine there was someone out there more hard-working than me.” Those thoughts pushed him to continue his training.

It took some time for local guests to understand and appreciate what Lim was creating when he created JL Studio in Taiwan, which features Singapore dishes, reinvented with fresh flavours and unique presentations.

Street food was their stereotypical idea of Singaporean or South-east Asian food. “Initially, guests baulked at the high prices,” Lim says. “Hainanese chicken rice, chilli crab, and bak kut teh are the most popular Singaporean dishes for Taiwanese.” These days, of course, he says Singaporean flavours are increasingly more acceptable.

A signature of Lim’s is Hainanese chicken rice without the chicken. To mimic the texture of chicken skin, he poaches local white asparagus and water bamboo in chicken broth with konjac. Hainanese chicken porridge broth is used as a sauce, and chicken fat infused with aromatics is drizzled over the dish to finish. “This is Singapore Hainanese chicken rice through the lens of JL Studio,” he proudly states.

Related: More Singapore chefs win international culinary competitions

3. Celebrating Sustainability: Barry Quek

Barry Quek.
Barry Quek.

In 2021, Barry Quek, 33, opened Whey in Hong Kong with ZS Hospitality Group to serve modern European cuisine reimagined with Singaporean influences. A Michelin star was awarded to Whey in just eight months.

Quek developed a passion for the culinary arts at a young age. He began his career at Joël Robuchon and Les Amis in Singapore after graduating from At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy and serving the army.

After his stint in Singapore’s fine dining scene, Quek was eager to travel abroad to explore different food cultures and grow as a chef. He was particularly interested in learning more about the farm-to-table philosophy and landed a job at In de Wulf in Belgium. “I was amazed by how they handle produce and bring foraged ingredients to the table.”

“Working alongside chef Kobe Desramaults at In De Wulf opened my eyes to a whole new world. I foraged for ingredients for the first time then. As a result, I learned about local and sustainable farming and fermenting and pickling techniques, which heavily influence my cooking today,” he says.

Then he moved to Melbourne to work at Attica by chef Ben Shewry. There, he witnessed the value of cultivating close relationships with local farmers. “Eating what’s around us makes sense and reduces carbon footprint.” After Australia, he worked in London’s Portland and Clipstone. “All these experiences made me the person I am today.”

From working abroad, he has learned that “sustainability comes in small steps” — an approach he applies at Whey too. “We’re committed to supporting local farms and businesses to connect with the community and reduce our carbon footprint. Our team makes the most of every ingredient and ensures we incorporate by-products, such as whey, back into our dishes.”

Dishes with Singapore flavours and Hong Kong produce

Chef’s Bak Kut Teh New Territories Pork Rib.
Chef’s Bak Kut Teh New Territories Pork Rib.

At Whey, the menu is built around fresh local seafood, meat, herbs and vegetables. “We’ve forged a close relationship with local farms, including Zen Organic, Wah Kee Pork Farm, Ping Che Farm, Common Farms, and Urban Grow. To recognise the dedicated effort of local farmers, we’ve also extended our comprehensive use of seasonal local produce in our food and even cocktails.”

Guests enjoy creations such as Onion Porridge, a play on Teochew porridge made with blended white onions and topped with poached quail egg, puffed rice and home-made bak kwa. There’s also Quek’s Lemak Three Yellow Chicken. It fuses Western cooking with robust Singaporean flavours and local chicken to create an inventive twist on nasi lemak.

Quek adds, “Hong Kong diners are well-travelled, knowledgeable, and willing to try new concepts. Since Whey is a new and experimental concept, we weren’t sure how people would perceive it before it opened. Now we’re very happy with the overwhelming responses.”

Related: Why elevating Singapore cuisine is so difficult, chefs weigh in