World Chefs: Justin Quek keeps tradition in French-Asian fusion

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Modern fusion is the hallmark of Singaporean chef Justin Quek but tradition and technique are his unshakable foundation as he reinvents Asian favorites with French flavors and flair.

Quek, principal chef at the tony Sky on 57 restaurant atop the Marina Bay Sands casino resort in Singapore, fell into his career by accident. Wanting to travel as a young man, he took a job on a merchant ship and ended up as a steward in the galley.

His passion ignited, he went to catering school back at home and worked in hotel kitchens in Bangkok and Singapore before spending his life savings on a year-long stay in France to sharpen his skills. That expertise paid off when he became the personal chef to two French ambassadors in Singapore.

Quek, 51, has also had his hand in restaurants in China and Taiwan, including Justin Signature and Just in Bistro & Wine Bar in Taipei.

Talking at breakneck speed on the panoramic terrace of Sky on 57, Quek spoke to Reuters about fusing culinary cultures, inspiring the next generation of chefs and finding pleasure in food - from the sophisticated to the simple.

Q: What is it about French cooking that you love so much?

A: I just like the French art, the presentation, the complexity of preparing the dishes. That inspires me. I’ve been in this career for 30 years and have not changed my path from French cuisine. That was my foundation.

Of course, the cuisine has changed. The old style becomes the new style. And of course, being Singaporean and travelling around the world, my palate tells me I’m in Asia. So I take that foundation but I put my own creativity and our Asian culture into the food.

That’s why the food is very light. That’s why I call it Franco-Asian cuisine. Not a lot of cream and a lot of butter and two cheeses. Nothing against cheese. I like cheese but I’ll choose one. Some of my favorite cheese is aged Beaufort. Wow! That is a great cheese. But just one piece.

Q: In your vision of Franco-Asian cuisine, where do they really meet?

A: The difference between a Chinese chef and me is because of my background. I use the French base and then I elevate the flavor. In French cuisine, we are very particular about the ingredients, good ingredients. The Chinese are very good with the marinades, the wok flavors, the steaming, the precision.

So I take both and combine. Chinese like to use live fish for steaming but the sauce is a soy sauce base. Some even use MSG. But in European cuisine, we don’t use enhancers. We use roasted bone. The sauce is a balance of acidity, savories, sweetness, creaminess. You go by the layers of flavors.

Technique is very important. That’s why my cuisine has a traditional base - because I like the real thing. A piece of fish is a piece of fish. I don’t like to do a jelly or a mousse or go too molecular. That’s not my style.

Q: You’re a chef, a restaurant owner, a restaurant consultant...

A: No, no. I’m a passionate chef, that’s all. I love good food and lifestyle, the well-being of people, going to a restaurant. I like to feel good ...

Every restaurant has got its own concept and price point - first class, business class, economy class or budget. Even wine - table wine, village, premier cru, grand cru. What I’m doing, because of the experience I have, being that I travel around, I see something and say “Oh, this is good”.

Q: You had a cookbook (“Passion & Inspiration”) come out in 2006.

A: It’s about my stories in France, my training, everything about the journey of a chef ... The food is actually real food from the restaurant, not just for picture-taking. It’s more for families. The foundations, the basics, the sauces are all very good. You read that, you’ll find that you can be a cook.

Q: Is it time to bring that up to date?

A: I want to do another book on fusion food, French-Asian, but I need time. I took one year to write the book. It’s a lot of detail. Hopefully, the next one I do will be a smaller book which will inspire more people to see the different cultures.

Q: What kind of boss are you in the kitchen?

A: I will teach you. Once I teach you, if you repeatedly make mistakes or take shortcuts - pow - I’ll kill you. No shortcuts. That’s the way to do it every day. This is being a professional.

You must understand the whole kitchen. In some kitchens, they just buy, buy, buy everything. They don’t cook. I say no. A chef must understand how to make chicken stock ...

For the younger chefs, we teach them the foundation. We encourage them to go in and we say “Why don’t you create something? We’ll try it”.

Q: What’s your favorite food?

A: I like simple and good food. It can be Cantonese, Japanese, a good steakhouse - as long as it’s well prepared. It can be a hawker center. If it’s good, I take a taxi that costs $10 and a bowl of noodles costs me $4. It doesn’t matter. It’s about pleasure.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: As I grow older, I appreciate the importance of spending quality time with loved ones, so I got started on developing quality but affordable kitchen products to help the home chef. We are also developing JQ food products for the home.

Seared Pacific Bluefin Tuna Belly a la Nicoise

(Serves 4 as a starter)

320 grams (11 oz) fresh tuna belly, cut into eight pieces

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 new potato, boiled

60 grams pepper compote (see below)

50 grams broccoli florets, blanched

40 grams French green beans, blanched

2 cherry tomatoes, halved

8 pitted black olives, quartered

1 hardboiled egg, peeled and quartered

4 tablespoons anchovy vinaigrette (see below)

Salt and pepper to taste

Pepper compote:

2 red peppers

1 yellow pepper

1 clove of garlic, peeled and sliced

1/4 onion, peeled

3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt to taste

(Peel the peppers with a vegetable peeler, remove the seeds and julienne. Finely slice the onion. Gently heat the peppers and onion in the olive oil so they soften without turning brown. Season with salt and set aside.)

Anchovy vinaigrette:

40 grams shallots, finely chopped

1 tablespoon chopped chives

6 fillets of salt-packed anchovies, chopped

20 ml (0.7 U.S. fluid oz) white wine vinegar

60 ml extra virgin olive oil

1. Preheat the oven to 175 Celsius (350 Fahrenheit)

2. Season the pieces of tuna with salt and pepper and marinate with the olive oil

3. Quarter the potato and then cut each quarter into two or three slices per serving

4. Heat a cast-iron grill pan on the stove and quickly sear the tuna. Put the pan with the tuna in the oven for 1 minute

5. Gently heat the pepper compote. Plate the pepper compote, broccoli florets, potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, olives and hardboiled egg

6. Place the tuna on the pepper compote and dress with anchovy vinaigrette. Serve immediately

Editing by Patricia Reaney