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Inside Singapore’s Rising Private Dining Scene — Three Home Cooks Tell

By Caroline Suganda, Renée Batchelor and Kames Narayanan

A selection of dishes served at FatFuku.
 
Tung Pham
A selection of dishes served at FatFuku.

As the private dining scene in Singapore climbs in popularity, three home chefs of diverse culinary backgrounds and cuisines discuss the in-and-outs of creating a home dining experience curated with more than just the food served.

Annette Tan, FatFuku

Tung PhamAnnette Tan has been a journalist for 20 years, and started Fatfuku to share her love of Peranakan cuisine
Annette Tan has been a journalist for 20 years, and started Fatfuku to share her love of Peranakan cuisine

It’s not often you see a food critic on the other side of the table, preparing food rather than reviewing it. For Annette Tan, who has been a journalist for 20 years and covering the food scene for half of that, branching out to private dining was a natural extension from her love for cooking and testing recipes. Although Tan has not been formally trained as a chef, her experience comes from the skills she picked up from her late mother, whom she describes as a “formidable cook”, as well as from the chefs she has had the privilege of working with. “Part of my work as a food writer includes transcribing and testing recipes from chefs before they are printed in a magazine, book or newspaper. Through those experiences, I gained more knowledge and insights about cooking that I put to use when I cook,” says Tan.

Tan’s venture, cheekily called FatFuku, alludes to eating well and the fortune, or luck that comes with it. It combines inspiration from various sources — her mother’s treasured Peranakan recipes, as well as elements of Eurasian, Indian and Chinese cuisines. “I cook the food that I know and love to eat. So a lot of times, my food is based on my favourite dishes that my mother used to cook for me and which are difficult to find outside of a Peranakan home,” says Tan. But she is not interested in doing fusion for the sake of it. All her dishes have to taste good as a whole, she says and adds that they should make an impact on the person eating them. Tan serves a curated selection of dishes, which includes some of her favourites. “The food I serve is inspired by my childhood and updated with modern touches that convey my experience as an observer of the dining scene,” she adds. 

Starting a private dining enterprise has been a steep learning curve for Tan, from figuring out food preparation in the most time efficient manner to drawing a line when it comes to managing her guests who dine in her apartment in the East Coast area. In the past, guests have stayed till 1am, and she now has designated a dining period of between 7pm to 10pm, in order to manage the process. But despite the tiny hiccups along the way, there is much joy to be drawn from sharing her love of food. “As I’m sure it is for all cooks, the most tangible joy of cooking is knowing that others have enjoyed what you’ve made for them. Because my groups are small — between six and nine people — it is very much like having friends over for dinner. People are generally very respectful of the fact that they are dining in someone’s home and they sometimes even offer to help clear the table,” says Tan. 

And while the logistics of running a private dining space poses one challenge, the other is finding a way of offering dishes (and an experience) that diners can’t get in restaurants. “I’ve made it a point not to do too many traditional dishes since you can eat perfectly good Peranakan food at great restaurants without the hassle of putting together for the minimum party of six and figuring out a date that works for everyone, including me,” says Tan, who only confirms bookings a month ahead due to her own busy schedule.

Tung PhamAnnette Tan's signature crispy mee siam with prawn sambal and quail eggs
Annette Tan's signature crispy mee siam with prawn sambal and quail eggs
Tung PhamFatfuku's pork belly buah keluak biryani that combines both Peranakan and Indian elements.
Fatfuku's pork belly buah keluak biryani that combines both Peranakan and Indian elements.

On the day of our interview, we try two dishes — a twice-fried nonya mee siam and buah keluak biryani; each with a surprising twist. The first dish is served like a crispy pancake topped with sambal and a sweet, spicy and tangy mee siam gravy on the side. For the second dish, Tan was inspired by the casual diversity of our everyday cuisine, which often combines multiple food types in one meal. “I think it’s reflective of how Singaporeans eat today: we seldom eat just one cuisine when we get together at a hawker centre — it’s perfectly normal for us to order prata, bak chor mee, rojak and satay in one sitting. Similarly, at home, we make things like dry laksa and hae bee hiam sandwiches.” 

Hence, her rendition of the buah keluak biryani was inspired by Indian cuisine. “I braise slabs of pork belly in a traditional rempah for buah keluak, then I serve it with basmati rice cooked with traditional sambal buah keluak, which is later infused with shallots and cashews fried in ghee,” says Tan, ticking off the ingredients more often found in Indian cooking. 

Tan prefers heading to the wet market to buy fresh produce like vegetables and seafood, but also to pick up underused gems. “I like using ingredients that are rarely used these days, like kacang botol (four-angled beans), dried lily buds and unripe jackfruit... These ingredients are in our backyard but we’ve forgotten to use them because many of us either don’t shop at the wet market anymore or think to cook with these ingredients,” says Tan. 

She also “outsources” some of the condiments and sauces by purchasing them from small businesses. “I simply don’t have the time, space or bandwidth to make everything, so with things like achar (Nonya vegetable pickles), I try to source them from other small home-based businesses. I buy homemade achar from an elderly man whose outfit is called Uncle Achar,” shares Tan. 

FatFuku takes bookings from Tuesday to Friday evenings.

Christopher Kong, Dearborn Supper Club

Tung PhamChristopher Kong has worked at numerous Michelin-star kitchens around the world before starting Dearborn Supper Club in Singapore.
Christopher Kong has worked at numerous Michelin-star kitchens around the world before starting Dearborn Supper Club in Singapore.

It’s obvious what sets Dearborn Supper Club apart from the increasingly popular private dining scene in Singapore. Heading to dinner at Dearborn, (in an apartment in Chai Chee), is more like dining at a chef’s table rather than eating at a friend’s home. 

Dearborn is the brainchild of American-born Chinese chef Christopher Kong. Unlike other private supper clubs run by home cooks, Kong is here to offer the same finesse and restaurant quality service and dishes where he honed his culinary skills.

Kong began his culinary journey “as soon as I could stand” back in his family’s Italian restaurant, Perche’No, in Seattle, USA where it’s also home to his Malaysian father and Burmese mother. After college, Kong decided to continue his culinary journey in Asia, which took him from working in a Malaysia tze char restaurant to stepping into the fine dining establishments at the now-defunct Guy Savoy and Waku Ghin in Singapore. During his four-year stint in Singapore, Kong met his wife and they subsequently moved to New York where he fulfilled his long-time goal of working in The NoMad, the one Michelin star restaurant by chef and co-owner Daniel Humm. 

Two and a half years later, Kong decided to settle down in Singapore. “The American dream was getting smaller, and you can get the American dream anywhere now,” says Kong during our interview at his home where he hosts his supper club twice a week. “It makes sense for us as we have a lot of family in Asia and my parents eventually want to retire here.” 

At that point in time, Kong, didn’t have any concrete plans, though he knew that he would want something of his own, be it a brick-and-mortar outfit or a private supper club. The latter made sense as he has always enjoyed cooking and entertaining friends at home — this is apparent in the design of his house where he has an integrated open kitchen with a long island and a living area that doubles up as a lounge. 

Word-of-mouth recommendation is indeed the greatest marketing tool. “I thought it was going to be friends, and their friends, but it quickly became strangers. We didn’t expect that to be right away,” says Kong who had a soft launch of his supper club last October, before doing regular services — for a minimum of six and up to eight diners — from January of this year. As of press time, he is already fully-booked all the way to August, and even has booking enquiries as far along the way as November. 

Kong doesn’t want to open a restaurant just for the sake of opening one, and the idea of having a supper club is a platform for him to express himself, get acquainted with the local community and perhaps build a following along the way. “You’re always cooking other people’s food in a restaurant, so you never know how people really think of your own food,” says Kong, who sees this platform as a good stepping stone to other things.

Tung PhamSourdough is one the main highlights in Dearborn Supper Club’s menu.
Sourdough is one the main highlights in Dearborn Supper Club’s menu.
Tung PhamZucchini with capers, basil and parmesan.
Zucchini with capers, basil and parmesan.

Like most supper club, his menu is ever-evolving with a few permanent fixtures within the six-course meal that prides itself upon greens, grains and seafood. Serving an American, fine-casual dining concept, he is also starting his own journey towards sustainable food, reducing food wastage and using ingredients with known origins, as much as he can. “It’s a learning curve,” he says. Every week, he would pre-order ingredients from overseas, particularly scallops from Japan. He also supports produce from the local wet markets. “I know they are charging me slightly higher because I speak Mandarin with an American accent,” Kong laughs. 

Kong knows how to bring coax simple ingredients to give up their potential in both flavours and presentation. For example, a dish of Hokkaido scallops served with green apple, horseradish, celery and apple vinaigrette is refreshing to the palette, while a main course of roasted cauliflower steak with anchovies, olives, kelp and egg yolk sauce is surprisingly flavourful and a pleasant discovery to those who are not fans of vegetables. A crowd favourite and a much-Instagrammed food, however, is his sourdough bread that he starts preparing two days before a booking. “I think it’s amazing how flour, water and air can make something so nourishing,” says Kong, who took one year to master his recipe — thanks to Larry, his starter, which he has been nurturing since he moved to Singapore. Served with whipped homemade butter and garlic miso, the bread, as well as the bottles of granola that each guest gets to take home, has become so popular that diners want to order them. “But it’s just not possible at this point of time,” says Kong, of the limitations he’s currently facing, that of space and time. 

Of its name, Dearborn, Kong explains that it originates from an exit that leads to Chinatown in Seattle. “As a kid, I remember every Sunday we’ll go to Chinatown to eat and literally, all the Asians [in Seattle] will wait at the exit ramp for 30 to 40 minutes to go there. There’s this feeling of anticipation with friends and family that you are going to get good food — that’s one factor that ties in all the Asians on the weekend. We want to create the same feeling when you come here, the anticipation to come with your friends and family to have a good meal together.” 

Dearborn takes bookings for Friday and Saturday evenings. 

Serene Yeo, Serene’s Supper Club

Tung PhamYeo, who holds a full-time job in the finance industry, first found an interest in supper clubs during her time in London.
Yeo, who holds a full-time job in the finance industry, first found an interest in supper clubs during her time in London.

The time on the clock reads half-past five in the evening. As the sun goes down on the eastern end of the city, Serene Yeo concludes the final preparations for the five-course meal before her home opens up for its guests for the night. 

The sous vide machine whirrs away at one end of the open-concept kitchen while Yeo works away at the batter, amalgamating one egg at a time into a mixture of butter, sugar and vanilla essence, for the meal’s ender — a fluffy bed of sticky date pudding topped with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream and caramel drizzle. She was ticking off the last on her to-do list prior to dinner service. 

“I have actually gotten a lot faster at this over the past years. When I first started, the preparation work would actually start as early as seven in the morning,” says Yeo. At this point, preparing for dinner service comes to Yeo like clockwork — neat, precise and methodical. 

The table, for the night’s group of eight, was set — napkins neatly folded and placed atop plates, a printed menu labelled “Serene’s Supper Club” tucked within. For the past three years, Yeo has opened up her dining area to the public during selected weekends, serving Japanese and Nikkei cuisine to groups of varying sizes from eight to 20 people; the latter cuisine, a lesser known fusion cuisine of Japanese and Peruvian food. 

“I tend to concentrate on Nikkei. I think it is unique and a lot of the times people are very intrigued by it. Out there, you commonly hear about Peranakan or Western food but it’s not often that you hear about Nikkei,” says Yeo. True to her observations, while supper clubs on the whole may be gaining traction in Singapore, the coming together of authentic Japanese and Nikkei cuisine remains a rarity. 

Yeo’s initial interest in supper clubs and Nikkei cuisine stemmed from the time she spent in London. For two years, Yeo volunteered the majority of her weekends at Italian- Japanese-Brazilian chef Luiz Hara’s supper club, which specialises in Nikkei cuisine. During this time, Yeo honed the culinary technicalities signature to Nikkei. Prior to this, she also enrolled in a short course at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu to further bolster her confidence in the kitchen. 

Yet, Yeo is quick to maintain her status quo. “I do not consider myself a chef. I think of myself more as a home cook. It’s a passion of mine and generally, I like to entertain,” says Yeo. 

Tung PhamAt Serene's Supper Club, Japanese cuisine meets Nikkei — a case in point is sashimi served with avocado.
At Serene's Supper Club, Japanese cuisine meets Nikkei — a case in point is sashimi served with avocado.
Tung PhamThe onsen egg is topped with bonito flakes Serene Yeo brought home from her travel to Japan.
The onsen egg is topped with bonito flakes Serene Yeo brought home from her travel to Japan.

As dinner commences — tonight, she is cooking for a group of female friends who are returning not for seconds or even thirds but for the fourth time — her ardour for cooking and entertaining is on full display. The compliments start rolling out early: “How did you manage to bring the egg to such consistency?” asks a guest in between mouthfuls of tamago onsen (traditional Japanese soft-cooked eggs), one of the two starters. 

“You have to set the egg in the sous vide machine for 55 minutes at exactly 63.3 degrees,” she reveals. Yeo has evidently mastered the art of perfect timing in her culinary endeavours. Service too, runs smoothly. While Yeo single-handedly mans the cooking, she is supported by friends’ assistance with plating the dishes. Despite being set in a home, much about the dining experience alludes to restaurant quality faire. 

Just as her perfectly cooked onsen egg glides down the throat, the meal’s main dish of buttered black codfish melts in the mouth. The impeccable execution of every dish is a considerable feat for one who counts little formal training. 

The raw ingredients that Yeo works with are of superior quality. “I just came back from Japan and the bonito flakes that I am serving today are sourced from the market there. The guy shaved them off right before me,” says Yeo. Prior to the opening of Japanese specialty store Don Don Donki, Yeo sourced beef fat from overseas to line her Sukiyaki pot with. Herein lies what Yeo considers as one of her key challenges in serving Japanese and Nikkei cuisine in Singapore. 

“Before Don Don Donki opened here, I had quite a bit of trouble sourcing for ingredients. It has gotten a lot easier since its opening but even then, there are some tweaks that I still have to make,” says Yeo. 

At the moment, diners can select from three separate menus — the fourth of which is currently in the works. “Having a full-time job, it’s hard for me to take time off to create new recipes and that is why it takes me a long time to introduce new menus,” says Yeo, who holds a full-time marketing position in the finance industry. 

This is not to say that here supper club is in any way stagnant. Working around her resources, Yeo has found new ways to innovate what she brings to the table. For two weekends in early April, she hosted visiting Japanese chef Toshio Tanahashi who finds his niche in Buddhist zen vegan cuisine, Shojin Ryori, presented with a Japanese flair. In March, last month, she was also invited to take over the kitchen at local restaurant, Timbre X @ The Substation. 

Considering the significant headway that Yeo has made in the local food industry, one would inherently assume a career shift. However, Yeo shrugs the idea off. “Cooking helps to keep me sane but I would never go so far as to consider it as a job,” she says.

Serene's Supper Club is open for bookings on selected weekends.