Johnston Teo might be only 24 years old, but the executive chef of newly opened restaurant Sorrel is making no apologies for his age.
“I get people trying to put me down (because of my age). But think about a 50-year-old who has been cooking drunken prawns at a buffet counter for 30 years. Those 30 years of experience don’t necessarily mean he can come up with a seven-course fine-dining menu,” says Teo. “People shouldn’t judge based on experience; they should judge on taste.”
Based on that principle, Teo’s past six years would have been more edifying than those spent by most other cooks of his age.
During that time, he worked with two chefs that he dubs the best in Singapore – Ryan Clift from Tippling Club and Julien Royer from Jaan.
The former was where he picked up the art of visual aesthetics; the latter, the importance of fresh produce.
“Julien was always focused on making sure what you put in your mouth was the best produce he could find… It was from him that I learnt taste should always come first,” says Teo. In fact, he nearly didn’t get to train under Royer, as the Jaan kitchen had no vacancies when he first applied for a job.
“Every week, I would call and ask (Royer), ‘What’s my status, what’s going on?’” he says with a laugh. His tenacity paid off after two months, when Royer finally accepted him into his kitchen.
It’s this clear vision of what he wants that drives Teo, and the reason why Loh Lik Peng, founder and director of hotel and restaurant group Unlisted Collections, accepted his pitch in a mere 15 minutes.
“Johnston knows exactly what he wants,” says Loh. “You can be 35 years old and still not have a clear path in front of you. But Johnston came with a very clear idea about what he wanted to bring to the local food scene.”
Teo’s pitch was simple – offering diners a taste of quality ingredients like hand-dived scallops sourced from Norway or Scotland, without the hefty price tag. Says Loh: “This concept appealed very much to me, because it could reach out to a new audience that does not want to spend a fortune but still wants a taste of fine dining.” But to be able to offer this requires skill and creativity on the part of the chef.
Luckily, Teo has this in spades. A common dish like roast chicken, for instance, is reimagined on his menu. He uses only the French naked neck breed, known for its pronounced flavour and softer, juicier meat. The wings are painstakingly deboned and served confit style; the liver is brined in milk and then soaked in sherry for three days; and the yolk confit is served in onion oil.
“Every component of the dish takes three to four days to make,” shares Teo. But the different textures of chicken come together like a well-thought-out melody, and the dish is easily finished within minutes – a testament to his culinary prowess, for sure.
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