Jimmy Lim, Singaporean chef-owner of JL Studio, contemplates his unlikely journey into Mod Sin.
I’ve never considered cooking Singaporean food. After working in Euro-centric kitchens for 13 years—I did French fine-dining for nearly eight years at Le Moût, Taiwan, and also stints at Noma and Geranium in Denmark—I intended JL Studio as a modern European restaurant. But one month before opening, the concept suddenly felt impersonal. As I started to think more deeply about what holds emotional resonance for me, I realised that Singapore’s cuisine wasn’t very well known internationally, unlike French or Italian or Thai. That was when I decided I should go back to my roots.
Mod Sin was my way of elevating the cuisine to counter misconceptions that it’s just cheap food. I also knew that if I wanted to get diners engaged and eager to learn more about our food culture, I needed to do something different and creative.
To me, keeping true to traditional flavours is more important than deconstruction. Many here don’t know much beyond chicken rice and bak kut teh, so I need to take it step by step. Sometimes, people don’t enjoy certain foods because they don’t understand the context. After getting feedback that our spices were too strong, we started to explain how Singapore’s year-round summer climate calls for pungent, spicy and sour flavours to whet the appetite.
I’m happy when guests say that my food made them want to visit Singapore to taste the original dishes. My diners are mainly locals; a third comes from Japan and Hong Kong. I also have regulars from Singapore and Malaysia who pop in whenever they’re here for work. I’m both surprised and honoured that they find my food exciting enough to keep returning.
Right now, my priority is to properly establish JL Studio in Taiwan. We’ve only been open for a year and a half, and there’s still so much to learn. I regret being complacent back when I was helping my late father with his zichar stall. After living and working abroad, I’m finally appreciative and curious—of the diversity of our hawker food, the history, the techniques—but now it’s all research, and trial and error.
At the beginning, I listed down all the dishes I could think of, then selected some to deconstruct. These days, I prefer to keep things simple, to focus on flavours rather than plating—so I’ve been challenging myself to take a more ingredient driven approach.
Sustainable farming and food mileage matters. We’re in Taichung because that’s as close we can get to the produce: 80 per cent of our ingredients are local, and I can easily explore nearby farms for inspiration. For instance, my black pepper lobster was inspired by magao, a spice traditionally used by aboriginal tribes. Its peppercorn-like flavours reminded me of pepper crab, so I experimented along those lines. For the current iteration, I serve poached slipper lobster with magao done two ways: as a broth, and as a black pepper paste. Singapore’s flavours remain the backbone for my dishes, but I also want to give a sense of place. I find it funny the way everything comes full circle. Growing up, I would wonder why French cuisine looked so beautiful, and our food so messy.
To some extent, I think confidence comes with age. Now, I’m proud to say that I’m a Singaporean cooking a modern interpretation of Singapore’s cuisine.
The above, as told to Mia Chenyze, was first published in Wine & Dine’s Nov/Dec 2018 issue – Luxury Redefined.