INTERVIEW: Chef Paul Lim, Head Chef of Neon Pigeon — “To the young chefs, be patient, work hard”

·Lifestyle Contributor
·5-min read
Chef Paul Lim (PHOTO: Neon Pigeon)
Chef Paul Lim (PHOTO: Neon Pigeon)

SINGAPORE — The first time I met Chef Paul Lim was through his perfectly organised menu at Fat Prince Kafé-Bar-Kebab where he helms the kitchen as Head Chef. At just 28 years old, Chef Paul joins the ranks of other great young culinary stalwarts, manoeuvring their way through the great big world of food—and doing an admirable job at it.

Youth impresses me as I’ve often seen fantastic and unbridled cuisine coming out of youthful kitchens, unburdened by lofty, intangible things like legacy. In this interview, Chef Paul reflects on identity, aspirations, and why time management should be the best friend of every up and coming culinary-in-chief.

How would you describe what you do to someone you’re meeting for the first time?

I think of myself as an overseer, observing the ongoing operations in the kitchen and ensuring that everything is running smoothly—from the state of the mise en place to the number of reservations on the books, and most importantly, that nothing is burning on the stove!

There is also this great adrenaline rush during each busy service that I love where your body goes into a hyper-drive mode, and you have to channel your energy into maintaining the organised chaos of the kitchen. The sense of accomplishment after a successful kitchen service is truly like no other.

As a chef, while I have to look after what’s going on behind the scenes, interacting with the guests and diners is also an essential aspect of the job. After all, the food you make is for others’ enjoyment, so it’s necessary to ask for their feedback and find ways to improve your craft.

Bacon and Egg Congee (PHOTO: Neon Pigeon)
Bacon and Egg Congee (PHOTO: Neon Pigeon)

As a child, what did you aspire to be when you grew up?

Honestly speaking, my aspirations growing up were a huge blur. I remember wanting to be an astronaut, and then a doctor. I guess my perspective changed as I grew older and matured, but I sure did not aspire or expected to be in the F&B industry!

I fell into cooking by accident when I took on a holiday job at Le Bistrot, and my curiosity about the science behind food grew, which led me to travel across the world to work in different kitchens. And that’s the story of how I became a chef.

You’ve garnered experiences at storied establishments such as Two-Michelin-starred Fäviken Magasinet in Sweden, Attica in Melbourne, Narisiwa in Tokyo, Lysverket in Bergen, and at Le Bistrot du Sommelier in Singapore. Which of these experiences left the deepest and most meaningful impact on you as a chef, and why?

Rather than just one defining moment, all of these places have structured my career at different phases. At Le Bistrot du Sommelier, it was all about perfecting the basics as I was just starting as a kitchen apprentice. When I joined Attica, there was a significant emphasis on ingredients, and I would harvest produce from the restaurant’s garden every day.

While at Fäviken Magasinet, my responsibilities as Sous Chef included managing a team and participating in the other aspects of the business. Each restaurant that I have honed my craft at definitely left a lasting impression that has shaped the way I think and cook as a chef.

Bone Marrow & Uni (PHOTO: Neon Pigeon)
Bone Marrow & Uni (PHOTO: Neon Pigeon)

What, in your opinion, is the most underrated cooking method a chef should use more often?

The incorporation and use of fire. It’s so versatile that you could incorporate it into every element of cooking with possibly almost any ingredient. For example, our Kumamoto oysters are served with dashi gelee, smoked for an added complexity in the flavours.

The technique is super crucial for me as well, with the fundamentals of old school cooking reflected a lot in the food we put out at Neon Pigeon. There is a lot of emphasis on getting the basics done right in our kitchens, such as proper fire control and filleting techniques.

What is the most significant change your culinary philosophy has undertaken in your career as a chef?

An important lesson imparted by Chef Magnus Nilsson, a great mentor during my time at Fäviken Magasinet, is to “do it once—perfectly”. The level of intensity, finesse, and sense of urgency encompassed within that one phrase has gotten me a long way, and it continues to guide my journey as a chef.

You need to understand that diners rarely give second chances, so whatever you serve them needs to be faultless. To meet that standard, a lot of work and effort must be invested in perfecting your cooking techniques and ensuring a constant balance in flavours and texture.

Wagyu Curry Steak & Eggs (PHOTO: Neon Pigeon)
Wagyu Curry Steak & Eggs (PHOTO: Neon Pigeon)

Apart from cooking, what one other crucial skill set should a Chef have to ensure relevancy in the world of F&B today?

Time management. I firmly believe that having great time management sets the foundation in developing great habits such as discipline, punctuality, and a sense of urgency which are critical attributes in running a kitchen in the competitive F&B industry.

There are also many emerging young chefs in the industry with a tendency to rush and an eagerness to prove themselves. My only advice to them is to be patient, work hard and keep pushing. Things will all fall into place if you work for it.

When you look at the dining scene in Singapore today, what is the one thing that gives you hope?

Diners are becoming more open to different cultures and cuisines and are developing a more adventurous palate, but they are also becoming more conscious. I’ve seen a considerable change in paradigms where chefs are moving towards a lighter cooking style, shifting away from protein-heavy cuisines to focusing more on vegetables. It gives me hope that we can keep up with trends and maintain our relevance without conforming entirely.

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