SINGAPORE — I’ve eaten at many places for work, and I can safely and confidently say that I have yet to be disappointed by a young chef. There’s insane creativity seeping out of their pores, always wanting to move the needle, push the envelope, and elevate this thing we call food to a whole other level. Tiresome tropes of culture and tradition do not burden them, but neither are they disrespectful. The lens of a chef under thirty years old is more often than not untainted, which is exactly what makes their creations so curiously exciting.
Enter Chef Sujatha Asokan, a young stalwart of Malaysian Chinese and Singaporean Indian descent, tasked to bring to life the halls of Botanico at The Garage with food creations that blur the line between the familiar and experimental. Not only is she Head Chef, but she was also named Rising Chef of the Year by World Gourmet Summit. Chef Sujatha is the perfect embodiment of what it means to be truly excited by food and its infinite possibilities. In this interview with Chef Sujatha, I set out to discover how big a part youth plays in the leadership of the kitchen and what culinary mentorship looks like under the hands of a 29-year-old gastronomical creative.
How do you describe what you do to someone you’re meeting for the first time?
Ironically, as much as many people formally know me as the Head Chef of Botanico at The Garage, rarely do I ever introduce myself as such! I usually tell them that I’m a chef – and I think that stems from how I view my team and the work that I do.
The common conception of a Head Chef is, you know, someone who has earned their way to sit at the very top, who does the strategising and the mental heavy-lifting rather than the physical work of cooking. But I’m young, and I believe very much in collaboration and in staying grounded. So even as a Head Chef, I do things very differently around here. I’m in the kitchen, as much as I can, doing even the smallest things – like frying eggs for breakfast. Coming up with new dishes is something that we do as a team because I think everyone has something that they can offer, and they need a space to experiment. And I think this is an exciting space in F&B–trying to marry Asian flavours with contemporary European cooking techniques. We are giving a whole new meaning to Asian flavours that are often overlooked or considered antiquated–take, for example, Assam. Most Singaporeans would think Assam means laksa in a bowl, but we turned it into a ceviche, with hae ko ice cream!
So to answer your question – I describe myself as a chef, just one who is also a leader and who has a vision of creating food that would make people rethink the Asian flavours that they’re so familiar with.
What excites you the most about being in the food industry?
Quite simply, the infinite learning opportunities that are out there.
The food industry is so dynamic and agile. It’s not just about new players entering the scene every year; it’s safe to say that almost every chef out there is constantly pushing themselves to do better and with that, you get lots of new creations every year. The boundaries of where food can go are always being tested. There is still something to learn, and I love that. One of the things that I enjoy doing is my four hands collaborations with chefs from other establishments in Singapore or even abroad.
One of my most memorable 4 Hands collaborations was with Chef Thi, from Anchovy in Melbourne. While I allude to Singapore/Malaysia/Thailand flavours in my cooking, they tend to be quite subtle. Still, Chef Thi puts a major spotlight on Vietnamese-Laotian flavours in her cooking (modern Asian cuisine). In a way, our food is similar, but also incredibly different. It’s in watching her process and understanding the nuances of these differences that I learned a lot. I’m excited to get back into these collaborations, once COVID-19 passes.
What is the most underrated ingredient a chef should have in their arsenal, and why is this ingredient often overlooked?
Lemongrass! As you can imagine, it’s been so commonly associated with Southeast Asian cuisine and almost always with Thai food, when the flavours are much more complex than that. Something that I’ve learnt through my experiments is that different methods of preparation allow various aspects of the lemongrass flavour to shine.
For example, when you introduce lemongrass into sambal, it perfumes and adds even more depth to it. Still, if you were to dehydrate it and turn it into a powder, it adds a citrus note that lends lightness to a potentially heavy dish! It’s so versatile. I think chefs should experiment with it.
What has been, for you, the most unexpected consequence or effect of being crowned Rising Chef of the Year by WGS?
It brought about a major introspection and reconfiguration of my vision.
It made me think about all the things that made this award possible, and more importantly, the sort of future that I would like to see in the F&B industry. Being a Rising Chef, I think the title in itself suggests that my food is worth watching and keeping an eye on, which is an honour, but my food would not be what it is, without my team and the culture in this kitchen.
I’ll share with you one of my major conclusions, which is that the industry needs to change. The F&B industry has, for so long, been characterised as this brutal place that sorts out the worthy from the undeserving by putting them through a test of skills and perseverance. But then I think about how hard it is for the younger generation to learn (simply because they weren’t brought up that way), and how we are losing talent all the time.
My team is made up of relatively young chefs, and I’ve personally witnessed how a softer approach works well. Does that mean that they don’t belong in the kitchen? No. I think it just goes to show that it’s time for us to put more faith, and more patience when bringing up young talents. No industry experiences a brain drain the way we do, and in the future, that’s not a desirable thing for the industry at all.
In your opinion, what is the biggest lesson the F&B industry should take away from the impact of COVID-19?
Care for your people.
You know the common adage, that “the customer is always right”. In many ways, it is true, and we are always happy to compromise. But in putting so much thought into what the customer wants and what the customer needs; it’s so easy to forget that our people are the very heart of this business. It’s our chefs, our bartenders, our service staff, that makes everything possible.
And then COVID-19 hit, and our customers went away, and the people in this industry started to struggle. That hurt to watch. These turbulent times will pass, but your restaurant or your industry cannot bounce back if your people aren’t there anymore because you didn’t do enough to help them tide through it. We should care for the people we work with, and I hope that’s a lesson that stays, long after COVID.
When you look at the dining scene in Singapore today, what is the one thing that gives you hope?
Diners are increasingly willing to go out of their comfort zone, and they’re eager to go out on a limb and trust the chef and the establishment, even if it’s their first visit.
As much as we talk about innovation in the kitchen, innovation goes nowhere if there’s no demand. That’s just the practical economics of life. But we see a trend of diners who are willing to go out and give new restaurants a chance, even if they don’t 100% understand the food. That includes the new wave of omakase-style menus, and I’ve seen some new establishments on the radar that are doing incredibly interesting things, like Central Asian food. I’m very excited about this. For a long time, diners relied so heavily on reviews and tried-and-tested items, but this trust in chefs – I think it goes a long way, and I know many of us in the industry are eager to live up to it.
Botanico at The Garage is located at 50 Cluny Park Rd, Level 2 Singapore Botanic Gardens, Singapore 257488. For further enquiries contact +65 9831 1106 or reservations @thegarage.sg
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