April 22, 2016
By Jovita Ang
Unlike many of his peers, his teen years were not spent within a glossy stainless-steel kitchen, moulding his culinary skills or trying to perfect a fall-off-the-bone tender beef rendang. He grew up very much like the ordinary Singaporean; went to school, got a degree and while he spent time perfecting his scores on exam papers, a part of him was constantly questioning the need for this endless pursuit of academic perfection.
“I didn’t enjoy what I was doing,” he shared. “I wanted to cook professionally.”
That decision displeased his mother, who was bent on him finishing his university education. But not one to bow down against the odds, he later went on to secure the Miele-Guide Culinary Scholarship where he received formal culinary training at At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy. Fast-forward to today, he is now a familiar face in the local restaurant scene. Meet Chef Malcolm Lee, 32, head chef and owner of Candlenut, a restaurant that prides itself on quality, unpretentious Peranakan food.
Chef Malcolm preparing lunch for his team.
The restaurant was about to close for dinner preparations when we first met with this young chef. “Thank you, the food is really good,” said some satisfied guests after lunch. They exchanged laughs and a short conversation at the door before Chef Malcolm walked over to introduce himself, “Sorry for the wait, had some guests to attend to earlier.”
At first impression, he seemed rather reserved but quickly escalated into an enthusiastic energy when discussing about food, many times revealing an apparent tinge of genuine curiousity and deep interest.
Our afternoon chat revolved around Peranakan cuisine, plans for Candlenut, lots of laugh and how surprisingly, Chef Malcolm (aka a Transformer fan) never thought to delve into Peranakan food when he first decided to be a professional chef.
1. Candlenut is…
Good, unpretentious Peranakan food. I named the restaurant Candlenut because I like it (laughs)! I think it’s quite special. Ingredients like lemongrass or chilli padi are everywhere, but candlenut isn’t. Not many people know what a candlenut is, I have customers asking me interesting questions like, “It’s a candle? A nut or?” This name makes for a pleasant conversation starter.
2. If you had to explain “Peranakan Cuisine” to a group of young children, how would you describe it?
There are different kinds of Peranakans, we have the smaller communities (Indian Peranakans, Peranakans with Thai descent etc) but the main being those of Chinese descent: the Chinese Malay Peranakans. For now I’d explain specific to Singapore. Singapore used to be a Malay village. Chinese traders came down for business and fell in love with the local women. They had children and unlike many who are purely Chinese, Malay or Indian, they are of a mixed racial group; half Chinese and half Malay. Having been away from home for so long, these Chinese businessmen missed their food and asked for their wives to cook up some Chinese dishes. This led to a fusion of Chinese and Malay elements which ultimately gave birth to the Peranakan cuisine. I think a child would understand this (laughs)!
3. Share with us one thing about yourself (something non-cooking related), that most people don’t know.
I like Transformers (grins). But I’m not a hardcore fan. I collect only select merchandises and as much as my budget allows. I also like watching animes and movies.
4. You went to school, got a degree, took the route common of Singaporeans, but all along, combined with your passion for food, did you ever see yourself becoming a chef?
Yes, especially in Junior College. I didn’t like what I was studying and was constantly questioning the purpose of it all. But I just had to do it to secure my As to get into a university, right? That thought went away when I was doing my National Service but when that ended, I started rethinking about everything again. Growing up in a Peranakan family, I was exposed to food all the time, whether it was my mum preparing something or going to my grandma’s house for a meal. Cooking was something that was planted in me since young. Yet when I first tried to cook, I didn’t like it. My mum would sometimes have me pound the chillies, and I thought that was a very boring task. As a young boy, the Playstation seemed more attractive! Or cycling.
Come to think of it, it’s all very funny. Back then, as I grew to learn more about Peranakan cuisine, I thought, “Wow it’s such hard work. Why not just use the blender for those chillies?” But today, I’m going back even more to the roots.
5. Was there a trigger incident that made you decide to be a professional chef?
There were two main incidents. I went for a Work-and-Travel programme offered by Singapore Management University (SMU). We were working in Washington D.C, and the pay wasn’t enough for us to cover our expenses so we went on to take on a second job. That’s where I found an opening in an American-style bistro. I went in with zero experience and had no idea what I could offer. The bistro started me off as a prep-cook.
On my first day of work, the bistro was booming with business and they didn’t have enough cooks on the line, so they had me move over to join the station. It was all very frantic and I had no idea what was going on, constantly asking other line cooks to teach me what to do. But I loved every moment of that adrenaline rush.
When I returned from my summer programme, I moved on to help out at the school’s student-run café. I revamped the menu and assisted in other areas as well. The owners were happy and we could work well, so they made me a partner. We ran it together for a year till they graduated and had such a good time. I didn’t want to continue on my own because it’s the teamwork that makes everything possible. During the final week, our sales increased every single day. People came to support us and the queue was long all week. On the final day, sales went through the roof and reached an all time high. There were even customers who visited us twice of thrice that week just to show their support and many wrote down notes to thank us. I never expected that.
That was the deciding moment; when I realised that being a chef is not just about cooking. It’s what your food can offer to your customers. It can translate into a special feeling.
6. Have you all along wanted to specialise in Peranakan cuisine when you first decided to be a professional chef?
No, not at all. I was always attracted to Peranakan food but professionally, I wanted to do fine dining, French, you know, all that glamourous cuisine. I was offered a scholarship to study at At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy and they had a East and West curriculum. I was so excited about learning Italian and French cuisine! My perception changed when I noticed that a Thailand chef was teaching Thai cuisine, an Indian chef was teaching Indian cuisine and a China chef was teaching Chinese food. The Thailand chef understood his cuisine at the back of his hand. He could explain clearly, the cultural and technical aspect of Thai food. How the different geographical location, history and culture affected the style of food the people consumed. I was blown away at how diverse and exciting Asian food is. He cooked his cuisine so well. I never had Thai food the way he prepared them. It was the same for both the Indian and Chinese chefs.
That was how it all started for me. Back then we had to decide whether to go to Europe or Asia to further our training. I thought to myself, “Yes no doubt I would learn a lot about European food. But people would ask where I’m from and being chefs, they would be keen to know how to prepare some dishes from Singapore.” And I wouldn’t know how. How can I learn someone else’s culture when I don’t even know my own? It’s so important. Even up till today, I’m still learning so much about Peranakan food.
7. Are all your chefs personally trained by you?
For this style, yes. But they all have experience in other restaurants and other styles of cooking. I learn from my chefs too! And it’s great because unlike me, they do not have any reference points. My reference for sambal chilli (shrimp-paste chilli) could be A + B. I may tweak the recipe a little, but I will still maintain that reference in my head. And because my chefs do not have a reference point, they are able to think out of the box and come up with suggestions that I would have never thought to incorporate. I have a very good relationship with my boys. We [bounce off one another’s ideas] and learn to find a balance to create something unique to us.
8. What is your food philosophy?
I like foods that are complex yet simple, refined and focused. Take beef rendang for example, it’s simple because it doesn’t look fancy but it’s complex because you have to know how to make each component well.
9. I’ve read online that you described your grandma and mum as your sources of inspiration, so… what do they think of your Peranakan cooking?
Grandma says it’s good. Mum, well, will always have comments (laughs). My mum is the only one who learnt Peranakan cooking from my grandma everyday. Back then, everyone else in the family went to school. That’s why she’s has the most comments. Her taste buds are really sharp when it comes to Peranakan cooking, I don’t think I’ve reached that level yet.
10. What is the greatest challenge for your business?
Perception. There’s always the manpower issue but specifically for Peranakan food, it’s the perception. To locals, they expect curries to be $8 or kuehs to be $1. I always get guests who ask why our dishes are so expensive.
Our kuehs may look like your regular kueh and people tend to think that it’s going to cost them only $0.50 to $1. But given the amount of research, manpower hours, cooking time, and with my group of experienced and well-trained chefs, that’s impossible. Restaurants normally serve sambal belachan for free. But over here, we roast, cut, blend and fry the paste. It’s all handmade from scratch. To cover my costs and manpower hours, I don’t even earn anything from it, I charge my sambal belachan for $2 a portion and I do receive complains. [It’s ironic] because some are willing to pay for the canned boiled peanuts that they get in Chinese restaurants. If I’m out to overcharge you, I will put a basket of keropok (fish cracker) and charge you $4. But for something that we spend hours working on, we have to be fair. I don’t even charge for my keropok.
There’s also the perception that Peranakan restaurants are more for “families”. One of the successful signs of modernising Peranakan cuisine is when you see couples coming here for dates and/or anniversaries or when the younger crowd visits during special occasions. It breaks off from the notion that Peranakan food is “old-fashioned” and merely a family affair. We’re starting to see a growing younger crowd and also customers who visit for their personal celebrations. I think that’s really nice, but of course, we still have a long way to go.
11. What is one thing you always tell yourself when things get tough?
Things get tough all the time (grins). It’s more of things that happen, incidents around you that remind you why you’re doing this. True passion is very important in this line because you can burn out very quickly. Low pay, long hours and you sacrifice many aspects of your life to keep this cooking gig going. When my staffs are happy, it gives me an added boost. Talking to customers also helps.
Just the other day a customer told me this is the best meal she’s had in a long time. And that really gives me a much-needed motivation. I had a lady who came the other day with her friends then three days later, made a reservation for her wedding anniversary. That was something really special because… seldom do people visit a Peranakan restaurant for their wedding anniversary (laughs)! Travelling and eating makes me inspired again too. At times other chefs would ask me out for a drink, and it’s great when you get to talk to like-minded people who truly understand what you’re experiencing.
There’s no single thing that I take out and read when I’m down (laughs). It’s a combination of incidents.
12. When it comes to continuing a certain traditional cuisine, there is always the fine line between keeping to traditional ways and mixing in modern elements. What are your views on this and how do you create that balance?
I think it’s important that you have to really like the culture and understand it to its roots. Know how the Peranakans came about, how they live their lives, why they serve certain dishes in a specific manner, understand why they did what they did. Then take your knowledge and the essence of the Peranakan culture and translate it into modernity.
We try to achieve that balance between traditional versus modern. I think the real idea of modern traditional is to either think of possible ways to improve the conventional preparation method, or to enhance the flavour of the traditional dish in a way that people never expected.
At the end of the day, we use modern techniques to our advantage. Candlenut is not a place where we seek to boasts all those fancy modern techniques. Certain foods when cooked over charcoal or wok-frying just tastes so much better. Just the other day we slow-smoked a chicken over charcoal and coconut, so so good.
Balance is crucial. You bring it too far and you’ll lose the soul of the cuisine. Yet if you’re not relevant enough you’ll be seen as old-fashioned.
13. Where do you see Candlenut in 10 years time?
Candlenut started in 2010. I gave myself 10 years for this project to be fully established, and 15 years to be at its peak. When people, Peranakans or not, think a good Peranakan experience, they think Candlenut. Once I’ve achieved that sort of standing, I aim to have a Candlenut bistro or retail products in Changi Airport. End of the day, we always have to diversify.
14. Candlenut is set to move to Dempsey, what can customers expect from the new outlet?
One would definitely be the Candlenut experience. I want my guests to visit not just because it’s Peranakan food. I want to be able to invoke anticipation within them, for them to be excited about what they could possibly experience when they visit Candlenut. It’s like watching a movie, you know it’s going to be good but you don’t know the details.
I’m thinking to construct a 5-course dinner menu instead of the current 3-course. A brunch menu is also in the works.
The Dempsey outlet is set to open this September.
15. After a long day at work, I’d want most to…
Sit down and do nothing (laughs). Or watch a movie or anime. I don’t think about anything for a while and I like that sort of feeling.
16. Complete this sentence, “It makes me the happiest when…”
As a chef, you cook for the guests. My guests have to be happy. When your guests share how much they enjoyed your food, or how much the standard has improved since they last came, it makes all the difference.
17. If you could go to anywhere in the world for a meal right now, where and what would it be?
I’ve no idea where but I want to visit somewhere situated in a natural setting and understand how food was meant to be. Cows grazing the grass, plants that were grown and harvested properly, catching fishes the way they are meant to be caught, to just connect back to nature.
It’s always heartening to see individuals fight to keep the cultural flame alive. But local traditional cuisine is a tricky affair. The balance between modernity and traditional approach is a thin line to walk. Walk it well and one shines in the well-deserved limelight. Cross the line and one invites critics who think they know better. And it’s easy to cross the line. Critiques swim in when tastes and techniques differ, when prices go north ($12 vs $2.50 prawn mee? $20 chicken rice? Lobster wanton mee?) or when served in an elegant restaurant setting and fancy plates as opposed to the humble colourful plates we’re used to. As with many things in this world, food is subjective. One may dismiss McDonald’s as real food but switch up the presentation and market it as “organic” and all of a sudden, the same ones who frowned buy into it.
Of course, constructive feedback are always welcomed. But when an individual comments, “sambal belachan is good but grandma wouldn’t charge me for it,” it shows how unaware diners can be about the amount of effort that goes into a dish. It’s hours of preparation for a small portion of sauce that gets polished off within minutes.
To keep the flame alive, diners have got a part to play. After all, the kitchen is a chef’s stage and diners are the audience; it’s a two-way street.