He looks like a veritable teddy bear: all kind, smiley eyes, chubby cheeks and plain huggable. But don’t mistake Jason Tan for a softie. The 32-year-old did not become chef patron and co-owner of new set-up Corner House – which takes over the EHJ Corner in Singapore Botanic Gardens, previously occupied by Au Jardin – without withstanding his share of trials during 10 years in the culinary trade.
“Tough times don’t last, but tough men do.” These words by chef Julien Bompard – his mentor and previous boss at Le Saint Julien Restaurant and Julien Bompard at Ascott Raffles Place – now form his motto.
It seems to be in his character to take on a challenge without thinking too much about it. He just dives into the deep, and then swims with all his might. That certainly was the case when the Shatec graduate was, through Bompard’s connnections, talent-scouted to work for Robuchon a Galera (now known as Robuchon au Dome) at Hotel Lisboa Macau. Then just 25 years of age, Tan had not thought about going abroad to work, and didn’t even know the magnitude of the opportunity.
“At that time, I just thought, ‘Eh, that name (Joel Robuchon) sounds familiar’,” he recalls with a hearty laugh at his youthful ignorance. “The time I spent there was a nightmare. The Robuchon kitchen is very disciplined and very quiet – you put on your apron and you work. You don’t talk. The head chef was very tough on everyone. If a dish calls for three flakes of sea salt and you put four, it would be rejected.
“At that time, I thought to myself, is this (kind of precision) really that important? Then I realised that is exactly why Robuchon has been so successful. After that stint, I learnt to appreciate discipline – skills and techniques can be refined, but discipline is something that needs to be ingrained.”
Though, at heart, he is just a down-to-earth, Singlish-speaking Hokkien boy next door with a taste for his mum’s dark soya-sauce chicken and late-night hor fun at Geylang zichar restaurant JB Ah Meng, Tan’s experiences have given him a deep insight into modern French cuisine: the lightness of the approach, the emphasis on seasonality and the utmost respect for quality ingredients.
Apart from the lessons learnt at Le Saint Julien and Robuchon a Galera, working under chef Gunther Hubrechsen at Les Amis in 2004 opened his eyes to the limitless potential of vegetables. “Gunther – who worked with Alain Passard – uses a lot of vegetables, many of which I had never seen. It opened my eyes to how diverse vegetables are and that they can also be a dish on their own.” So, he has created a cuisine which he calls “Gastro-Botanica” and, on his menu, one finds Degustation of Onions, comprising crisp onion wafers, onion tartlets, a hollowed-out onion holding a sous-vide egg topped with truffled onion puree, and an aromatic earl grey tea poured over onion foam.
This style of cuisine also stems from a deep respect for produce. To him, respect doesn’t just mean showcasing the best of the produce, but not wasting any part of it, too. “We use the chicken breast and legs in the dishes and the bones are used to make stock and jus. For lobsters, we use the shells for sauce and, if we get roe, we can also use it. For vegetables, we would use the trimmings for purees or mirepoix.”
With this respectful approach, he creates multi-textural dishes that intrigue with flavour rather than gimmicks, through “applying many different marinades and cooking techniques to a single ingredient”. Like an artist who creates depth and form through different shades of the same colour, he turns single ingredients into elaborate dishes through different culinary treatments.