Friday, July 20, 2007

National Service (NS)

The Singapore National Culinary Team is one of the most feared competitors in major culinary competitions across the globe. Over the last fifteen years, we have snagged numerous gold medals and championships in international competition events like the Culinary World Cup, Culinary Olympics, IGEHO Basel, FHA Salon Culinaire and most recently the WA Perth Oceana Fest Championships. All these achievements have helped put our small country on the world culinary map with a big presence and not only raised the profile and status of the Chef’s profession locally in this country that is currently gunning for two Integrated Resorts by the year 2010. The success stories were made possible with constant practice and rehearsals through specially organized dinners. The writer of this blog is proud to have been an ex National Team member and in the process of being recalled for “national service”, had the exclusive privilege to cover this event which was one of the biggest rehearsals that the Team has ever had.
The occasion was to be a charity gala dinner for the Independent Women’s Forum 10th Anniversary and in support of the Women's Initiative for Ageing Successfully (WINGS). The Singapore Chefs Association was invited to cook for this symbolic event and was supported with generous sponsorships from its corporate members of the food industry. Guest of Honour was MM Lee Kuan Yew and Mrs Lee. For this important occasion, the SCA fielded the best team it had on hand, ie the current National Team that won the Oceana Fest Championships recently in Perth, Australia and presented their award winning menu for the evening. In addition to the current team members and Fullerton Hotel’s banquet team, more help was rendered with the activation of core members of the SCA’s managing committee, ex National Team Members, chefs from airline catering, hotels, culinary schools, hospitals, restaurants and student apprentices from Singapore Hotel Association Tourism and Educational Centre (SHATEC). In all there were about 45 chefs and cooks behind the scenes of the successful six course dinner. As guests at the VIP table with MM Lee was SCA President Chef Eric Teo and WACS Continental Director for Asia, Chef John Sloane.
Preparations for the menu started as early as a month before with logistics and man power planning. As the team members have been assigned different responsibilities for different meal courses and worked in different organizations, the misc-en place (prep work) was split into different locations. Appetizers and entrees were prepared at Grand Corpthorne Waterfront, dumplings for the soup were made at Marina Mandarin Hotel, main course was prepared at SATS Airline Catering kitchen, and intermezzo and desserts were done in Swissotel Stamford and Orchard Hotel kitchens respectively. Final assembly was at the kitchens in Fullerton Singapore. This was also one of the biggest dinners that the Singapore National Team has cooked for and with the Ex National Team veterans combined, it was considered to be the best of the best in culinary excellence. The menu for the evening is as follows:
• Assorted Canapes
• Confit of Salmon in Lime Oil, Salmon Belly Tartare, Modern Nicoise Salad with Lemon Scented Olive Oil, Green Gazpacho Espuma & Balsamic Reduction
• Chicken Consommé scented with Basil, Prawn Dumpling
• Pan-seared King Scallops in Citrus Nage
• Intermezzo of Raspberry Sorbet and Orange Coulis on Shiso Leaves
• Roast Lamb Rump with Herb Crust and Creamy Mushroom Ragout, Braised Lamb Neck with Butternut Puree, Caramelised Apple, served with Lightly Soured Lamb Jus
• Passion Fruit Chiboust Gratin with Warm Chocolate Pudding, Red Wine Plum Sauce, Vanilla Ice cream

A few days before the event, team members and assistants started to prepare their misc-en-place in the various kitchens across the island. Vegetables like asparagus and baby carrots were trimmed; herbs and salad leaves were plucked. Seafood and meats were trimmed and marinated. Demi glaces and other reduction sauces were produced through long hours of simmering. Flavoured oils were infused with herbs and citrus fruit zests. On the sweet side, the pastry chefs were engaged in full swing for the production of sorbet, ice creams, the chocolate pudding, decorative sauces and garnishes.

On the final day, the Team with their assistants finally met up with all their prep work at the Fullerton Hotel’s kitchens after days of mugging in at their own individual locations. As time keeping was strictly enforced by Team Captain Yen Koh, this enabled everyone to be more relaxed in preparation of the slam ahead. We all found time to catch up with one another amidst setting up the various workstations as Yen went around finalising all the necessary logistics arrangements with Fullerton’s Exceutive Chef Arnaud Thulliez. By 4pm, the veterans and chefs from other organisations have started to come in and excitement was building up as we caught up with one another on good old times and recent developments.
Briefing was done by just before dinner break by SCA President Eric Teo and committee members on the importance of this event and its significance to showcase our talents to top leaders of our country. It is also a morale booster for our culinary pride to the many of us and especially so for those who have worn the national colours at one point or another in the course of our profession. After a quick dinner at 6pm, everybody went back to their respective battle stations and bit by bit, the action began.
At the frontline, Chef David Tan led the appetizer plating with the confit of salmon being topped with avocadoes and a tatare made with sashimi grade salmon belly, onions, freshly chopped dill and capers. A classical Nicoise salad with a modern twist complimented the salmon tower which was crowned with a fine herb salad that had been given a shower of citrus dressing. Just before serving, each plate was pump with an airy foam of Green Gazpacho that had been made with all fruits green like grapes, kiwi,apples and cucumbers giving the appetizer a touch of molecular gastronomy.

The vibrant spectrum of colours and light citrus notes made the appetizer a wonderful starter getting everyone into a zesty mood.
Back in the hot kitchens, Chef KK Kong was shuttling between the final preparations of the consommé and getting the entrees ready. My battle station’s responsibility was to sear up the scallops with both Chefs Peter Round, Yeow Meng from SATS as my comrades.
The scallops were to be paired up later with a citrus buttery nage and a garnish of fresh chervil spiked with lemon zests. On the other side of the kitchen, Chef Frankie Yong as his team were roasting off the lamb rumps to a perfect doneness, getting it crusted with freshly chopped herbs and putting the finishing touches to the mushroom ragout that had been cooked for four kinds of mushroom like porcinis, morels, button and shitake. The lamb necks were glazed with demi glace and gently slow cooked to tenderness while the butternut mash was fluffed up, ready to cushion the lamb neck during plating. The winning attributes of this dish was the Chefs' ability to turn off cuts of meat into delicious culinary masterpieces through innovative methods of cooking and presentation. This is a skill that most chefs are taught to acquire in order to balance out food costs at the end of the day, keep the operations profitable.
At the pastry kitchen, Chef Chai Poh Lo and Nicole Tan were putting in line the sorbets for intermezzo and doing the final checks on the components for the dessert finale. As a palate cleanser, raspberry sorbet was served on orange coulis underlined with a shiso leaf. To end the evening of gastronomy, each diner was going to get a individual platter that featured a contrast of Passion Fruit Chiboust Gratin with Warm Chocolate Pudding and Red Wine Plum Sauce bridged together with Vanilla ice cream. It was a spectacular stunning display of creativity, skill and courage to push all possibilities to the limit in a challenging environment.

At sunset, the first platters of canapés were sent out signalling the start of the fund raising evening cumulated with a cornucopia of epicurean gastronomic delights. As evening drew in, the lights at the ballroom were dimmed, aromas of freshly baked rolls filled the ballroom and wines started to flow into the glasses. The appetizer was fired when the cue from the banquet service manager was given and it was all systems go from then onwards. Like a well coordinated orchestra, a second team stood by at another station getting ready the supreme consommé into hot bowls each filled with a lovingly hand crafted shrimp dumpling and perfumed with a subtle infusion from a piece of fresh basil leaf. As the last bowl of soup left for the ballroom, the same team turned over the station to prepare for the scallop entree. Systematically each member was assigned a specific role and things moved like clockwork under the watchful eyes of Chefs Arnaud Thulliez and Ivan Yeo. Meanwhile at the location where the first courses were fired earlier, the two pastry chefs had already moved in to set up the sorbets for intermezzos assisted by the same team who plated the first course. Back of the house, Chef Frankie’s team were keeping guard over the lamb rump that was resting from having been roasted to a luscious pink core earlier.
A speech break gave the guests some time to refresh their palates with the sorbets while the various teams took the opportunity to turnover their stations again or to put final touches to the next out going courses.

As the main courses were the most complicated segment of the entire meal, it was almost all hands on deck as we got into the full swing of action. As each plate moved along the line, there was a feeling of comradeship among the chefs and cooks irregardless of race, culture, hierarchy or background. The team spirit was infectious and morale was riding high. It was a learning experience for everyone who contributed time and effort to make things happen.

When the last plate of main course was fired, all the veteran chefs moved over to help the plating of the desserts while I coordinated the shutdown of the main course lines with the remaining volunteering apprentices. The Main Team and SCA core committee members had been invited on stage for a picture with MM Lee as the veteran chefs backed up backstage on getting the desserts ready. When the sweets finally went out, it was all oohs and ahhs for the spectacular display of taste, finesse and elegance. The weeks of hard work and preparation have finally come to a grandeur ending and as the guests polished off the last bits on their plates, the chefs in Singapore have once again achieved another milestone in the culinary history of Singapore.
Unfortunately in the next day’s papers, the press media did us a culinary injustice with a measly mention of the menu and generalising the key people under one term “top chefs” who have gone through so much to put this wonderful dinning experience together. Heaven please bless those ignorant souls!

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