The first time chef Sebastian Ng met with lawyer turned restaurateur Loh Lik Peng, Loh had a stack of kitchen tiles in tow. “He brought all these [kitchen tiles] to show me the work that was being done at Hotel 1929,” reveals Ng. At that time, Loh was looking for a chef-partner to head the hotel’s restaurant, Ember, which would go on to become a stalwart of modern European restaurants in Singapore. Loh first approached Ng while the chef was heading Pierside Kitchen & Bar, with a proposition to open a restaurant together at Hotel 1929, which Loh owned. “I had my doubts at the start. The restaurant was in what was known back then as a red light district. Even the parking there [Keong Saik Road] is terrible,” shares Ng.
However, he was eventually won over by the possibility of running his own restaurant, and the fact that his landlord would also be a partner in the business. His risk would soon pay off, as Ember trailblazed the transformation of the Keong Saik area into a dining destination. These days, Ng is the chef-owner of VENUE by Sebastian, a restaurant in the heart of the Central Business District. It opened in mid 2017. He’s still serving the Asian-inflected European fare that he’s known for, albeit in a more casual setting. And despite receiving offers to do everything from writing a cookbook to opening more restaurants, he’s treading carefully. “All these things take time; and I feel like the restaurant is my baby—I still enjoy being in the kitchen, so we’ll see.”
“The very first contact I had with cooking was stirring kaya for my mom when I was about five years old,” shares Ng. Perched on a stool, he had painstakingly tended to the pot of the coconut and egg jam, as it bubbled on a charcoal stove. Little did Ng know then that he would be cooking throughout his whole life.
Ng’s desire to work in kitchens stemmed from him being inspired by an uncle who owned a Chinese restaurant in Long Island, New York. At the age of 15, while still in secondary school, Ng decided that he wanted stop studying and go to work for his uncle in the States. “My mum was quite upset when I told her. She wanted me to finish my ‘O’ Levels first before I took the leap.” Unfortunately, due to health issues, Ng’s uncle had to shutter the Long Island restaurant before Ng could visit. Determined to pursue a culinary career, Ng went on to enrol in SHATEC in 1994, after completing his ‘O’ Levels.
2. Crispy Tofu with Foie Gras-Mirin Sauce
Ng started out in the F&B industry with a keen interest in learning to prepare Chinese food, inspired by the Chinese restaurant his uncle had run. However, during an attachment at Raffles Hotel, he found himself drawn to the Western kitchens. “During my attachment, I was posted to a different kitchen every month—like banquet, or pastry—and I found that there was a lot of passion in the Western restaurants,” Ng lets on.
His dish of crispy, homemade tofu served with a rich, umami foie gras-mirin sauce came about as a way to use the trimmings from foie gras (something that they went through large amounts of at Ember), but has its roots in his first love, Chinese cuisine. “When I was on break, I would go to the Chinese restaurant [in Raffles Hotel], which was called Empress Room back then, to learn from the chefs there—that’s where I picked up how to do the tofu,” Ng reveals.
3. Chilean Sea bass, Mushroom and Bacon Ragout, Truffle Yuzu Butter Sauce
What was originally created as a special for Ember’s first Valentine’s day, in 2003, has turned into one of Ng’s most iconic dishes, thanks in part to a regular customer who insisted that Ng add the item to his menu. “We were trying to come up with a special, and this dish was basically put together with what I had in the kitchen at that time,” shares Ng. The result was a flavour bomb that somehow also managed to carefully balance an earthy, smoky mushroom-bacon ragout; a silky truffle beurre blanc that’s cut through with yuzu; and a light, flaky Chilean seabass/Patagonian toothfish. It’s become something of a signature dish, and has remained on Ng’s menu—first at Ember, and now at VENUE—throughout the years. Other than improvements to the flavours, the basic components of the dish have remained unchanged.
4. Yong Tau Foo
One dish that often finds its way to the tables during staff meals is Ng’s mother’s yong tau foo. Her version has chewy pieces of mee hoon kueh and yong tau foo swimming in a broth sweetened with Chinese herbs and laden with fried garlic. Ng, now 43, recalls the tedious process that it takes to make this dish: “My mother would go to the markets in the morning to buy sai toh (West saury) fish, which she would then scrape with a spoon to make the fish paste to stuff the yong tau foo with.” Served with a fiery homemade chilli padi sauce, yong tau foo is a dish close to Ng’s heart; something he looks forward to when he’s feeling under the weather.
Ironically, it’s also a dish that Ng doesn’t like preparing himself. “I grew up eating this, and it’s like the perfect comfort food for me. So I don’t really make this myself because I’ve realised that once I cook something I’ll find myself losing my appetite [for it].” The dish is symbolic of the family that he has at VENUE—both literally and metaphorically. Mealtime sees the team sitting together at the table, eating and chatting like a family. Ng’s wife, Sabrina Goh, is in charge of everything outside the kitchen, including tending to the front of house, talking to suppliers, and entertaining the media. Helming the kitchen with Ng is Jonathan Lee, ex-head chef of Artichoke, who happens to be his cousin-in-law. Also, there is Ng’s mother, Mdm Ann Ting, who helps out with prep in the kitchen, and occasionally prepares staff meals.
Goh has been working with Ng since Ember started. “We struggled when we first started working together. But I guess it was easier because she was from the F&B industry, and eventually we learnt to separate work from our personal lives,” Ng lets on. There are advantages too, since Ng shares that they “get to see each other more often”—a rare occurrence for people working in the F&B industry.
5. Jerusalem Artichoke Soup
While it’s easy to romanticise a chef’s role as some sort of culinary auteur who has the artistic license to do whatever he wants, the fact remains that a restaurant is still, at the end of the day, a business. A business that has to be profitable, meaning it requires careful management of resources and expenses. Ng’s Jerusalem artichoke soup came about when a supplier had a surplus of the root vegetable. Ng took them off his hands and turned them into a hearty soup. The soup comes garnished with crispy shredded duck, made from the confit duck that Ng serves at VENUE.
Having been in charge of costing at Pierside Kitchen & Bar, and having run his own restaurant (Ember), Ng has learnt the importance of balancing the roles of chef and businessman—two things which can come into conflict sometimes, although he has since “matured, and learnt to be careful with P&L (profit and loss)”. More often than not, however, the chef comes out more strongly in Ng’s personality. “There was once we got fresh green peas—there’s a world of difference between them and the frozen ones—at VENUE. These aren’t cheap, and we have to shell them ourselves. But because the perceived value of peas isn’t very high, we couldn’t price the dish [with the peas] what it was worth.” Generally, what they aim to do at the restaurant, is to “provide value for customers” while using the best possible ingredients “within means”.
In an industry notorious for leaving people burnt out, helming the kitchen of a full-service restaurant for 12 years is no mean feat. “During the Ember days sometimes we would work from 7am to 4am, which had quite an impact on my health,” reveals Ng. After leaving Ember, Ng took a two-year sabbatical to travel, visiting places like the U.S., Italy, and most frequently, Japan. “When I left [Ember], I didn’t even know I was going to open another restaurant, I just needed a break.”
These days, it almost feels like Ng has acquired some sort of zen from his break. He’s still running a restaurant, but in a much healthier way. He’s giving himself a little more breathing space, and more time to spend with his three daughters. At VENUE, starched tablecloths and multi-course menus have been ditched in favour of a dim sum-style order chit and sharing plates—meaning that the kitchen doesn’t have to stress about sending the food out in courses for each table; and everything goes out freshly cooked. One of the new dishes that Ng has created at VENUE is raw kanpachi (greater amberjack), sliced and served with yuzu-pepper, ponzu, and scallions. It’s a simple enough dish, but one that takes technical skill and knowledge to execute. “You have to slice this to order, as the red part of the fish begins to oxidise and will turn dark if it’s left out,” shares Ng.
7. Tarte Tatin
Before the locavore movement took the industry by storm, and before trendy chefs begin touting their “visits to local markets”, Ng was heading down to the wet markets, more out of necessity than anything else. “During the early days of Ember, we offered one of the most value-for-money set lunches around,” he shares. In order to keep things fiscally viable, he would go to the markets in the mornings before the restaurant opened, buying whatever was good that day. As a result, the menu also changed every few days. When asked about his thoughts on the many food trend du jours that he’s seen come and go, from molecular gastronomy to New Nordic cuisine, Ng says, “We did some of the molecular [gastronomy] stuff when I was training at Vue de Monde in Melbourne, but I never found that it was suited to my style of cooking. I’ll stick to what I like, what I’m good at.”
A case in point? Ng’s tarte tartin, one of the classics in the pantheon of French cuisine, which he picked up while working at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay—apples caramelised in butter and sugar, baked upside down with buttery puff pastry. It’s a dish that might be considered old-fashioned, but when done well, is a joy-inducing combination of rich caramel, firm fruit, and crisp, buttery pastry. “The food doesn’t have to be very high-concept or trendy. Most importantly, food has to taste good,” Ng opines.