As The Mustard Seed Pop Up morphs into The Mustard Seed restaurant very soon, chef Gan Ming Kiat, 30, reflects on his cuisine and his aspirations.
In the middle of 2017, fresh from his stint as resident chef at the Singapore High Commission in Canberra, chef Gan Ming Kiat started The Mustard Seed Pop Up, an eight- to nine-course omakase experience (from $85) at his home in Potong Pasir. Largely by word of mouth, the seats at his home restaurant started being filled regularly by a stream of food lovers.
Always with the intent that it would be temporary, the At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy-trained chef closed the pop up at the end of last year and is getting ready to open The Mustard Seed restaurant. The skills he had honed at Goto, a shuttered kaiseki restaurant, and at one-Michelin-starred Candlenut, will continue to guide his making of dishes “inspired by his Singaporean roots and training in kaiseki cuisine”. As before, girlfriend and sous chef Wu Shin Yin (also a Candlenut alumni), will be by his side.
What did you enjoy most about your four-hands at Peranakan restaurant Candlenut a few months ago?
I really enjoyed working with chef Malcolm Lee and some of my old colleagues again. Malcolm (I call him ‘boss’) is a great mentor to me. He’s always ready to help and offer advice. I have the utmost respect for him and will always see him as a boss. Also, I enjoyed the challenge of adapting my recipes in a larger scale and in a different communal sharing format. Most of my culinary ideas are largely influenced by the techniques and dishes I’ve learnt at Goto and Candlenut. I was very happy to present dishes such as the soybean dessert, inspired by Massimo Bottura’s ‘Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano’. In Asian cuisine, the use of soybeans is ubiquitous. I wanted to showcase the versatility of the humble soybean and how it could be manipulated into different tastes and textures.
Going back a bit further, what do you think are one or two skills picked up from your Goto days that will stay with you wherever you go and why?
Knife skills and seafood handling/knowledge would be two important practical skills that I learned from Goto. Also learning to be sensitive and deliberate in seasoning and preparing food and to care deeply about every step of the cooking process.
How did your stint as resident chef at the Singapore High Commission in Australia come about? How was your experience like?
Goto san was always telling me about his life as an embassy chef before he opened Goto. I applied for the job when I saw it because I always wanted to follow his footsteps in that regard. I mostly did not tone down the flavours of our local dishes for international guests, with the exception of lowering the spice levels sometimes. Our guests mostly enjoyed the food. I think I learnt that Singapore’s cuisine is quite approachable and easy to accept. Cooking for our Prime Minister during my stint there was definitely a memorable experience for me.
What did you most enjoy about The Mustard Seed Pop Up’s private dining format?
You get to meet people from all walks of life. This is just one example, but Joanna Dong and her friends are quite big foodies and they have been to my pop up. Coincidentally, my mom is quite a fan of hers and she had to have a picture with Joanna when she came. I enjoyed the intimacy of the private dining concept and being able to get to know my guests more, for instance, what they did for work, their travels, etc. These are normal conversations I wouldn’t have if I were just cooking food from inside a kitchen in a restaurant. I also appreciated it a lot when they gave me honest feedback about the experience and suggested ways for me to improve.
Which are two or three dishes that were born during this period that will be on the menu when you start your own restaurant?
There have been quite a few dishes that people really liked, like the turmeric frog legs and the chilli crab porridge. I think they will find their way in some form into the menu occasionally but what I envision for the restaurant is a slightly longer, ever-evolving menu with no signature dishes, much like how I was doing it when I was doing the pop up.
When your dishes involve some bold Peranakan flavours, how do you make sure you calibrate them well?
I think a lot of it comes from eating my own dishes and developing an understanding of my food. When I have a clear goal in my head about what I want to achieve with a particular dish then I can calibrate the seasoning and flavours better.
Re ingredients, do you like to use local suppliers as far as possible? Which are one or two that you love currently and why?
For the pop up, I shopped mainly in the wet markets, mostly Tekka and Chinatown. I have good relations with most of the vendors, they know what I do and my expectations for certain ingredients and always do their best to help me.
Why do you think the private dining concept has become such a welcome accompaniment to restaurant dining in Singapore? Where do you see it going? Any drawbacks?
I think private dining has been doing well because people value the intimacy and uniqueness of the experience. The guests know the food is prepared by the owner/chef himself with love and care as well. I think mine worked because its in a nice and peaceful setting and guests felt a sense of privacy when they dined here. Food-wise, I think the guests could tell the food is cooked honestly and from the heart. From the owners’ point of view, if you can get a steady stream of customers, it is a sustainable business model because of the low overhead costs.
I think more private dining concepts will be coming up, but Singaporeans are quite discerning when it comes to food and I think only the good ones will thrive. I think the main drawback might be to the mainstream restaurant industry where it is already very competitive. Now, they have additional competition in the form of the private dining scene and I feel that sometimes restaurants get compared unfairly to these private dining concepts as well.
Could you tell us a bit more about the new restaurant you’re planning to open this June/July?
The main reason for starting a restaurant is to grow and to challenge myself. Also with a team, we can bounce ideas of each other and hopefully create something better. I will be able to explore more suppliers and ingredients as well.
It is going to be small 10-seater space. Diners will sit around a U-shaped counter around an open kitchen and finish with desserts in an adjacent lounge area. I have intentionally kept the number of covers very low to offer a similar type of experience to the pop up. I believe 10 is the optimal number that one or two chefs serving a tasting menu can cater to.
I will still be doing the same kind of food. I don’t like to label the genre of the food. I prefer to let people form their own interpretations of it. But to me, its just a personal take on Singapore’s food, with influences from the places I’ve worked at. I identify the most with simply being Singaporean and I’m very proud of our culinary heritage and culture. However, my food will no doubt have a strong Peranakan influence (even though I’m not Peranakan) because I’m familiar with cooking it from my time at Candlenut. I also love to cook and eat curries, so different types of curries and stews will always find their way into the menu.
How is your working relationship with Shin Yin in the kitchen?
We complement each other well. I would say we both care about details and like to be organised in the kitchen. I trust her palate and she is a good judge on whether a dish is good enough to be served. We brainstorm for ideas together and she has a way of providing input that makes me see the picture clearer especially when I’m stuck in my own thoughts. I think she understands my style of food and philosophy better than anyone else too. We will be working even more closely when the restaurant opens and I’m looking forward to that!
What keeps you inspired and motivated as a chef and what do you hope to achieve in the next five years?
I enjoy the creative process of actualising a dish from an idea. But I think more than anything, what has sustained and will continue to sustain me in the industry is the fact that I truly enjoy cooking professionally. I think it’s the best job in the world. I’ll be more than contented if I can keep the business running sustainably, with happy guests and a happy team.