SINGAPORE — Between courses at one of her ’Ownself make chef’ public dinner held at Seletar Aerospace Park, Chef Shen shared with me that these days, if it wasn’t for these public dinners held on weekends three times a month, she’d have been in bed by 9pm. It is the kind of lifestyle chefs can only dream of, and one that she practices because unlike other chefs, she doesn’t run a restaurant. She runs several food entities—a hawker stall, some ad-hoc collaborations with other food joints, this public dinner—but not a restaurant.
After years of toiling as a chef owner of Wok & Barrel, she feels its time for proper rest and a life that eschews the typical work-life balance struggle many chefs in Singapore grapple with.
In this interview, Chef Shen shares how her culinary philosophy has changed throughout the course of her career and various food stints, and what success, as someone who has been in the industry for 12 years, looks like.
How do you describe what you do to someone you're meeting for the first time?
I cook food inspired by Singaporean flavours.
What lessons have you learned from setting up Wok & Barrel that has changed how you look at life as a Chef?
That being a restaurant chef vs cooking in a hawker centre is very different. The entire experience taught me a lot of lessons on creating holistic dishes and menus. At Madam Tan’s Nasi Lemak, there was just “add-ons”, but at Wok & Barrel, I had to make starters, mains and desserts. I had to not only consider how each dish was prepared, but also the plating, how it would look like to the diner—the entire dining experience.
Wok & Barrel was also very interesting because I took on a whole spectrum of the business as a restaurant owner. I had to take care of the service, managing both front and back of house. I had to look at the entire business more holistically. There were a lot of considerations that I had to take into account, like staffing, human resource issues, taking care of the front of house and still cooking in the kitchen. It was a crash course in managing finances, staff, marketing & PR all in one fell swoop.
Your current two most recognisable F&B pursuits are at two extremes—OG Lemak which is at a hawker centre and Ownselfmake Chef which is a Private dinner event. Is not having a physical restaurant a deliberate decision?
Yes, it’s a deliberate decision. It suits my personality. I am grateful and thankful for this opportunity and freedom to move around and be fluid. Honestly, I do not envisage living my life behind a pass. Both Ownselfmake Chef and OG Lemak allow me to take on various projects that feed into my need to always be creating. In the past two years, I’ve done other collaborations with Gastrogig, Sadia, Nandos, and Guinness, just to name a few.
What is the most significant change your culinary philosophy has undertaken in your career as a chef?
I have always stayed true to my cooking style and philosophy, so I would not say that my culinary philosophy has changed. I am still pretty much doing the same thing—cooking Singaporean and local flavours.
The most significant change would be the way I present those flavours—it does not take on the form that I used to do. I started as a hawker and was more focused on presenting Singaporean flavours differently. As I’ve moved along this path of being a chef, I have focused a lot more on presenting the same tastes in an unexpected way on a plate.
Just like how our culinary scene in Singapore is continually constantly growing, evolving and growing, that’s how I feel like my journey has been. I started as a hawker, did Wok & Barrel, Ujong, Private Dining, and now back to being a hawker—much wiser this time though. My journey has changed how I feel about being a chef and about being in the F&B industry.
What is the most underrated ingredient a chef should use that is not used enough and why?
Clams, bivalves, molluscs. They are very underrated! Bivalves and Molluscs are great for the environment, they’re very sustainable, and they also play a huge role for the ocean as filter feeders. Besides that, there are thousands of species out there, all extremely delicious and can be cooked in various ways. They can be found anywhere, in any cuisine, and almost everyone can eat them—unless, of course, if you have an allergy.
What does success in the F&B industry look like to you, and where do you place yourself in this trajectory?
I think success means longevity; that you can stay in the scene and create dishes or ventures that last and remain relevant. I believe that is success above and beyond financial success, which is also essential.
I think I am still at the beginning of this trajectory. I’m still very new in the industry. Twelve years in, and I’m still learning a lot, there’s a lot more for me to achieve and learn.
When you look at the dining scene in Singapore today, what is the one thing that gives you hope?
Private dining gives me hope. It is an excellent opportunity for people who want to branch out or get into F&B. They’re able to experiment and find their footing without too much financial investment.
It’s also a great way for trained chefs to grow creatively, creating menus that they can truly call their own and understand more about what goes on in and out of the kitchen.
2017 was the beginning of private dining for me—it was a fantastic start to a journey that I am still on currently and always very excited about. Besides my other commitments, I do the private dinners three times a month, and it is also a great time to connect with my guests and a great outlet for me to create and do what I love.