Man On A Mission

By Nida Seah

Nothing is stopping chef Mathew Leong as he heads to the Bocuse d’Or finals in Lyon, France this September. 

The Bocuse d’Or is one of the most prestigious – and rigorous – culinary competitions in the world. Founded by the father of French gastronomy Paul Bocuse, the competition brings together 24 talented chefs from around the world where they each have to prepare two recipes in five hours and 35 minutes precisely.

Mathew Leong is one of them. At age 26, he will be the youngest Singaporean chef based in another country to make it all the way to the finals in Lyon, France.

It has been a long journey, one that began when he was just 13 where he took part in his first culinary competition – and won. Although he did not win again the next year, his talent caught the attention of the competition judge and local veteran chef Jimmy Chok. 

“I remember I was in awe the moment I stepped into his kitchen because it was my first time being in a professionally run kitchen. Chef Jimmy Chok taught me a lot about the culinary industry during my one-day tour at his restaurant. This experience ignited my passion to be a chef,” says Leong. “If it weren’t for this opportunity, I would not be where I am today” 

After graduating from secondary school, he worked for chef Chok who became his mentor. Leong went on to earn a diploma in Culinary Arts at SHATEC and had various stints in Singapore kitchens such as Tippling Club and Open Farm Community.

Broadening his horizons

Moving to Norway was a way to step out of his comfort zone and excel further in his culinary career, he says. With only a few hundred dollars in his pocket, he left the familiar comforts of home for the Scandinavian country and went to work for two-starred Michelin restaurant Re-naa. He returned to Singapore briefly before going back to Oslo, Norway again, this time as Chef De Partie at Michelin Plate restaurant À L’aise.

“I ended up choosing À L’aise because the restaurant specialises in French cuisine. This was something new to me as I have never cooked this type of cuisine before during my career and I wanted to challenge myself by doing something new and different,” says Leong. 

He is now gearing up for one of the toughest challenges of his career, the Bocuse d’Or, that will take place on 26 and 27 September. Here, he shares his rigorous training schedule, his culinary style and the ambitious goals he has set for himself.

How do you feel now that the grand final is approaching?

I feel nervous yet excited – nervous because Bocuse d’Or is such a prestigious culinary competition and everyone in the industry will have their eyes on this biennial world chef championship. 

We are basically racing against time to get everything ready, including the food and design work for both the takeaway boxes and platter. Even though it can be really nervewracking at times, I am looking forward to competing against 23 other culinary giants from around the world.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be standing on the same competition ground with renowned chefs at such a young age. 

Why did you want to join the competition in the first place?

Throughout my career, I have heard a lot about great chefs from Scandinavia, including Geir Skeie, a Norwegian chef and restaurateur who won the 2008 Bocuse d’Or Europe and 2009 Bocuse d’Or.

Since then, chef Skeie has always been my inspiration. He was only 29 years old when he was crowned champion at the 2009 Bocuse d’Or world final. I remember I was only 15 when I read about this and I told myself that I want to make history and be the youngest Asian contestant to clinch gold at the Bocuse d’Or competition and put Singapore on the global culinary stage.

How are you preparing for the competition?

I work full-time as head chef at A L’aise, from Tuesdays to Saturdays. During my days off, I will train for the competition with my team at my own kitchen and training ground.

Each training session would usually take an average 10 hours. During the training, we would do a time trial and prepare the dishes needed to be presented at the competition. We need to ensure that we finish everything within the fiveand- a-half hours given.

It’s definitely tough having to juggle between work and training for the competition but I am very thankful to have the support from my team – coach Ulrik Jepsen who’s also the co-owner of A L’aise; commis chef Sebastian Skauen Johnsen, and president of Bocuse d’Or Academy Singapore Eric Teo.

How has the pandemic and restrictions impacted your preparations, dishes and the competition itself?

After winning Bocuse d’Or Singapore in 2019, I was supposed to compete in Bocuse d’Or Asia- Pacific which was scheduled to be held in China in July 2020, but the event was cancelled because of the pandemic. The Bocuse d’Or 2021 finals have also been postponed twice, from January to June to September.

While a six-month delay may seem short, it actually caused a huge disruption to my training schedule and team. It meant that I had to look for extra budget to prepare additional six months’ worth of ingredients for my training sessions. 

Can you share your dishes and the concept/ idea behind them?

This year, candidates will take on tasks inspired by the changes in the industry brought about by the pandemic. The platter challenge will centre on a hot dish showcasing a whole braised beef paleron for the first time ever. 

For the plate challenge, we are given a “takeaway” task designed to echo the new modes of catering that have emerged during the pandemic. We have to design a takeout menu around three dishes – starter, main course and dessert, and the same seasonal product, tomato. All dishes must be present in a reusable box designed and developed by the candidates from materials of plant origin.

With these new rules in place, it has been a challenge. Besides having to create dishes with tomatoes as the theme, I’d also need to work with the design team to create a takeout box that’s sustainable. Since the design of the takeout box is one of the marking criteria, a lot of work needs to go into it. You’ve achieved a lot in just a few years. 

What are your goals after the competition?

After Bocuse d’Or 2021, the next aim in my career is to own a fine dining restaurant that is listed in the Michelin guide. My goal is to earn my first Michelin star within one year of opening and be the youngest chef to own a three-starred Michelin restaurant before the age of 31.

Besides owning a fine dining restaurant, I would also like to have my own chain of bistros around the world, which specializes in Asian with Nordic influence. Though I am based here in Norway, as a Singaporean, it would be great to open my own restaurant in my homeland, before expanding my footprint across the region.

Do you miss Singapore food? What are you craving now?

Definitely, it’s been almost one and a half years since I came back to Singapore due to the À L’aise ongoing pandemic and food is one of the things I miss the most. I miss eating all the local food and drinks that cannot be found in Norway. 

Besides my mum’s signature dishes – Cantonese steamed fish and stir-fried beef with scallions, I really miss eating local food like fried oyster omelette, Hokkien mee, chilli crab, satay, and drinking my favourite teh-peng (iced milk tea). Although I do make some of these dishes whenever I crave them, they just don’t taste like home.

How has working in Norway changed your cooking style and has it changed you as a person?

Living and working in Norway for the past five years have definitely changed my style of cooking. During my time here, I have tasted many different types of Nordic cuisines. With the skills I have learnt here in Norway, together with my Asian background, I always try to infuse both Nordic and Asian flavours into my food.

The past five years in Norway also played a part moulding me into the person I am today – I have learnt to be independent.

What advice would you give to aspiring chefs?

I always believe that tough times don’t last – tough people do. The road during the start of your career may be difficult, full of hurdles and challenges to overcome, but your preservation and hard work will eventually pay off.

Being in this industry is never easy, you have to undergo a lot of pressure and it takes up a lot of your energy due to the long working hours. But if you are really passionate and desire to thrive in this industry, it is important that you create opportunities for yourself and not just wait for them to come knocking on your door. Be courageous enough to step out of your comfort zone because that’s how you will learn and grow.

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