What made you first come over to work in Singapore?
When I was working in Melbourne at Gingerboy, a few people we’d worked with had moved over to Singapore and have had good careers. Chris Donnellan, the head chef at Gingerboy, and his girlfriend moved over here, and they needed a chef last-minute after someone pulled out of a project. Chris’s girlfriend said ‘I know someone, I think he’s worked in Japan.’
I was going on an eating holiday around Auckland when I got the message, then came here to do a cooking session at their house, and they said “Sweet, you’ve got the job”. I’ve been here ever since.
What nudged you away from your hometown to travel?
I’m from a small country town in Victoria, Australia – only about 5,000 people. It’s a big farming community, working on the land and dairy farms. So to start working there, then in the city, then being put on a path to work in Japan and Vancouver… when I was growing up I was quite happy to stay in one place and not travel. Then I got the travelling bug.
What was it that gave you the nudge to go for it?
I think it was my career I wanted to further. I could have done something local and made it better, but I had one of my regular customers when I was Head Chef of a place say to me: ‘My son is Ben Cooper, who now runs Chin Chin in Melbourne. I can get you a trial.’
It was nerve-wracking, because these guys were the elite of the elite. But I was like ‘why not?’ and went for an interview. I unexpectedly got a job at their new concept space…but I never thought it was going to happen.
I’m so glad I did because it’s exposed me to so many new experiences. It would’ve pigeon-holed me a little bit if I had stayed.
When was your first foray outside of Australia?
I got the chance to go to Japan – and to be honest when I first got there I didn’t really like Japanese food – then fell in love with it. I worked there for two years, and really understood the Japanese culture, and how they will take one thing and work at it to perfection.
I worked in a Japanese ramen place in Vancouver as well, which was all about perfecting the broth, the noodles, the egg and so on.
Was there anything in Japan that you took with you knowledge wise with cooking?
Where I hung out in Japan during my time there was Hokkaido, which is very much farmland and felt a little like home. I really love going out and using nature in dishes, which is a little more difficult here in Singapore.
I do have a lot of Japanese chefs that I admire over there. What broadened my eyes was how people can make amazing food in the smallest kitchen environments. They didn’t need to have massive kitchens to pump out this sort of stuff, and didn’t need to have 40 things on the menu. Their concentration to get everything right is pretty astounding.
I think the first moment when I realised I could learn a lot from my time there was when we were at a local barbeque place – it was just one chef and the twenty of us sitting around the bar. One of my very good friends ordered fish. The chef cooked it, and my friend would eat the cheeks, then eat the eyes. He said: ‘This fish died for our nutritional benefit. We need to eat all of it to respect it.’
He would take the bones and ask the chef to grill the bones, then eat them like chips, which I’d never had before, which was amazing to me. And the flavour was amazing. It’s such a beautiful way of using food and nature, and having respect towards what they’re eating.