SINGAPORE — There’s a lilting sense of charm sitting in the bowels of Monti at 1-Pavillion, seeing plates of delicately assembled Italian food grace my table and knowing that behind this presentation of culinary finesse is Singaporean chef, Felix Chong. It’s a feat made more impressive when I found out that Monti, under the direction of Chef Felix, has been certified by the Ospitalita Italiana of the Italian Chamber of Commerce and awarded 2 Temples by the Accademia Italiana Della Cucina 2021.
What all this means is that the food here at Monti is not just good; it’s Italian-approved good. It speaks volumes of Chef Felix’s love and adoration for Italian fare, reflective in his various stagings at fine-dining Italian restaurants around the world such as Otto e Mezzo in Hong Kong, Zu a Ma in Liguria alongside Chef Giacomo Gallina, Senso & Otto Italian Restaurant, and Forlino as Sous Chef. In this interview, he shares how he manages expectations from other born-and-bred Italian chefs and why he feels that potatoes are one of the most underrated ingredients more chefs should use.
Growing up, what was your fondest memory of food and how has this shaped your current approach and philosophy of cooking?
I have an exceptionally fond memory of the various home-cooked food from back in the days. Growing up, cooking has always been a family affair and a bonding activity for both women and men—there were no boundaries when it came to who was the better cook since we have our hand in cooking the dishes.
My personal favourites were noodle-based dishes. I guess my love for noodles grew into a passion for pasta as I found it amusing how similar yet different noodles and pasta are. With my love for pasta, I guess it didn’t take much for that to develop into a passion for Italian cuisine.
As a Singaporean chef specialising in Italian cuisine, how do you manage the expectations born-and-bred Italian chefs have of your food? Does it impede or empower you?
It first comes from understanding that the expectations and criticisms do not come from malice, but rather a desire to present an authentic version of a well-loved cuisine & pride of the country, paying due respect to the rich Italian culture deeply loved by its people.
More than just the expectations of born-and-bred Italian chefs, there are also expectations from within the local culinary scene and, of course, myself. To me, cooking is a lifelong journey that I have since learnt to take in stride. This belief keeps me going in times of uncertainty and keeps me from stalling.
Just recently this month, Monti, the restaurant where I have helmed the kitchen for four years, was announced as the winner of the “Huber’s Butchery Restaurant of the Year” category in the World Gourmet Awards organised by the World Gourmet Summit. Years in the making, I am beyond proud to say that this is also a result of the empowerment bred from the expectations held by people near and far.
What is the one most underrated ingredient chefs should use more often and why?
Potatoes. Not so much of it being underrated, but more of it being a star ingredient that I believe should be used more widely by all chefs. Potatoes come in a rainbow of colours, shapes, sizes, and flavour profiles. Although potato may be a fundamental cooking ingredient for most, I believe that its simplicity lies an equally impressive range of possibilities to work off.
The level of elevation a single potato can bring itself up to brings much room for chefs to innovate & play around with. In its raw form, we have a bunch of basic cuts—baked, fried, mashed, roasted—all delicious in their rights. Beyond basic cuts, the potato can either be a mainstay of the dish, a complement to other ingredients, or incorporated into the dish.
With a million and one different potato types, cooking techniques, and serving methods, I find that there are many more that we can explore when it comes to this simple ingredient that we are all so familiar with.
These days, what aspect of food gets you most excited?
Coming across new ingredients. I believe it has to do with the thought of reliving my childhood days when I first experienced the true breadth of the kitchen—discovering new elements were an eye-opening experience to me. As the years passed, my knowledge and experience have grown significantly, which unfortunately means that the chances of that same “eye-opening experience” hitting me has sadly reduced.
Thankfully, I still remember and long to relive the excitement that comes with a child’s innate desire to explore and learn. With each new ingredient that I come across, it gives room for me to exercise my creativity. As it invokes my five senses, I start to envision the different ways I can use it—incorporating it into an existing dish or creating an entirely new dish to complement the ingredient. The process of trial & error and reaching the final product is highly satisfactory.
If you could rename and repackage your current role as a Chef, what and how would you rebrand yourself?
If I were not a chef, I would most likely have pursued photography. Strangely enough, I only came to this realisation from all the times I take pictures of the food that I cook and sharing them with a community of foodies on my Instagram page. In a way, perhaps food photography would have been a good option for me—a culmination of two things I hold a passion for.
I believe that having honed my creativity in the culinary arts, photography would have allowed me to explore the different elements within a photography construct instead—starting from the idea behind the picture, the senses it would invoke, and how the angle and the lighting can change the narrative of the photograph. In a sense, there is an overlap in style between both culinary arts & photography in which I could thrive.
When you look at the state of dining in Singapore today, what is the one thing that gives you hope?
Being in a tiny country, it still fills me with pride to be part of a community in which we have made a name for ourselves as a food paradise. With a melting pot of cultures, the potential for dining remains diverse as chefs—be it home cooks or professionals—have access to the various cooking techniques utilised by different groups. Connected by our enduring love for food, we venture & explore this art we call cooking.
Having been a player in the culinary scene for a considerable period, it gives me hope to see young chefs continue to rise to their callings beyond the conventional path of academia. Going against the grain is never easy, but then again, the culinary scene in Singapore is a community of so many passion-driven individuals. And with passion, I believe that the dining scene will stay as vibrant as ever as fellow chefs continue revolutionising cuisine & techniques as we know it and surprising each other with innovations and cuisines.
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