Behind The Apron: Benjamin Tan (The White Rabbit)

When it comes to ingredients, Chef Benjamin Tan readily admits that local chefs have a lot to learn from foreign chefs. “In Europe, the weather is seasonal and the culture is very different from Singapore so the chefs there tend to be more well-rounded. They can tell you which ingredients are in season and react to the changes quickly.”

Perhaps because he is well aware of that difference, Chef Benjamin places a huge importance on understanding the ingredients he uses. This has made him no less adaptable in the kitchen. The locally-trained 40 year-old helms the kitchen of one of Singapore’s popular wedding venues at The White Rabbit by The Lo & Behold Group. He began his culinary journey at the Singapore Hotel Association Training and Education Centre (SHATEC), graduating in 1996 before taking his first cook position at Au Jardin by Les Amis. After spending eight years at Au Jardin and rising up the ranks, Chef Benjamin joined the opening team at The White Rabbit as Sous Chef.

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In 2010, he joined the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) College West for two years as a lecturer. Chef Benjamin shares that the two years away from the kitchen provided him with the time to think about how he would like to manage the kitchen and allowed him to prepare himself mentally for a more senior position when he returned to the kitchen. He even had some time to experiment with new dishes.

Rejuvenated after two years in 2012, he returned to The White Rabbit as Head Chef with over 15 years of culinary experience. He has since led the creation of its entire menu which has a strong focus on meat and game.

Today, taking some time out after an intensive week in the kitchen is still a must for Chef Benjamin. He shares that watching silly movies helps him to laugh his worries away.

How did your culinary journey begin?

It happened 25 years ago when I was 15 and worked part-time in a restaurant. That was the first time I stepped into the Food & Beverage industry. I liked the environment and for some strange reason, even the working hours. I didn’t mind working 10 hours a day. When I first started, it was more front of house. But I also managed to see how a kitchen was run. Back then, I still didn’t have the inclination towards culinary. It was only many years later while working part time at another place when the manager suggested that I take up culinary instead of continuing with front of house. I decided to take his advice and enrolled at SHATEC in 1994.

What do you enjoy about European food and why French cuisine in particular?

It is a combination of the amount of work that goes into it, including the attention to detail, the flavours as well as the culture. I like Beef Bourguignon best because of its robust flavours. I prefer to use beef cheeks because you can get a very good texture from it. In general, I enjoy braised dishes because there are lots of flavours.

The French are forerunners when it comes to European cuisine as a lot of Western food is very French-rooted in technique. My first exposure in SHATEC was French classical dishes so going into French cuisine was a natural progression when I graduated and joined Les Amis.

Now, I tend to use a little bit of Asian influence for my own cooking. My Tagliatelle dish uses an Asian technique of cooking the pasta. This gives it more flavour.

Who was your mentor and how did he shape you as a chef?

After I had completed my National Service, I joined Les Amis and worked under a very good chef, Galvin Lim who is now Les Amis Group’s Executive Chef. His hard-core training was very structured and military-like. It came as a culture-shock initially but that helped a lot in moulding me as a chef. It makes me see things from a different perspective when it comes to food and cooking.

People don’t usually dive deeper to understand the ingredients or why they are suited for one style of cooking instead of another. No two ingredients are alike. The marbling of a meat may differ from day to day so you need to be able to react to these little details because it will affect the cooking time.

A lot of my attention to detail came from my eight years of training under Chef Galvin.

Do you adopt a similar management style?

It is a very different world now. The younger generation don’t take too well to that style of management. I found that it didn’t really work so I had to relook into how I trained my team. So now it is a lot more coaching and mentoring, getting them involved in the menu planning, listening to their feedback and suggestions. Whenever I discover products that are interesting or may be featured in the menu, I will get my team to work on it. The best dish will be used as a special or for a future dish when I refresh the menu.

We hear that you enjoy experimenting with new dishes. Where do you get your inspiration from?

I usually get my inspiration when I am about to sleep. That is the worst thing to happen when you are about to sleep! I usually surf the net or read before going to bed. This makes me hungry so I’ll have to stop reading and go to bed.

My eureka moments happen when I’m reading or watching food programmes on TV. Sometimes I’ll just try to put some ingredients together and see if it works.

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What do you enjoy doing outside the kitchen?

I enjoy taking photos of flowers and landscape. I often go to Gardens by the Bay whenever they have special flowers on display. Other areas that are good photography spots are Marina Bay and the more heritage areas like Chinatown and Little India. Hong Kong also has plenty of old buildings to photograph and I like Europe a lot for its medieval buildings. Photography helps me to escape from some of my worries at work.

Other than that, I’ll just space out at home after an intense six days at work.

Read more about the food at The White Rabbit HERE!


One Response to Behind The Apron: Benjamin Tan (The White Rabbit)

  1. […] more on Chef Benjamin and his culinary inspirations, check out our interview with […]

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