Going by the multifarious projects he takes on, chef Ming Tan thrives when he has a finger in every pie.
Apart from being executive chef at Jam at Siri House, chef Ming Tan writes for UOB Card’s The Dining Advisor, is shooting a Channel NewsAsia food series, and developing several casual restaurant projects under his F&B Group, Jam and Toast. His previous hats include food columnist for Esquire Singapore, guest chef on MasterChef Singapore and cast member of the Health Promotion Board’s Kitchen Invasion series on tasty yet healthy food.
Perhaps it was the same boundless energy that got him starting a private dining outfit with chef Jeremy Cheok, formerly of New Ubin Seafood, while they were both still in university. That experience led to stints at ToTT and Cookyn Inc, and the opportunity to lead the kitchen at Lolla, a Mediterranean small plates restaurant in 2012.
Three years later, he co-founded Park Bench Deli, a gourmet sandwich shop well-loved for its hearty offerings. From there, he branched out to food consulting, but it was not long before he answered the call of the kitchen. He jumped at the chance to work again with his good friend chef Jeremy, and Sunday Punch’s Mark Tay and Yap Hwee Jen, in starting Jam at Siri House. Where the concept is all about elevating the home dining and drinking experience, the restaurant-bar takes him back to first principles—bringing people together through tasty, unpretentious food.
The name Jam at Siri House is a nod to Jam private dining? How would you say your cooking has evolved in the decade that has passed since the two Jams?
Oh things were much simpler then! JAM private dining was an outfit run by three rugby teammates who liked to barbeque things and cook meat. JAM at SIRI HOUSE is actually more of an acknowledgement of the names of four partners who are currently involved: Jen, Jeremy, Mark and Ming.
What’s been the most difficult part about elevating comfort food?
Balancing accessibility and price. Guests expect that elevation means refinement and froufrou-ness. We try to keep our food cleanly adorned so that the quality of our components shines through and we don’t keep mixing flavours. Unfortunately, this may lead to guests thinking our food is too simple for the price paid.
How well does what you do go with a growing demand for fine food without the trappings of fine dining?
Quite well actually, although much of this has to do with the space and the setting as well. Comfort food can be very, very luxurious, but you can set the stage where this is all very accessible. One of my most cherished books of all time is called Endless Feasts, and is a collection of short stories from Gourmet magazine, featuring some of the best food writing since the 1950s. Inside is a story called Night of Lobster by Robert P. Coffin. It tells the story of a bunch of dudes who row out to a beach, haul in lobster traps and feast on the bugs like there is no tomorrow. I think the trappings of fine dining will always be relevant for special occasions, but the best enjoyment you can get in food now comes from restaurants that do the high-low thing well.
What were your growing up years like, and how was your palate honed?
My most enjoyable memories growing up have always been associated with food. I have a very large extended family, and even to this day, we gather in kitchens, around tables and in dining rooms. I have exceedingly fond memories of making Chinese New Year cookies with my cousins, wrapping popiah for church fairs, buying 40 ‘tang bao’ or soup buns for a bus load of relatives whilst overseas. My family influences are Teochew and Cantonese, and I love everything from cold crab with vinegar to century egg porridge and all manner of steamed and fried fish. I could go on about Sunday family meals, dim sum gatherings, dumpling making, thanksgiving.
My parents also believed heavily in the education of travel. You need an affinity for food and flavour to have a good palate, but it still needs exposure and training to a large extent. I am very blessed that I ate my way around the globe growing up. I probably didn’t internalise much of it until my teenage years, but I’m pretty sure it made a difference. I was also underweight as a kid for most of my childhood, a far cry from my current situation!
Why do you say your cuisine has no geographical boundaries?
I never had the intention of declaring my food either one way or the next. I do like to see connections between ingredients and techniques, but I am doing so because I am a Singaporean and lucky enough to have been exposed to food from around the world. I am also a glutton, so maybe this perspective comes from just deeply enjoying my favourite flavour profiles and ingredients from cuisines I have been exposed to.
You often say food is about people. What do you mean by that and how does that thinking shape the way you run Jam at Siri House?
Food is intrinsically linked to people. Dining is an inherently social activity. Cooking is an act of service for your fellow man. If you are not cooking for people, then your food will not speak to people. It is also as simple as treating my colleagues and staff like people, understanding their career needs and taking care of their employment, so that they can comfortably focus on making food that people will appreciate. Confident and happy cooks make food that people love. I would even go so far as to say that every mouthful you design needs to make sense to someone dining. If they aren’t enjoying that food, why did you put it out? There is no purpose in that. A truly good dish, a great meal, is the result of someone taking efforts to consider carefully how another person would consume it—food is about people.
Going by your involvement in the toggle series Kitchen Invasion, you probably think ’healthy’ and ‘tasty’ can be good bedfellows? How do you usually strike that balance in your home cooking?
I eat very simply at home, on the rare occasions that I cook and make food. I like salads with proteins like steak or salmon, cold pasta dishes, and really thick sandwiches. I think eating less processed items is the way to go, as is reducing the intake of ingredients with empty calories. I am quite satisfied with roasted carrots, leafy veg and a steak, cooked minimally and eaten in controlled amounts.
How health-conscious are you in the Jam at Siri Kitchen?
Not too health conscious. I don’t think people come to us for a healthy meal, so to speak. Our goals at Jam at Siri House are enjoyment and comfort, and that means indulging.
How would you make a healthier version of Chicken in a Biscuit for instance—and would it taste as good?
I actually think I can do a pretty damn good ‘healthy’ rendition of this, but it wouldn’t quite be the same. I’d use yoghurt as a replacement for the cream cheese, and maybe a quinoa cracker for the base. The crispy chicken skin would likely be replaced with some sort of dried vegetable chip.
Do you feel that chefs working in multicultural Singapore are well-placed to be even more innovative with their food? How so?
That depends on what kind of ‘innovation’ is occurring. I sometimes feel that Singapore cycles through trends and ideas very quickly, because our connected nature overexposes consumers and new ideas stop being new very quickly. A focus on novelty instead of quality leads to too many copies of similar things, or half a*sed replicas that spoil the fun for everyone. In this sense, our addiction to media makes us poorly-placed to be innovative.
I’d like to believe that the melding of East and West is truly at work here, where we stand as a community of people influenced by so much. I don’t mean residents either—there are many foreign chefs who have set up roots in Singapore and have loved the balance of exotic, wild Asia and organised civilisation. I laugh as I write this however, because we aren’t even the best introduction to Asia, just a very convenient one. We provide a relatively vanilla entry into the unknown, you know? Give it a few more years, and you’ll see this become a detriment. Already every restaurant out there has to have Asian sauces, locally grown herbs paired with fancy seafood and a curry dish on their menus.
There are some restaurants here leading the way in using local produce as the stars of their dishes, something that hasn’t been easy given that Singapore imports 90 per cent of all our food. This stuff is pretty exciting. It is multicultural because we are learning techniques with imported food, and applying that to locally grown produce.
What are some unusual ingredients that are inspiring you at the moment?
Aged fresh fish, blood sausage and blood pudding, bivalves and crustaceans. I recently got my hands on a stash of crab fat—what an incredible ingredient. Versatile and full of tasty potential!
What will be new dishes on the Jam at Siri House menu in the next half of the year?
You’ll have to just wait and see.