There are numerous elements that go into the making of a memorable meal: a fresh cut of beef with just the right amount of marbling, a pretty plate of fresh-picked produce representing the best of the season, a full-bodied glass of wine with just a touch of tannin, and not to forget, that drizzle of a delicious, complex sauce that impossible to replicate.
In today’s world of professional kitchen-grade home appliances, growing accessibility to premium ingredients from all over the world, there’s still one challenge for aspiring hobby chefs to overcome, creating sauces that consistently hit all the right notes and leaving you yearning for more. An art form that takes years of practice, no two sauces are ever alike thanks to their intangible nature, and the minute, unaccounted for adjustments needed to tweak its consistency or flavour.
For The Spot’s executive chef Lee Boon Seng, this “saucier at heart” has made the art of saucing his focus. A chef with no formal training, he’s worked his way up through the kitchens of top dining venues like Equinox, Osia, and Curate, and now at The Spot as its executive chef. Recently awarded the World Gourmet Summit’s Innovative Chef of the Year, the accolade is a long-overdue acknowledgment of his culinary approach that values “precision and open-mindedness, and the importance of fresh, premium (not necessarily expensive) ingredients.”
Like any notable chef, he’s honed his culinary “voice” over the years, and now chooses to amplify it through creative sauces that include “infused oils and elaborate spice mixes that translate into smells” while employing classic European techniques “in tandem with Southeast Asian fruits and the herbs and spices of his cultural heritage and childhood memories.” We speak to him about what inspires his gourmet creations and how he uses sauces to “bring more Southeast Asian flavours and ingredients into his cooking and to introduce it to the world without re-inventing it”.
You’re known as a “saucier at heart”, why sauces?
Sauce making takes time and effort. It’s about simmering, reducing, and timing. I really enjoy the process. It helps calm me down and focus. The art of putting all these ingredients together to attain a specific flavour is typically not easy to do but getting it right motivates me – nothing more, nothing less.
A good sauce is often the most talked about but also the most underrated aspect of any dish. Why is this so?
The sauce is not the star but it gives the main ingredient flavour. For example, you talk about eggs benedict, it’s not eggs benedict without the Hollandaise sauce. Similarly, people will order chili crab without thinking it’s the sauce that makes the dish unique. Also, the chili sauce in chicken rice, it’s the identity of the dish. A caesar salad sauce with egg mayonnaise and anchovies, the flavour of this dish lies in the sauce.
Asian sauces don’t get as much credit as Western sauces. Is there one that’s particularly underrated?
For example, Chinkiang Vinegar in bak chor mee, it’s a caramel-like black vinegar, similar to that of balsamic. But why is balsamic popular? It boils down to its exposure to European cuisine. Even though Chinkiang has a similar taste profile, it’s just not made as popular worldwide yet. Also, soya sauce. It’s a daily staple, but we tend to take it for granted. There is a certain depth of flavour that cannot be replicated, it takes a lot of effort and technique to achieve this flavour but we have it out of the bottle so easily.
How has your experience in other kitchens shaped your culinary style?
At Osia we emphasised a lot of Australian ingredients. We talked about bush fruits from the desert, boutique farms, something belonging only to Australia like paperbark, quandong berries. Australian cuisine seemingly does not exist. If you talk about French, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, they all have very strong preservation of tradition. So that really shaped me – having a philosophy, a purpose. Migrating culture, discovering what being a chef is about, endless learning opportunities, and integrating techniques and ingredients.
Tell us more about a dish you’re particularly proud of.
The Amaebi and Sambal Petai Bean is a dish inspired by a childhood favourite sambal prawn and petai, like the ones you get at zi char places, or barbecue stalls. It was a dish I really enjoyed when served with rice. This was an experience I want to introduce to diners [at The Spot]. The dish is served in a bite’s size portion so you get a burst of flavour from the crispy rice cracker, sambal emulsion with petai bean, and a hint of XO sauce. Instead of cooked prawns, I used amaebi (spot prawns) which brings a layer of sweetness to the snack. You also see a clear film of pickled ginger gelee which gives an added acidity. This layering of textures and flavours is really exciting!
What are two dishes to try from The Spot?
Our Hand-Chopped Beef Tartare. We use tong cai (preserved cabbage) in this dish to boost the umami flavour. Where beef tartare is usually served with mustard, our “mustard” comes in a form of slow-grilled Southeast Asian green chili, peeled and deseeded, then mixed with palm sugar. It is the embodiment of technique and a showcase of the ingredient. Not reinventing a dish, but to give this classic European dish a new life with the use of Southeast Asian ingredients.
The Glazed Local Duck Breast with its underrated chrysanthemum flavour. I’ve only seen chrysanthemums used to make floral drinking teas and cooling herbal teas but not in any other way. I find the aroma and flavour of chrysanthemum unique, and really not something I’ve seen much in European cuisine. It made me think that I really want to try and showcase it. I decided to match it with duck because the richness and gaminess of duck go well with something sweet and floral. I think chrysanthemum does have a freshness and an earthiness that stops it from being cloying, too; and that also helps to lift the dish up.
Talking trends, what is one global culinary trend you’re seeing more of?
Adopting a more environmentally conscious approach is becoming popular, and it has moved to a cause beyond just ingredients. The environmental issue will last a long time, and chefs in “finding their identity” also wish to educate diners about sustainability and zero-waste, how fermentation allows for an ingredient to be available all year round, etc. It may not be the job of a chef to “educate”, but we do what we can as individuals.
When you are done for the night where do you usually go to eat?
I haven’t been heading out for supper much since Covid struck, but if I do, I enjoy heading out with my team to Lao Sichuan Restaurant at Link Hotel. Another place we frequent is Newton Circus Food Centre, where we can order a little bit of something from the different stalls. This is a good time to bond with my team over beers and barbeque chicken, stingray, gong gong etc… It’s not much, but it’s really comforting.
International travel is still on hold but when it opens which new eateries/chefs are you excited about visiting?
Oslo, Norway. I’ve hosted Esben Holmboe Bang of Maaemo during my time in Curate. I feel his concept is very forward-thinking and groundbreaking in the culinary world. They use a lot of organic and wild-sourced/caught food, things that are not farmed. I find his style very sophisticated with a bit of a mystery, which excites me.
Seoul, Korea. I would like to visit Mingoo Kang and his restaurant Mingles. We’ve been friends for about four years, and this pandemic has stalled my plans to visit. The dining scene in Korea has advanced in a short period of time over the years, with chefs going abroad and coming back to the country with a different perspective. It will also be a good time to understand Korea’s culture and produce.
The Spot Singapore is taking that little step to reach small communities to enable them to continue to be funded. Happening from 13 to 19 September 2021, in conjunction with Negroni Week hosted by Imbibe Magazine and Campari, The Spot will be raising money for Little Free Library, an organization with a cause that is close to the heart of its resident Mixologist, Remz Ocampo.