SINGAPORE – Chef Johanne Siy reaches over the stainless steel fridges of the open kitchen to pass me an Oyster leaf. “Have a bite. It really tastes like an oyster,” she explained when I asked why it’s called an Oyster leaf. It’s a brief interaction that leaves a lasting impression of a chef who prides education and knowledge above the busy trappings of a kitchen in full swing for lunch.
It’s knowledge she’s gained while staging in different kitchens around the world before finally landing at Lolla and unleashing all the learned culinary concepts into a menu that is, by far, one of the most innovative I’ve seen in 2020. Over email, I picked the brains of Chef Johanne Siy who shared with me her culinary philosophies and why she feels that farmers and producers play an equally important role in the food ecosystem of any restaurant.
How would you describe what you do to someone you’re meeting for the first time?
Quality control officer, traffic enforcer, firefighter, problem solver, creative director, coach, inventory manager, carpenter, facilities manager, steward, purchasing manager, courier—it’s a really long list, and I’m not even half-way done. But this question is a really tough one because as a chef, especially in a stand-alone restaurant, you have to be prepared to do everything.
Vegetables didn’t come? You have to be ready to run to the market yourself. You can’t pull any of your guys out from the line because then that disrupts service. Garbage needs to be taken out, and steward is on medical leave? You do it yourself.
It looks all glamorous from the surface, but many things go on behind the scenes that need to be done. I’m lucky though, as it is for most chefs, because despite all of this, at the core of it, we get paid to do what we love.
As a child, what did you aspire to be when you grew up?
For years, I went around telling people that I wanted to be a doctor and treat sick people for free. I outgrew that. But as a child, that’s how you are. You’re not in it for the money, the power, or the fame—these are all foreign concepts. You just want to do what you love. You don’t even care if you get paid for it.
While I loved cooking from a very young age, I never considered it as a career. In those days, it’s unheard of for someone to want to become a chef. It just wasn’t aspirational. There’s no money to be made—it’s blue-collar. Now it’s portrayed as something very glamorous. But the reality is, it’s not. It’s tough work. You get greasy, you get dirty, and you stink by the end of service.
I remember my first day in a professional kitchen and I had to mop the floor after service. Coming from a jet-setting corporate job, that was tough to swallow. But then the truth is, from that day forward I have never really ‘worked’. Every day for the last ten years, I have just been doing what I love. It was when I went back to thinking like a child, heedless of all the societal norms and expectations that I found my calling.
You’ve garnered experiences around the dining circuit in Singapore, especially at Restaurant Andre and Starter Lab, and overseas at such storied establishments as Fäviken, Noma, and Relea. Which of these experiences left the deepest and most meaningful impact on you as a chef, and why?
You always take away something from the kitchens you go through—be it a cool way to tournee, a technique, or a philosophy. Even from the sh*ttiest places you still learn stuff, things you don’t want to do in your kitchen later on. To me, lessons about what not to do are as important as what to do.
I’ve been fortunate to have gone through some really good kitchens that have shaped the way I cook. When I was at Andre, working with Chef to develop dishes for the restaurant and external projects, I learned a lot about aesthetic sensibilities, flavour balance, and an approach to crafting a dish.
At Le Bernardin in NYC, it was a lesson in the 80-20; identifying the vectors that move the needle and focusing on those. My time in Scandinavia broadened my perspective and showed me a bigger picture of my role as a chef in the community.
There, I did a lot of foraging and helping out on the farm, which gave me a newfound respect for produce, the producers, and an appreciation for nature, especially with the weather being so extreme. Noma gave me a new model for the kitchen structure that is perfect for a high-functioning kitchen, and I’m still trying to figure out how to implement that in the future.
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What, in your opinion, is the most underrated ingredient a chef should use more often?
What is the most significant change your culinary philosophy has undertaken in your career as a chef?
When I started in this career, it was a time when technique was everything. Chefs all over the world were experimenting with ways to manipulate food in ways never seen before. It got to a point where it was a technique for the sake of technique. Provenance and integrity of ingredients became secondary. I never felt comfortable with that approach. But since everyone was doing it, I felt deficient in some regard.
But years later, having had the chance to travel, explore and work with some excellent produce, I have realised that if you do your sourcing right and work with farmers and producers who are as passionate about their products as you are about your food, then you don’t need to do much. The produce is perfect, and your role as a chef then becomes how to highlight that perfection and ensure it comes across to the diner. Techniques then become your arsenal to showcase the ingredient, rather than the endpoint. It’s all very humbling.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome in your time at Lolla?
At the onset, it was the lack of human resources. When I came in, there were only two full-time chefs in the kitchen. In the past, I was used to working in kitchens where you had at least 15 chefs. I’ve had days when it was just two people, including myself, doing service, and that was tough. The adrenaline rush is great once in a while, and you power through those times. But then it’s not sustainable.
But the biggest challenge was trying to elevate the cuisine in a place that has withstood the test of time and the dining public’s rigorous standards in the last nine years—going out of our comfort zone to forge new grounds, while still staying true to its DNA.
We had a lot of discussions initially about what Lolla’s cuisine is, and what ingredients we can work with. It’s increasingly hard in a global landscape with all the stimulus coming from everywhere to be definitive about who you are and what you are about. But the directors and the dining public have been open and very supportive. It’s an ongoing journey which we are still figuring out and still trying to evolve day-in and out.
When you look at the dining scene in Singapore today, what is the one thing that gives you hope?
Locals are very passionate about food and nd that’s a great starting point. You get many people in the industry now, who were doing something else before but came into the F&B scene because this is what they’re passionate about.
When I first came back from Scandinavia, I was frustrated because I missed the big part about connecting with the land, working very closely with producers, farmers, foragers, and so on—the whole farm-forest-to-table thing. But now I’m learning more about these entities and individuals who are forging new ground locally doing what they love and doing it well. Now I’m trying to seek them out to collaborate in some way. What I’m trying to do in small baby steps is build an ecosystem of like-minded entities who are passionate about the craft and support each other.
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