Born in Hong Kong and trained in Australia, executive chef ArChan Chan, 33, uses her multi-cultural influences to shape the menu at microbrewery restaurant LeVeL33.
Developing a love for food from a young age from watching her grandmother cook many a delicious dish, ArChan moved to Melbourne in 2008 to pursue a degree in Culinary Management at William Angliss Institute. Thereafter, she staged in Australian restaurants such as Attica, Acme, Automata, Quay and Six Penny, and was mentored by Melbourne’s prominent chef-restaurateur Andrew McConnell.
With admiration for the way he presents dishes sincerely, using the best produce and let their flavours shine in simple yet flavourful dishes, ArChan worked in many of his restaurants such as the upscale modern Australian restaurant Cutler and Co., and Supernormal, an Asian-inspired casual eatery.
In total, her experience in Australia taught her a lot about seasonality, being produce-focused and cooking with Western techniques with an Asian influence. Now at LeVeL33, she uses handy materials such as beer liquors and spent grain to create her modern European repertoire of dishes.
Why did you decide on a largely modern European theme for the menu? And how are you applying the experience you gained from your time in Australia?
I confess it wasn’t a conscious decision. When I think of a menu, I think about flavours first: if I find something delicious, I really want to share it. It happens that my culinary training is in European cuisine, and Chinese cuisine is my heritage, so I think the menu became that way.
I think what makes LeVeL33’s menus really interesting is the addition of all the ingredients ‘near by’. Being in a microbrewery allows me access to lots of different things that may not be available to other people, and using it creatively and with respect to the produce is what makes the menu unique.
As for seasonality—well, here in Singapore, there’s really no seasons to speak of and we need to follow the overseas calendar. So then what we have to do is to consider the principles behind this idea of seasonality. What is behind this approach? For me, it’s about finding out the amazing stuff available locally, and letting it shine. I suppose it’s equal parts locavore, equal parts seasonality….
For instance, there’s a side in the menu that I immediately think of when I talk about this—it’s called garlic shoots. It’s made from a local vegetable which I have never encountered in Australia—they call it qing long cai here too. It’s really delicious and it’s something that I would love to share with the guests, and that’s why it’s on the menu. This dish doesn’t seem very Australian or European, but the approach behind it follows the principle of finding something great where we are, and letting it shine.
Which are two dishes you created with ‘near by’ ingredients such as beer liquors and spent grain that you’ve been most happy with and why?
I personally really enjoy eating cured sashimi. The Japanese sometimes cure the raw fish with sake. When I tasted LeVeL33’s house brews, the idea of using the beers to cure food came to mind.
When I decided to do a cured kingfish sashimi dish, I naturally thought of using our own beers and used the Blond Lager because it’s very light and refreshing with a neutral character, which would complement the flavour of the kingfish.
The idea of including the spent grain came from a couple of different directions. One is because we try to explore all the different ways spent grain can be used; and the other is because of the flavour contribution.
LeVeL33 produces quite a large quantity of spent grain weekly. In some countries, spent grain is usually given or even sold to farms for compost or animal feed. This is not the case for us here—and to be honest, spent grain is edible and highly nutritious.
When we get the spent grain, it’s quite wet. For storage purposes, we dry it out. It becomes a unique ingredient for us to explore the culinary possibilities. To be honest, it’s not something I would serve without preparation, and I would not recommend anyone to do that either. However, with preparation and in the right context, it can add tanginess, nuttiness and a really interesting texture.
This is what it brings to the table in the kingfish sashimi dish. I add puffed rice and nori to the spent grain for a delicate sweetness and rich umami, then I blitz these into a fine powder to create a sand. The spent grain boosts the volume, texture and flavour in this sand.
The second dish that comes to mind is the Hokkaido scallop. This dish looks simple—basically seared scallops seared in a housemade dashi enriched with LeVeL33’s house brewed wheat beer. However, the simplicity is part of the difficulty. For example, adding the wheat beer to the dashi is actually a very delicate balancing game. I have to make sure that the flavour of the wheat beer comes through without overpowering the dashi flavour.
Yet that’s one of the reasons I really like it. It’s simple and complex at the same time, and offers layers of flavours.
On the other hand, do you fear that the beer theme is too niche?
I don’t think it’s too niche, and it definitely makes me more creative. I think creativity is about thinking in a different way than you might have ever done before, and when you are in a new environment and/or have to work with a different framework, that’s what happens. Being in a brewery where fresh beer and other unique ingredients are readily available, you think “how can I take advantage of having all the beer elements so close by to create?”
There’s no upcoming dish I can mention now, but I’m experimenting with using barley malt to make miso and vinegar, and with using the spent grain and other ingredients for fermenting foods.
Do you miss cooking with a higher dose of Asian influence, such as when you were at restaurants such as Supernormal. Will you be looking to incorporate more of the Asian flavours of your childhood into your cooking?
I quite miss using a wok since you ask! There’s no limitation in terms of flavours but using a wok lets me achieve a flavour that nothing else can achieve. The grill here is pretty strong and can offer a similar flavour but not quite the same.
Having worked at restaurants such as Cutler and Co., what’s your view on the blurring of the lines between fine dining casual restaurants and bistros who strive to provide quality ingredients at affordable prices?
To be honest, I think it’s good. I can see why people might think fine dining is too stiff or that they aren’t keen to spend a fortune on one meal, and these restaurants offer great options.
For me, the difference between the two is probably in terms of preparation—perhaps there is not so much time-consuming preparation in a bistro. The food you get in a fine dining casual is likely something you would not have the inclination or even the capacity to prepare at home. Having said that, in a bistro, you can still get a really good meal.
I don’t think that classifications need to be quite so strict—the teams behind both types of restaurants want to serve the best that they can in terms of produce, and cooking.
Do you feel that being a woman in any way shapes your instincts as a chef? How so?
I find that I can’t really give a clear answer for this. After all, I’ve never been a man! I’m relying on generalities and stereotypes.
For example, the stereotype is that a woman is detail-oriented and patient, and that’s one of the reasons why they are often encouraged to make pastry. I do believe I am a patient and organised person but this doesn’t mean I enjoy making pastry! It still is helpful when I’m thinking out my menu.
I also try to be patient and understanding with my team. When someone makes a mistake or when you don’t agree with something, I would want to know the reason before I decide how to deal with it.
I’m not saying that men are not understanding or patient or detail-oriented. There are many who are. I recognise that the answer does include management but I think being a chef is no longer just about the culinary arts. A chef needs to do many things now!
In your career, have you encountered any difficulties as a chef because of your gender? Which aspect do you think needs most to be improved about enhancing women’s rights and roles in F&B?
Not really. The difficulties were not gender-related as far as I understand. No matter what, I had to work hard anyway! It is true that sometimes I was the only or one of only two women in the team, but I personally never found it to be any sort of obstacle. In the kitchen, you have to double down, work hard and know what you’re doing—there’s no need to think about race or gender.
Today the industry has changed and continues to evolve. The industry is moving towards a new form of leadership in the kitchen and the demands in a kitchen are not just about physicality, especially after you work your way up into management. There is a lot more emphasis on work-life balance. For many young female junior kitchen staff, having female leaders in the industries makes a huge difference.
I think what is important is being fair. We should give everyone—male or female—a fair chance. Most women are perceived as being more precise and detail oriented, so there is a tendency to encourage women to specialise in pastry, but women can also work well in the hot side. Women should be given a chance to work in all the sections.
Having said that, I think a lot of it depends on the individual as well, because a person’s journey in their career of choice depends on their passion, determination and perseverance.