Kamil Foltan, Indigenous Bartender Headquarters (IBHQ)

Kamil Foltan of IBHQ

A stickler for research with an insatiable appetite for knowledge, Kamil Foltan is now acknowledged as one of Asia’s leading bartenders/beverage consultants. He is also behind an online platform that he started in 2016 ”for like-minded bartenders (and foodies) looking to explore locally sourced ingredients and their uses with a culinary and creative approach”.

So far, ”we have published 95 articles online, each inspired by one ingredient that originated in Asia, with useful facts and tips on how to use them in cooking and in the bar,” says Mr Foltan, who came to Singapore in 2014 to head the bar programmes at The Black Swan by Lo & Behold group, The Tippling Club and Indonesia’s Potato Head Group.

There were no limits to his R&D for projects, when they would pair each key ingredient with champagne, gin, whiskey, bourbon, cognac or vodka with syrups, infusions and more, just to ”see what comes out best”.

Which was what happened with jackfruit and curry, a ”discovery” that became a Jackfruit and Curry Negroni at IBHQ (the drink has the bittersweet profile of a negroni, with the spicy fragrance of curry and the fruitiness of jackfruit, which took a while to process).

”We are very experimental – we push the boundaries of where the flavours can go; introducing them in an unexpected way. I don’t go for the easy matches, it should always surprise the drinker.” He likens each cocktail in his flight 774A menu (three cocktails for S$58 or five for S$88) – where the dominant flavour of an ingredient is presented in different ways – to a dish in a degustation menu.

So what’s the difference between a good cocktail and a ground-breaking one?

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”A good cocktail is one that people enjoy,” muses Mr Foltan, ”If you would order it again or come back for it very soon, that’s good. But to make a ground-breaking cocktail, it is about what’s coming next. It is like fine dining in liquid form. It is a flavour combination that you would not expect to work together, but does. It is about the quality of the drink in terms of texture and balance. Presentation is part of the game; however, simplicity and elegance is my personal choice. It is what’s inside the glass that counts,” he says.

On his part, Mr Foltan hopes to inspire the industry and young professionals.

”It’s more about getting them excited about cocktails. Do you go to a restaurant to get full, or to enjoy conversation and have an experience with friends? I look at the cocktail scene the same way. Why can’t you go to a cocktail bar and have a great flavour experience the same way as you do for dinner?”

Once a month, he organizes a themed Bartender’s table (S$108 per person) that offers deeper insights into everything from gin and tea pairing to the citrus of Kochi prefecture. And whichever ingredient he focuses on, it will be an eye-opener.

Find out more at at IBHQ’s Facebook page, 774A North Bridge Road, Tel: 90253234

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Desmond Shen, Magic Square

Desmond Shen of Magic Square

It started out as a means to an end. Identify promising chefs, give them a platform to cook without worrying about financial risk, and see if they do well enough to headline their own restaurant once the experiment is over.

That was the thinking of The Naked Finn owner Tan Ken Loon when he launched Magic Square in May 2018 – a year-long 18- seat pop-up restaurant helmed by local boys Desmond Shen, Abel Su and Marcus Leow. The chefs take turns to present a month-long tasting menu, and Magic Square has been a hit from Day One. The trio work to showcase local and regional ingredients in original recipes, at an accessible price – a tall order which requires them to stretch their limited resources as well as their own culinary skills.

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From this baptism of fire, Desmond Shen has emerged as a talent to be reckoned with, turning his obsession with plants and fermentation into a culinary art form.

Thanks to him, petai (stink beans) get a new life as a creamy, cheesy miso that is aerated into an addictive dip for homemade rice crackers. He hasn’t stopped there, experimenting with candlenut and buah keluak, using a method he developed that cuts the fermentation process from more than one month to two weeks.

The 26-year-old Temasek Polytechnic alumnus cut his teeth at the likes of The Naked Finn, Odette, Whitegrass, Blackwattle and Narisawa (as a stage) in Tokyo, where he was introduced to koji and fermentation. He also worked for Farm deLight, an indoor herb farm, where he learnt about growing and harvesting plants at the right stage.

”When I came back from Narisawa, I went on a massive miso and fermentation exploration at home,” says Chef Shen. ”I was very lucky to have caught it before the craze came here. I went really in-depth into research for two years, so by the time the restaurant started, I was already quite proficient.”

He is fueled by curiosity – to understand how things work and where food comes from.

”This is why I join establishments like The Naked Finn, because they are really into their produce.”

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Chef Shen is well aware of the tough road ahead for young Singapore chefs. ”Many people do not believe in us because, to be honest, we probably have not given them a lot of confidence,” he says candidly. ”Some restaurants close within six to 12 months of operations, so there is no longevity. Their menus are also priced quite high. But I feel that is something you can do only if you have managed to build up a trust with the customer.” At Magic Square, a nine-course meal is priced at S$78.

Another hurdle is that ”in Singapore, there is a limit to how radical your food can be,” he notes

”When we go abroad to work, we absorb new cooking ideas which strengthen our own foundation and allows us to fine tune those ideas to make them more accessible for Singaporeans. That’s our goal. We don’t want to be too crazy. With the techniques and our sense of how food can be, we can do this in a new way.”

He lets on that while Magic Square has enjoyed a positive response, there were diners who told them that they should just be cooking Chinese food.”

But going the conventional route like some of his peers – ”working their way up to sous chef position and then go out on their own” – is not for him.

”We don’t think the same way. While we’re still young, with energy and ideas, we just want to go out and do something. Our mentality is, ‘We have nothing to lose’.”

So what happens when Magic Square wraps up in two months’ time?

”We have not talked about it yet, but we are going on a very long vacation to recharge, then start thinking about what’s next.”

For sure, this is one talent we haven’t seen the last of.

Magic Square, 5B Portsdown Road, #01-02,  For reservations, please text +65 8181 0102

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Ben Goh, InterContinental Singapore and Chong Koo Jee, SKAI, Swissotel The Stamford

Ben Goh and Chong Koo Jee are two high-achieving pastry chefs who have competed together internationally and are now raising the game in their respective workplaces.

Chef Goh, for one, already has multiple awards under his belt, including firstrunner up at the 2016 Japan Cake Show Tokyo and second-runner up for the team competition at the Mondial Des Arts Sucrés (International Confectionery Art Competition) 2018.

The story-telling element is crucial in his creations, be it for work at InterContinental Singapore, where he oversees all dessert production across several F&B outlets, or for competitions as part of the Singapore National Pastry Team.

Most recently, he and Chef Chong, who creates the desserts at SKAI, competed in the World Pastry Cup (Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie) in Lyon, France, in January 2019, where they were placed seventh.

”Every art piece or dessert has a story, it is not just for display. Then it has to be visually enchanting – and then I work on making it delicious. It’s not about visuals but a multisensory experience – it has to resonate with you,” says the dynamic 33-year-old who has been in the industry for 13 years.

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His ethos comes through in his whimsical afternoon tea collections at the Lobby Lounge of Intercontinental Singapore. Last Christmas, he created a ‘childhood’ theme featuring six chocolate-based desserts on a chess board, for guests to try and checkmate the ‘King’ (Whipped Valrhona blond chocolate ganache, pear confit and cinnamon sponge) with the ‘Rook”(Valrhona Strawberry Inspiration meringue mousse, crushed lemon confit and lemon streusel).

”There are chefs whose work is their main challenge and don’t compete but I feel it’s important if you want to stay in top form,” says chef Goh, who modifies his competition works to serve to his guests.

Chef Chong agrees. The winner of Singapore’s Best Female Pastry Chef at the Singapore Pastry Cup 2015 – among other awards – feels there is still much room for development. It helps too that the hotels support their competitive pursuits.

Not everyone is cut out for the competitive life, though.

”Many chefs think that it’s not practical (as it involves long hours of practice and commitment). But it’s important to learn constantly – you can pick up new techniques along the way. I enjoy the challenge, I like that it is tough,” says the 30-year-old Chef Chong, who previously worked in the pharmaceutical industry before she dove into the world of pastry seven years ago.

”We should continue to break boundaries and think out of the box. To be a pastry chef now, one has to be versatile and be more open to techniques from various disciplines, not just pastry,” says Chef Goh, who is proficient in both chocolate and sugar work.

Gone are the days when baking skills would suffice. Technology, such as 3D printing (for moulds) and laser-cutting tools (for chocolate, icing and more) are already in the mix and all these help in the creative process, says Chef Goh. ”In a recent competition, I asked a 3D sketcher to sketch the shape I wanted. We did a 3D printed mould of it so I could get dessert to look exactly the way I wanted,” says Chef Chong, who specialises in sugar work.

Moving forward, Chef Goh would like to share his experiences with more young chefs. ”The standards that you hold yourself to and the discipline that you must maintain (in competition) should extend to your work. And whether you are presenting creations to a judge or to your guests, you have to present the best.”

He also hopes that more young chefs understand that fame doesn’t come overnight; it takes time to gain skill and experience.

Adds Chef Chong, ”In our industry, hours are long, and the work is physically demanding. Some people who enter the industry may regret it, but I don’t believe in looking back. If you do, you’ll never move forward.”

The Lobby Lounge, Intercontinental Singapore, 80 Middle Road. Tel: 6825 1008 SKAI, level 70 Swissotel The Stamford, 2 Stamford Road. Tel: 6837 3322

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A version of this article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photos: Magic Square, IBHQ, InterContinental Singapore, Swissotel the Stamford,