Many chefs agree that the willingness to learn and improve is one of the crucial traits of a good chef. When one tastes a dish created by Chef Robert Chan, Executive Chef of Vibe restaurant at Negara on Claymore Hotel, one can readily believe that he practices what he preaches.
Chef Chan has almost 15 years of culinary experience in various restaurants such as Number 5, Shev Shev, Cafe Society, Ocho Spanish Tapas Bar, Mexican restaurant Maracas Cocina Latina, Papa Joe's and China Jump. He joined Negara on Claymore in late 2005, and set up Vibe restaurant, which became known for its buffet and Brazilian churrasco.
Probably as a result of his varied culinary background, Chef Chan's cuisine is not easily pigeonholed. A recent tasting of Vibe's new a la carte menu, comprised of his signature dishes, convinced me that his creations are the result of painstaking experimentation and innovation. Nothing tastes conventional, yet everything manages to be pleasing in one way or another. No weird or jarring combinations here - at least in the dishes I sampled.
Such innovative yet balanced flavours can only be achieved with much effort. Indeed, Chef Chan acknowledges that while "inspiration is all around", it is the chef's job "to convert these into something that reflects his style and skill in the kitchen."
Unlike some chefs who enthusiastically explain their dishes and their choice of ingredients, Chef Chan prefers to let his culinary creations speak for themselves. "I do not have to explain the pairing or the accompaniments... they should 'belong' together."
Indeed, they do.
What makes a good chef?
Passion for his craft, creativity in his cooking and a " never stop learning" attitude.
When did you decide you wanted to become a chef?
I started cooking and helping out in the kitchen at home at 14. I was always trying something new for my family and friends. Besides enjoying my time in the kitchen, their positive response,comments and support started me on my way to pursuing this career. I love it as much now as I did then.
What was your Big Break?
When I was with the Emerald Hill Group, the directors pretty much left me to run the kitchen on my own. That gave me room to grow and build-up my confidence, to create and manage. It was the break I needed and from there my career took many paths to where I am today.
What gives you most satisfaction as a chef?
It has to be the expression on the faces of my guests. From the minute they see the dish laid out in front of them, to the first bite, to the end of the meal - if they walk out of my restaurant with a smile on their faces, that is the most rewarding feeling in the world. An empty plate is the second most satisfying feeling for a chef.
How would you describe your cooking style?
Clean, easy, and true. Any dish I bring out should speak for itself. I do not have to explain the pairing or the accompaniments - they should 'belong' together.
How do you get inspiration for your creations?
Learning, reading, watching and listening... Inspiration does not come from thin air. A good chef is constantly learning and gaining inspiration from things that go on around him.... from his travels... from his local markets... from his guests comments... from books... ingredients... spices... herbs... good produce... Inspiration is all around and his job is to convert these into something that reflects his style and skill in the kitchen.
Which is your favourite ingredient, and why?
Salt - it is the essence any cuisine; different kinds of salt used in different dishes results in different and interesting results.
What is the one thing your kitchen staff should never do?
Never lie when it comes to cooking. That means be true to your craft and your creations. Remember that your food speaks about you -not the other way round.
What advice would you give to a person who is just learning how to cook?
Keep it simple, do not over-create. Again be true to your skill, the ingredients and produce that you use.
What is your most essential kitchen tool and why?
My knives. I don't leave home without them!
What are the must-haves in your fridge at home?
Eggs. It is an ingredient you can do so much with and serve it at any meal. Like they say, any chef worth his torque should know how to cook an egg at least one hundred ways
What is your favourite local dish?
Chicken Rice - comfort food. It is a simple dish and yet only a really good chef can execute it well. The rice and chilli sauce are key to a good chicken rice. Where? I will try it anywhere and just remember which are the good ones for my next visit if I am around the corner. The bad ones? They are best left forgotten.
Vibe is located at Level 2, Negara on Claymore Hotel at 10 Claymore Road. Call 6831 6686 / 6737 0811 for reservations. The restaurant opens from 6am - 11pm daily. 'Chef Robert's Signatures' a la carte menu is available during lunch (12 noon -2:30pm) and dinner (6:30pm - 10:30pm).