Before settling down in his seat, celebrity chef Justin Quek turns to his wait staff and rattles off a list of dishes to serve for lunch. He decides to go Asian, starting with a tangy treat to whet the appetite – hot and sour soup.
He’s supposed to be talking about what he does in his spare time, though given the frenetic pace of his trendy French-Asian restaurant Sky on 57 at the top of Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands, it’s a wonder he gets any. On this occasion, he juggles being interviewed with entertaining at least three other tables of lunch guests.
However, his time management, like his food, is impeccable. He opens up about his non-working hours even as he makes the rounds, never missing a beat.
“What would you like to know?” he asks with a genial smile, before saying that when he’s not hard at work in one of his restaurant kitchens he’s “hard at work cooking at home”.
He whips out his mobile phone and shows picture after picture of his home-cooked meals.
There he is, grilling highly-prized and in-season matsutake mushrooms on his rooftop terrace, or peering into a large casserole of aromatic lamb shank, slowly cooking on the stove in his open-concept kitchen. Another picture is a mouth-watering shot of noodles tossed in hae bee hiam (spicy dried prawns).
He says “it is a luxury to cook at home” and that he does so only once or twice a month – but when he does it is “simple cooking” with good ingredients.
Quek shot to gastronomic stardom when he helmed the famed French restaurant, Les Amis (“The Friends”), in Singapore in the 1990s.
And it is cooking for friends and family that really gets his juices flowing. He holds highly sought-after dinner parties for a close-knit group of six to eight guests, made up of customers turned close friends who bring vintage wines to compliment his exquisite meals.
For his family, he cooks every Lunar New Year’s reunion dinner – a feast of steamboat, chicken curry and roast beef for the extended clan of about 50. Last year, the dinner had a new twist, lap mei fan (waxed meat claypot rice) with foie gras and black truffle.
As he speaks, the first course of hot and sour soup is almost neglected. He does not touch his bowl as he is not hungry, but quickly suggests: “Some people like it with more black vinegar, try it.”
He is right. The vinegar enhances the savoury soup, which has the right balance of spiciness and sourness – a harmony of flavours that mirrors Quek’s quest for balance in life.
He shares his daily routine for most days. If he wakes early, he cycles from his home, a three-storey shophouse in the eastern town of Geylang to downtown Marina Bay where he works, a 40-minute journey past panoramic scenery that includes the Sports Hub, Gardens by the Bay and the iconic Marina Bay Sands.
Then, he immerses himself in work, by inspecting the quality of food in the kitchen or planning the daily bespoke menu with the freshest seasonal ingredients – on this occasion the delectable Amadai “crispy scale” fish is served as the second course.
He leaves the table when the dish appears – duty calls and other guests are demanding his attention. The fish, with scales intact, is pan-fried to perfection, giving the Japanese-inspired dish a crunchy texture in contrast to the smooth creamy sauce.
As the last spoonful of fish disappears, Quek appears right on cue to continue the interview.
He talks about a secret hideout where he unwinds after work a few times a week.
It is a whiskey bar at The Regent Hotel, La Casa Cubana, where he nurses single malts so rare they may have come from one of only 15 bottles left in the world, as he silently reflects on his day.
“I go there to relax, no need to talk, for an hour or so,” he says. Such downtime is no doubt important for a chef with an already gruelling schedule likely to get only more packed.
He is an adviser to Hong Kong star Nicholas Tse’s food travelogue, Chef Nic, with filming starting in Beijing for episodes that will air in September. At the same time, Quek will be opening new restaurants in China – a Singaporean bistro and a French restaurant – and in Singapore, a French-inspired tapas and wine bar.
As the final dish – wok-fried Maine lobster Hokkien mee – appears, Quek disappears once more. He returns to his rounds leaving his interviewer to savour the Singapore street food of yellow noodles stir-fried in a rich prawn broth, with a high-end twist of lobster instead of prawns.
With precision timing, Quek slides back into his seat just as the last strand of noodle is slurped. The discussion turns more personal as he talks about his life and only child.
The chef, who stopped school at age 13 and worked in the kitchens of some of the most feted Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, has come a long way. Backed by his experience, he tells his teenage son that grit is more important than grades in achieving success.
Quek still has many things left on his plate to pursue – from new restaurant ventures to selling “idiot-proof” packet sauces like chilli crab and assam fish curry so that everyone can cook these dishes at home.
Amid the global trend of celebrity chefs hosting cookery shows, might he consider a similar path?
“No, I don’t think I would be good cooking in front of the camera,” he laughs. For now, he is still more comfortable behind the stove. ■
Sue-Ann Chia is a Singapore-based journalist and runs a writing and communications consultancy