There is no doubt Singapore’s thriving dining scene is teeming with restaurants that offer just about any kind of cuisine under the sun. But for connoisseurs who prefer something off-the-radar, there is another option — private dining, where chefs cook sumptuous feasts for small groups of guests in their own spaces, usually their homes.
One thing that draws gastronomists to these intimate spaces is the rare opportunity to get to know the chef better. Choo Oi Yee, chief commercial officer of iSTOX and BMW driver says the intimate interaction between the guest and the chef-host is a highlight of private dining.
One of her favourite private dining experiences is having a Peranakan feast at Lynette’s Kitchen. Helmed by Lynette Seah, who is also an acclaimed violinist with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), the consummate hostess often regales guests with entertaining stories and is known to whip out her violin for a quick ditty should the mood strike.
There is also a sense of exclusivity as most private kitchens host only one table of about 10 to 12 guests per night, even in the pre-Covid days. In this new normal of social distancing, there is certainly something alluring about having a space just for one’s party of eight.
Most of the popular private dining chefs also offer unique dishes that are rarely found in restaurants. For instance, Jeffrey Bong of Nonya Bong recreates Peranakan recipes based on an ancestral family cookbook. At Lucky House Cantonese Private Kitchen, Sam Wong preps nourishing soups that have been simmered for hours on a charcoal fire. And at Rajagopalan (Raj) Kumar’s Fussy Duck, his modern French cuisine sometimes comes with Indian-inspired touches such as a saffron crème brûleé, which is based on his favourite childhood dessert, kulfi.
Raj, who co-founded Fussy Duck with his wife Liew Ying Yi, has worked at Bar Boulud in New York and managed the kitchen at Google’s office in Singapore. He often creates entirely new menus from scratch, especially for regulars so that they get to try something different each time they visit.
“It is nice not to be constrained by a particular type of cuisine or menu and to create dishes based on the best quality produce available at that time. For instance, we might have white truffle mushroom ravioli when it’s in season or if I see beautiful white asparagus, it may just feature on the menu.”
Eng Fook Hoong, a long-time member of the Chaine des Rotisseurs gastronomy club, says, “As a foodie, I’m always looking for a chef with integrity and a private dining experience is considered excellent when chefs make that extra effort.”
This unique point of view is what guests of FatFuku dinners (by food writer and cook Annette Tan) can attest to. Her creative takes on traditional Singaporean and Peranakan food showcases the cuisines’ wide range of flavours while still delighting guests with interesting twists.
One of her most popular creations is her crispy mee siam featuring a traditional dry mee siam which is then fried a second time before serving to turn it into a crispy pancake, topped with a prawn and quail egg sambal and traditional Nonya-style mee siam gravy on the side.
While some chefs continue to stick to traditional (and often laborious) methods of cooking, Annette is known to incorporate professional cooking techniques like brining and braising where she feels they can improve her dishes. For instance, she braises pork belly in large slabs in buah keluak rempah (candlenut spice mix) in a cast iron pot. “It gives the meat better texture and minimises the hard work of constantly stirring a rempah, which is how it is traditionally done,” Annette observes.
“Apart from yielding what I hope is good food, cooking this way also helps me to send a message to other modern-day home cooks that we can evolve the way we cook to suit our busy lives without losing the soul of our traditional dishes.”
Many private dining enthusiasts also take satisfaction in patronising chefs at a pivotal moment in their career. “It is interesting to observe if these chefs will end up having their own restaurants in the future. The places I like, including Mustard Seed and Atipico, happen to have developed into professional kitchens,” says Celine Tan-Mordvincev, CEO of The Ate Group.
She cites Matteo Pertoldi, an engineer-turned-chef, who started out with a by-invitation-only private dining concept called Paladar before he launched his own catering company Atipico. “It was where he tested his recipes and food before he launched his business. I like how he makes comfort food different and have since worked with him on a few projects”, says Celine. “Like BMW’s spirit of innovation, the most interesting private dining chefs are not afraid to experiment with new ideas and break out of the box.”