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Blancpain’s SEA VP shares tips on menu planning

Creating glamour at the dining table takes decades of know-how, as Blancpain’s Jenny Hui shares.

As the vice-president of Swiss watch brand Blancpain’s South-east Asia operations, and with over a decade of experience in the luxury retail industry, Jenny Hui is no stranger to working with top chefs around the world to plan lavish meals for 30 to 300. She shares more about the art of menu planning, and her surprising disdain for chocolate.

Are you a huge foodie?
I have two boys, aged one and five, so on a day-to-day basis, my husband and I don’t get much opportunity to eat out. Hence, we use any occasion – anniversaries, birthdays and every celebration we can think of – as a chance to try the new restaurants in town. We particularly enjoy Restaurant Week, and will try to meet up more often for lunch then.

I started visiting Michelin restaurants in earnest about two years ago. I have a dangerous job – it really spoils me (laughs). Now, when I travel around the region for work or during our annual trips to Europe, I make it an objective to visit some of the best restaurants in every country I visit.

Where are some of your favourite places to dine?
I have two extremes: I have a group of friends with whom I will go around Singapore to look for the best local food – the nasi padang on the second floor of the Geylang Serai market is my favourite – but I also love fine dining.

After visiting so many restaurants around the world, and many of them three-Michelin-star establishments, I feel Restaurant Andre is still one of the best around. You can see the effort that goes into every detail, from the condiments to the presentation of food, and even his handcrafted tableware – he offers the whole package.

Is there anything you wouldn’t eat?
I don’t do buffets well. I don’t agree with spending just to have average-quality food in large quantities. I don’t think loving food is about indulgence – you’re intoxicating your palate with too much.

I don’t eat chocolate, either. I don’t like the sticky taste it leaves in my mouth. I’ve never liked it, even as a child. My favourite childhood snack used to be chocolate sandwich cookies but I would eat the cookie and throw away the chocolate cream filling. However, I will still taste it if I am planning a menu, to make sure it is not too sweet and bitter enough for my guests.

Do you taste every single item on a menu when planning for a Blancpain event?
I make sure I’m present for the initial tasting, along with a member of my staff, who can provide a second opinion and help to assess the food in a more objective way. If the menu needs to be changed, I will come back for further tastings but, once it’s up to scratch, I’ll leave it to the team member in charge.

What are some tips when it comes to menu planning?
When I do up a menu for guests, I try to make sure it has items that a majority of diners would be receptive to.

I always have a white and a red meat option for the main course. For red meat, I try to avoid lamb, because a lot of people don’t like its smell or its gamey taste. To play safe, I always opt for wagyu. I normally try to pick a cut that’s suited for medium or medium- rare doneness.

For dessert, I always go for chocolate. You can’t go wrong with it. At better restaurants, I try to challenge them by asking for chocolate lava cake and, for the more average restaurants, I’ll request a mousse or chocolate ice cream with berries, and it’s usually quite safe. For restaurants that are less skilled, I try not to ask for too much: just a rich dark chocolate cake with ice cream will do.

Any hiccups you’ve experienced, or lessons learnt along the way?
Usually, if I’m not happy with the way a restaurant prepares its meat, the next thing I will do is to add a bit more to our budget to get a better cut, but that isn’t always a fool-proof solution. I don’t think better grades and premium cuts are always the way to go.

Once, even after upgrading to a better cut of wagyu, I found it extremely chewy. It turned out the chef had sliced it along, instead of against, the grain. I’d also opted for milk-fed veal over regular veal once, but the colour of the meat made it resemble pork tenderloin, which might mislead guests. The popularity of sous vide cooking these days also results in meat that looks very rare, even though it’s actually cooked, so I have watch out for that.

What are some of the more challenging menus you’ve had to plan for?
In my early years, planning for events in Indonesia was the most challenging. Unlike here, many of the events and meals in Indonesia are held in private houses or at small restaurants, so you have to rely on external caterers. They are often not run by big-name chefs, so making sure the quality of food is at the level you want is a challenge.

Outdoor events are also tricky. Usually you can’t cook, only heat up food, so you have to be very careful on dish selections. The Ritz-Carlton catering arm is one of the most reliable for that.

Is there an art to telling chefs – especially renowned chefs with big egos – when you don’t like a dish on the menu and want it improved?
Most of them are open to ideas; in fact, they welcome suggestions. For the more receptive ones, I’ll ask them to tweak some parts of the dish, such as make it more or less salty. But for those who get easily offended, I’ll suggest swopping the dish entirely, rather than pick the dish apart (laughs).

Gourmet & Travel is available at leading bookstores including Kinokuniya, Times and MPH. The digital edition for both iPad and Android devices can be downloaded via platforms such as the Apple Newsstand and Magzter. Both print and digital editions are priced at S$12.