Menufestations is an interview series by Christy, who adores menus and is fascinated by how they are constructed. She goes around talking to cool chefs about their personal style of Singaporean food and documents her learnings from the most candid of conversations.
This is the first chapter of Menufestations. Hope you’ll like it!
I got off the bus at Tanglin Halt and stopped to take in the view of one of Singapore’s oldest public housing estates. Google Maps had pointed me to the Rail Corridor tracks that sliced through this iconic neighbourhood; the exact path where trains used to ferry goods from Malaysia to Singapore a century ago. I headed up the winding staircase into the luscious green fields of uncut grass that carried little signs of urbanisation.
No, I’m not lost in the woods or roleplaying as Dora for an afternoon. I’m headed towards 7 Portsdown Road, where a short and wide house with a facade of black glass panels awaits me. So this is Magic Square, I thought to myself as I pushed open the door, saying hi to Jonathan whom I’m here to meet today. He was appalled when I told him that I walked here. “Wah I always just Grab sia…”, he said, then went to the back for a last-ditch attempt to wax his hair before our shoot started.
This is Jonathan with his freshly waxed hair
Jonathan is one of the few chefs working at Magic Square, the 21-seater restaurant which owner Ken Loon regards as an incubator for budding young chefs to explore local cuisine. This month, Jonathan is showcasing his third and last menu for the year. All of the chefs here take turns to helm their own 9-course menus every month, with a brief posed to them as a challenge in each run.
For a place notorious for running out of tickets the minute they are released (this was in 2018, when they first started), you would think that people are drawn to the menus that the chefs are offering. Only recently, I learned that it’s quite the contrary––at Magic Square, guests anticipate the dining experience despite the lack of a menu. What guests see when visiting the Magic Square website is a list of ingredients found in the menu, no more, no less. The reveal of the dishes only happens as they are served at the dining table, so the guest literally has no clue what’s coming next till they see it with their own eyes. Maybe that’s what puts the magic in Magic Square.
Okay, enough about Magic Square, now back to our chef.
This isn’t the first time I’m crossing paths with him. We met at a gin tasting event a couple of months back, where he first shared about his current stint at Magic Square. We also had a brief exchange about his time as a junior sous chef at three Michelin-starred Odette, where he built a strong foundation in French cuisine over his four years learning from Chef Julien Royer and the team.
Some time back when Jonathan (far right) was at Odette
When I saw that he would be doing a menu at Magic Square in August, I jumped at the opportunity to have him on this series because of my gut feeling during our previous conversation. The both of us are not that far apart in age, so I had an inkling that we could discuss how our generation consumes and experiences food, and I was really excited to see what he had in store for everyone in his menu.
“Magic Square is Singaporean food. But to me, I feel like I don’t want to recreate things that are already perfected in Singaporean food by the older generation, like bak chor mee, chicken rice, I don’t want to elevate these kind of things. I want to explore Singaporean ingredients, like ginger flower, salted plum, which people already know how to use in the usual way,” Jonathan said.
Jonathan shared that most chefs at Magic Square create from nostalgia, drawing inspiration from the familiar flavour palette they grew up with at home. He himself, on the other hand, was not exposed to an extensive variety of heritage food as his grandmother and parents did not cook traditional dishes at home. Instead, he takes what he is skilled at and makes the most out of it––his approach to elevating Singaporean food is in fact a bizarre crossover between local and French ingredients and techniques.
To Jonathan, Singaporean flavours are most definitely not bound by the archetypical hawker dishes.
“I want to pair it (Singaporean ingredients) with European stuff, like actually tell people that Singaporean food can be elevated further and not just try to recreate something that people have already made before. That’s the narrative for my menu at Magic Square.”
Each dish is only limited to 3 main ingredients.
The menu should explore how their varying parts and qualities can synchronise as a harmonious whole in a dish and not just layer flavours on top of each other.
Seasonality was a deal breaker in his menu––Jonathan looked to produce that was in season in France and whether he could import the ingredients from there in July and August, then planned what local ingredients could pair with them.
When planning the menu, Jonathan imagined how he would like the dishes to be arranged if he were to eat them at a restaurant and uses this thought process to decide the flow and pace of the dishes. The different spectrums of flavours and temperature also affect what you want to put into certain stages of the meal. For example, the first dish is either something very hot or very cold, there’s hardly a middle ground to it, he says.
“Because people haven’t eaten anything yet. So if you serve something at the start that’s very citrusy, then your mouth will like….because you haven’t ate anything yet. It’s either you do something that is savoury and hot or savoury and very cold.”
As Jonathan walked me through his menu, I realised that some components were unfamiliar to and undesired by most Singaporeans. One of the lesser desired ingredients is celery, which he used in his first dish (which I will not reveal, for the sake of preserving the mystery). “But, but, there’s potential in it. You just need to know how to play with it,” he says. Going down his menu was like playing ‘guess the local ingredient’ and ‘guess the french ingredient’ with him, it was highly entertaining.
Pretty in Pink! Colourised, 2022
I watched as he assembled an intricate, symmetrical plate in varying shades of dark pink. His second dish included beetroot, salted plum and ginger flower. Out of sheer curiosity, I asked Jonathan if Singaporeans use beetroot in cooking local dishes, because of how frequently I chance upon it at the wet market. “They don’t,” he says.
“European people always like to eat it. As a salad, or even as hot roasted beets, but it’s not common in local cooking.” The beetroot slices were accompanied by salted plum bits which he brined and soaked for a week. The dressing is also made from salted plums, which are pureed into a sauce and drizzled around the dish.
In a fine dining menu, it is unlikely for a chef to deliberately make room for starches to shine. However, at Magic Square, Jonathan shared that Ken Loon encouraged the chefs to incorporate a carb-centric dish into their menus: “Not say have to (include starch), but we try to, because if Singaporeans cannot be full, it’s a bit tough for them.”
“But in other restaurants, if they don’t do it, won’t people complain?” I asked.
“No matter what people will complain. But because in fine dining they give a big portion of everything. They have a lot of proteins and they give substantial amounts. Then by the time you hit the dessert, you’re kind of there already. Then when you finish the dessert right, then you’re full already,” he says. That made sense to me––having more courses with protein-rich foods made up for the lack of starch in other fine-dining experiences
Contrary to what the small, cubical bits on Jonathan's starch-centric dish might suggest, he's not serving deep-fried spam. His starch of choice is nian gao, a rice cake that is typically enjoyed as a fried, sweet snack during Lunar New Year festivities. Unlike off-the-shelf nian gao made from glutinous rice flour, his version is made by hand and with 2 ingredients––roasted Jerusalem artichoke puree and flour. Paired with these crisp and chewy bits is a brown butter sauce made with oolong tea and the dish is finished off with a crumble of artichoke skins.
Jonathan made nian gao with flour and artichoke puree…what a legend!
The myriad of contrasting textures and flavours made this dish really enjoyable for me
His main course is a monkfish dish, but instead of how it is typically cooked in the French style (en papillote) in parchment together with white wine and other accompanying vegetables and herbs in the oven, he chooses to utilise a Southeast Asian technique. Hence, he wrapped the monkfish in banana leaves and cooked it over charcoal. Does that remind you of something so familiar and fragrant?
I asked Jonathan what dish came to mind first during the ideation process. He pointed to the pre-dessert course without the slightest bit of hesitation.
The dish is a bed of savoury tomato granita topped with a beautifully spooned scoop of coconut ice cream he made from scratch, then finished off with caramel reminiscent of rojak sauce.
Before the sprinkle of toasted coconut
Damn…the coconut just added another dimension of oomph…
“I’ve always been interested to do something sweet and savoury as a pre-dessert but at the same time tastes Singaporean. Instead of citrusy stuff, I want to do like savoury, and when you eat it, you’ll be like, I’ve tasted something similar but they don’t know what is it,” he says.
“If you come to eat, tell me whether it’s nice or not.”
THE B-ROLLS AND JUICY BITS
C: Where were you working at before Magic Square?
J: I worked [at Odette] for 4 years. When I joined, Julien just built Odette and it was already two Michelin-starred. After working at Whitegrass, which used to serve modern Australian plates, I wanted to try out fine dining. I didn’t get into Odette because I sent my resume, I got in because of a reference from one of my friends who used to work there. Because I didn’t go to culinary school, a lot of things I learned were really on the job. Like how to make sauce, etc.
C: Do you think that as long as chefs are willing to work hard at some restaurant, culinary school doesn't matter?
J: I feel that it’s the mindset. The mindset that if you go to culinary school, it helps that you know some basic skills. But at the same time, you must be open to learning new stuff from the place you work at. But I didn’t go because I felt like I want to get paid and I needed the money. Going to culinary school is quite expensive.
C: Did you get a cultural shock when you first started working in the kitchen?
J: I feel last time was brutal, but now not so bad because of the law and stuff.
C: What was your most memorable part of working at Odette?
J: When I was in my third year, close to my fourth, Chef Julien had something where he showcased the management team, the sous chefs, junior sous, and his head chef. So all of us had to come up with a menu just for a day, and he let us create whatever we wanted. We just put it out there and let people come and try. That to me was a very interesting experience and that’s when I realised that creating is actually really fun.
C: After trying your hand at menu creation here at Magic Square, are you enjoying the process?
J: Menu creation is very stressful. I just wanted to try whether I can create. I enjoyed it, but it’s very tiring.
C: What are your thoughts on cooking Singaporean food?
J: I enjoy eating Singaporean food but I don’t enjoy cooking Singaporean food. People don’t appreciate it, I feel.
It’s good that people are doing all this private dining with Singaporean food but I feel like they should spread it. They should teach people how to do it. Because our generation people all don’t know how to cook all these kinds of things. But people who grew up eating it, they know la. But what about normal people like us, they don’t know about this kind of things. If you ask them about traditional stuff, also don’t know what. So it’s quite sad la.
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See you soon for Menufestations 02!