Meet the three chefs helming 田Magic Square, a year-long pop-up at Portsdown Road.
It might seem risky, putting three largely unknown chefs at the helm of an experimental kitchen. Nevertheless, in the spirit of supporting local talent, Tan Ken Loon of Naked Finn and Nekkid backed Desmond Shen (25), Marcus Leow (26) and Abel Su (29), in starting 田Magic Square, a minimalist, loft-style kitchen and incubator named after a series of paintings by Swiss-German artist Paul Klee.
Throughout the course of the space’s one-year lease, Shen, Leow and Su, in that order, would take turns presenting month-long nine-course tasting menus (priced at $78 per person) along their chosen themes and have a hand in managing the business side of things. They would also get to work with fresh, local ingredients, courtesy of Naked Finn’s network of local suppliers, 3am visits to Jurong fishery port and an indoor vegetable farm. Though young, all three chefs have had kitchen experience at renowned restaurants such as Odette, Whitegrass, Curate and Iggy’s. On the pass since May, they are into their second cycle of menus and going strong.
Tell us briefly about your culinary journey so far.
Leow: After junior college, I worked at a bistro for over a year, then got lucky with a position as commis at Iggy’s. There, I began to feel I needed to get my basics right, so I went back to school. I interned at Gunther’s at the same time, learning about the simplicity of quality ingredients and classic French techniques. After graduating, I applied to Whitegrass, as chef Sam Aisbett’s discipline and style resonated with me. While there, I got to know Desmond well and he roped me in on this project.
Su: I worked in a bistro during my summer vacation in university back in 2012, and after graduating, I got in touch with chef Julien Royer while he was still at JAAN. I spent a few months on a work attachment before being introduced to Ivan Brehm who was then at Bacchanalia. Ten months in, I got the chance to head to atera in New York for a stage. When I returned to Singapore, Odette was opening and I was there up until Magic Square came up, save for three months in 2017 which I spent at Brae.
Shen: After graduating from Temasek Polytechnic’s diploma in baking and culinary science programme, I had the chance to work at establishments such as Naked Finn,Odette, Whitegrass, Curate and Farm DeLight. Working at amazing restaurants made me more technically sound as a chef, but at the same time, I find myself planning menus that fit into their mould, which is something I have to learn to break away from to develop something that is truly mine.
How would you describe your cooking style? And who are your culinary heroes?
Leow: I would say I do not have a particular cooking style, but I’ve always liked to have balance in my food, pairing simple, subtle nuances of bitterness and sourness with rich flavours. I think having a cooking style would mean conforming to a certain mould, and I always feel being fluid would yield a more interesting result. My culinary heroes are Alex Atala of D.O.M restaurant and Christian Puglisi of Relae. These two chefs have always been able to take local ingredients they identify with and transform them into something that’s completely different, yet resonates with their heritage at the same time. It’s something I want to achieve in my menus as well.
Su: I focus more on the ingredients—the technique comes more as a tool to best express the ingredient. It is a more reductive approach as well; I really love simple dishes that have a clear and unadulterated deliciousness about them. As for culinary heroes, Corey Lee of Benu is one of them—I think the way he has been executing Asian flavours at such a high level is incredible and has paved the way for us to do something similar. I have been lucky to have dined there twice in the last four years, and both times I left feeling excited and hopeful with regards to how we could execute these undervalued flavours. Jaime Young of Sunday in Brooklyn is another. I used to work under him at atera and he was just the most amazing chef de cuisine. Some of the dishes he used to do on the fly still blow me away to this day. He was also such a great person to work under, with the most infectious positivity. The fact that many of the old atera guys now work with him is a testament to his excellent management as well.
Shen: Out of the three of us, I would say that my cooking is the boldest. I focus more on brassy, big flavours with a certain rawness. I have long idolised chefs that have great fire control, chef Kobe Wulf of Chambre Séparée and now-defunct In de Wulf, chef Magnus Of Faviken, and even Chinese chefs who have a mastery in the wok. It’s just a beautiful thing to see, when a chef is in total control of an element.
Desmond, being the first to kickstart the series, how did you try to present a menu that resonates well with diners? How did you build on that in your August menu?
Shen: For the initial menu, I wanted to convey a sense of who I am as a chef, putting up food that resonates with my interests such as a love for fermentation, and with my background and my experiences growing up in Singapore. For the August menu I just did, I continued along these lines, injecting subtle Malay and Indian influences to my dishes. My godmother is an Indian-Muslim and she, along with my mum, inspired me to learn how to cook.
For instance, I developed a dish composed of grilled mangoes, kaffir, spiced yoghurt and Maqaw pepper, a mountain pepper berry from Taiwan. It’s a flavour combination that I really enjoy and identify with because of its heat and fragrance. I also used a ferment of rice koji as a marinade for a fantastic piece of Aomori rice beef, a cattle that is raised on rice fields. In addition, I explored cheese making and experimented on how best to use whey for fermentation.
What are your thoughts on the dishes you’ve put up so far?
Leow: In my progressive Peranakan-centric menu, the dish I was most happy with was my buak keluak and olive vegetable emulsion, with a variation of brussels sprouts. It gave me great joy when diners finished the brussels sprouts as this is an ingredient that people typically didn’t like or thought was boring.
On the other hand, I would say I was most disappointed with the pork belly and chinchalok sauce with a burnt pineapple sauce. I really liked it and so did the diners, but it just didn’t really fit in with the other courses, so we changed it to a 90-day-old French chicken smoked in a coconut husk, with an eggplant purée infused with Peranakan aromatics of pickled ginger flower and chopped pepper leaves.
Su: I loved the jasmine rice parfait with a sweet potato skin caramel, topped with anise flowers and purple sweet potatoes with a brittle crust that reflected my Cantonese heritage. It was an idea that I came up with seven years ago, but it is something that would have never been possible without the seven years since, or without this place. (I would have never thought to fry the potatoes if not for Desmond’s input.) The dish looks simple but it has made so many guests happy, which makes me happy.
Shen: I like how the pork dish with 10-year-aged plum vinegar and burnt plums in my first menu turned out, because I felt a strong connection to the aged vinegar I made with my parents 10 years ago. I also learnt the value of adapting to feedback with my Indian threadfin dish. It was initially gently steamed in a broth of salted coconut water infused with ginger flower. The flavour polarised diners due to the warm sweetness of the broth. I changed it to an Indian threadfin atop glutinous rice seasoned with roasted bone powder and some dried sole fish, which was then wrapped in sweet potato leaves and added to a roasted fish bone broth topped with crispy egg threads and a green scallion oil. This dish was much better received.
What’s cooking for September and October?
Leow: For the month of September, I will continue with a progressive Peranakan theme and feature dishes such as buak keluak pesto or a bergamot infused salted vegetable broth. I also hope to add some experimental dishes to the menu. One is a binka ubi that has a smoky flavour when grilled over hot charcoal, served with a very rich jackfruit curd. Another is Bombay duck—a fish that’s incredibly common in Tekka market and very affordable—used in fish dumplings and a broth made from dried Bombay duck infused in a black grapefruit peel.
Su: I cook with my heritage and training in mind, but I just want the food to be simple, well-executed, and make sense as part of the whole menu. I am usually most excited by desserts. We have an ice shaving machine loaned to us by a friend, and I would feel like I am letting him down if I did not use it at least once. In addition, Pike conger is not something I have used before. Up until we went to the fishery port in Jurong, I had always thought it was only available in Japan. It is an interesting fish with a very complicated bone structure, and it is something I hope I can make a great dish out of.
5B Portsdown Road. Tel: +65 8181 0102