At Park Bench Deli, the chefs go through 40 to 60 kilograms worth of onions each week. "That ", Chef Andrei Soen points to the end of his kitchen, "is caramelising onions. [It's] an ingredient we use a lot of."
Soen adds, "We thought we could do something different [today]. We've never tried sandwiches with a vegetable puree."
The 31-year-old was born in Singapore but relocated to San Francisco at 13. It didn't take him very long to find work in family restaurants. Soen moved back here in 2012 to co-establish the seafood boil restaurant, The Cajun Kings. "As Cajun Kings progressed and did its own thing, I wanted to do something else, something I really loved. I grew up in America, it's very meat-and-bread there. I started to talk to Ming and Aamir, and it became an idea." Six months later Park Bench Deli materialised. The trio sold at markets and events before they found a home at Telok Ayer Street.
Park Bench Deli's three founders intentionally designed an open kitchen as opposed to a conventional closed one. Having worked many years in a traditional fine-dining establishment, Chef Soen thought, "It was like a prison!" Here, he wanted his chefs to see and interact with the diners.
Back to onions, Soen has always enjoyed its flavours, "whether in its raw form or cooked – from caramelised onions on burgers to pickled onions over tacos".
There's a myriad of flavours hidden in an innocuous onion, he says. Aside from eating it raw and spicy, or cooked and sweet, "the way you slice it – diagonal or the other way – gives a different pungency." Soen advises to use a very sharp knife when cutting onions, adding, "I am sure many people have shed a tear while slicing the onions up, so always use a sharp knife!...The [blunter] it is, the more vapour is released into the air."
A medium-sized yellow onion, peeled and diced for easier cooking.
"French onion soup!" he exclaims, when asked about his favourite onion dish. "I grew up in the city. In high school, we had French onion soup – onions in soup, with sourdough and lots of cheese on top. That's one of my favourites. It's not too oniony, even though onion is the main component."
"Every cuisine has that sort of connection with onions. It's a powerful thing that not a lot of people talk about...You don't go looking for onions. Only Alain Passard will say, 'This is an onion dish.' It's an everyday thing that no one talks about."
Chef Soen simmers the diced yellow onions in low heat, adding spoonfuls of water sporadically to avoid browning. Here the onions are ready.
Soen created an easy iteration of the Italian Parmigiana sandwich, served with onion puree.
"The onion puree adds a sweet flavour and a creamy texture. You could swap cream [for] onion puree for better, brighter flavours," he explains. Compared to cream, onion puree is a healthier alternative to thicken soups and risotto.
Chef Soen blending the cooked onions till creamy.
450 grams yellow onion, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 450 grams of onions into the pan. Cook at very low heat so it doesn't brown – approximately 800 watts.
Add a few spoonfuls of water to create steam and prevent onions from browning.
Cook onions down until translucent and tender.
2. Remove from heat. Blend till there are no more chunks. "When it looks like mashed potatoes, season with salt. What salt does is to bring the flavours out."
3. Set aside.
Chef Soen coating zucchini slices in egg-white mixed with cornstarch, and Panko. Fry the zucchini slices till golden brown.
1 zucchini, sliced
2 egg whites, beaten
3 tablespoons corn starch
1 bowl panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
2 to 4 slices of pepperjack cheese
Honey dijon potato chips
French onion roll (from Bread Table, Kovan)
1. Add three tablespoons of corn starch to 2 egg whites, and stir well.
2. Coat zucchini slices in the egg white mixture before coating it with panko.
3. Fry coated zucchini slices briefly till golden brown.
Beautifully browned zucchini and Panko slices.
4. Slice the french onion roll into halves, toast it briefly on the pan.
"This is a bread we got from Bread Table in Kovan – one of the best bakers in Singapore...This bread has got a different flavour – they put roasted onions in it. Bread is your main feature. 50 percent of your sandwich is bread," Soen explains.
5. Assemble the sandwich: Spread a generous spoon of onion puree on the bottom half of the roll.
From left clockwise: Fried zucchini slices, jalapeños, onion puree, pepperjack cheese, french onion roll. This picture is missing the Honey Dijon potato chips.
6. Line two layers of fried zucchini slices over the onion puree.
7. Line some pickled green jalapeños over the zucchini. Soen pickles them in-house, and the process takes merely an hour.
8. Add two layers of pepperjack cheese over.
"Pepperjack gives it a little spice...It kickstarts the flavours," Soen quips. "The Muenster is the best pulling cheese for grilled cheese."
At this point, it's optional to toast the open-faced sandwich in the oven for a minute to melt the cheese. Or, you can toast it at the end.
9. Layer honey dijon chips over, and you're done.
"I love chips in stuff, like burgers...Usually, you eat it on the side. But actually putting it in there gives it a different flavour and crunch. We haven't done it here, but it's something that we are exploring." When using chips, avoid the microwave oven, he explains. "Microwave makes the chips soggy."
10. Wrap the sandwich up in baking paper. Pop it into the oven if you haven't already.
Slice and serve warm.
Layer the zucchini, pickled jalapeños, pepperjack cheese, honey dijon chips, and finally the top bun.
Cross-section shot of the Zucchini-Parmigiani with onion puree burger. It doesn't have a name for now, since it's Chef Soen's first attempt at this.
Soen and friends guffaw before explaining that his food must be grub – besides carefully-balanced flavours, they have to feel shiok. But be it fine-dining or grub, he gathers, "Most foods are made out of the most ordinary ingredients. It's how you cook the dish [that] represents you as a chef."
Park Bench Deli is located at 179 Telok Ayer Street.
Subscribe to our newsletter