A day with Woo Wai Leong, chef-owner of Restaurant Ibid

We spent a day with the winner of the inaugural MasterChef Asia, weeks before the opening of his first restaurant to find out what goes behind the scenes

2018-05-14 14:58:49 2018-09-15 01:08:58

Almost half a year ago, chef Woo Wai Leong joked about “not having any more job security” after winning the inaugural Masterchef Asia. A slew of pop-up dinners, television shows, and collaborations later, he’s finally taking the plunge, opening his own place with two other partners, Audrey Lim and Ron Yang, Restaurant Ibid. The restaurant’s name takes some explaining: it’s the abbreviated form of the Latin word, ibidem, meaning “from the same source”. It’s meant to reflect the restaurant being a means to explore origins and heritage—in this case, Woo’s Chinese heritage.

A Day With Woo Wai Leong at Whampoa Market
Woo heads down to Whampoa Market for breakfast at his favourite bak chor mee stall, and a potent, “damn shiok”kopi-o kosong, peng.

There’s already even a term for the food: Nanyang-style cuisine. It’s named after the pioneer batch of Singaporean artists like Georgette Chen and Chen Wen Hsi, many of whom who were Chinese-born but Western educated. In the same way, Woo, and many of his contemporaries—like chefs Han Li Guang of Labyrinth and Malcolm Lee of Candlenut—fit the bill. They’re all chefs who are more familiar with Western culture and techniques, but have decided to go in search of their roots through cooking. The idea for Restaurant Ibid was first conceived in November 2017, driven by an idea Woo had: to blur the lines between the food and beverage sides of things; as well as the front and back of house. He’s gathered a team of go-getters, some of whom he’s worked with, and others that he’s gotten to know through friends and industry. “It’s a bit of a mini-miracle, but I’ve managed to assemble a fully local team of hard-hitters with various overlapping fields of expertise,” he exclaims.

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Woo and his team finalising several recipes

Over the past two years, he’s developed a repertoire of dishes, some of which he has served in past pop-up dinners—like a soy ice cream-and-Sarawak pepper meringue combination that has appeared in one form or another. Other dishes that showcase the synthesis of Woo’s Asian upbringing and Western training include an inventive take on the traditional tea egg. “I  love the flavour of tea eggs, but with those that you find outside, the eggs are always boiled to death—the whites are rubbery, and the yolks have this grey ring around them,” shares Woo. His solution is an egg yolk, slow-cooked until it takes on a jam-liked texture; served in a pool of onion soubise and tea broth; topped with shiitake mushrooms and gingko nuts fried in brown butter.

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Restaurant Ibid’s tea egg dish. The desired texture is a jammy, almost translucent egg yolk

Even the design of the restaurant space effortlessly showcases Woo’s “Nanyangness”. At first glance, everything seems pretty standard: hardwoods, clean angular lines, and warm lighting. But take a second look, and familiar elements begin to pop out—the sliding door grille found in many old-school stores, painted a deep red; the decision to go with an open kitchen behind a long counter, which preserves the distinctive rectangular layout of the old shophouses Restaurant Ibid was built in. The centrepiece of the restaurant is a Chinese-style shelf, also known as a 百宝格 (“compartments of a hundred treasures”) that’s traditionally used to display everything from antiques, to charms and curios. It’s a fitting display, as Woo has taken to filling it with ceramic tableware, rare liquors, and various knick-knacks.

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The team gathering for a staff meal

As with any new space, they’ve run into their fair share of problems while getting the restaurant set up, although nothing was too unexpected. The biggest challenge Woo’s experienced thus far? “Stacks upon stacks of paperwork, and pulling a team together as a startup, with little to no track record in the restaurant game,” he shares. It takes grit, and a certain amount of bravery, to open a restaurant in Singapore. The scene is plagued with high rentals, a shortage of trained manpower, and capricious eaters—all of which contribute to a large number of new restaurants closing within their first year. Woo, however, has had the help of friends within the industry “who have been extremely generous with their expertise and advice”. He opines, “I believe you should do something you’re passionate about while you’re still young. I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m going to give this my best shot.”

Before writing about food, Weets wrote about music, and is still waiting patiently for the day he spontaneously develops synaesthesia so he can reconcile the two.