Singapore Food Festival (SFF) 2015 | Behind The Apron: Malcolm Lee (Candlenut)

When you first meet Chef Malcolm Lee, the young bespectacled chef comes across as shy and unassuming. Yet, at the mention of food and specifically Peranakan cuisine, the head chef and owner of Candlenut lights up and he seems like a different person altogether. His infectious passion for food is hard to miss.

While studying at the Singapore Management University (SMU), Chef Malcolm was involved in the running of the campus café. Shortly after graduating from SMU, he landed a scholarship to pursue a diploma at At-Sunrice Global Chef Academy. Upon graduation, he started his first Peranakan restaurant Candlenut Kitchen in 2010 at Neil Road. It closed after the lease ended in 2012 and he reopened Candlenut at the Dorsett Residences in July 2013.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Chef Malcolm reveals that an omakase-style tasting menu or what he terms as “ah-ma-kasae” is brewing from his kitchen this July.

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Doing away with the a la carte menu, Chef Malcolm shares candidly, “If the menu is the same and stagnant everyday, it just means we are using common products.” Instead, it will be a full tasting menu curated by him. He says that is how grandma and mum would approach Peranakan food – selecting what is the freshest  in the market for that day to prepare a meal.

One thing that he hopes to bring back for his new tasting menu is tradition. “For example, the traditional hand-made kueh pie tee shell looks like a hat and is very light. We can’t do that when it is 80 pax. If it’s one menu for the day, I can give you the best.”

Why did you decide to be a chef?
I come from a Peranakan family so I always grew up with food. My love for food started when I was young. I always wanted to help my mum and she didn’t want my help because she said I was more trouble than help. Sometimes when my mum asked me to pound the sambal, I would pound for only five minutes then return to play my video games. I guess it started from there.

When I was in school, I asked myself why I was studying physics. It didn’t make sense to me and I felt something wasn’t right. I always felt that food was my calling. But I still went to university. I wanted to withdraw in the first semester but my mum cried so I had to continue. She said I could do whatever I wanted after I graduated.

I went for a work and travel programme in the US and that was where I had my first kitchen job. Cooking seems fun but when you work in a professional kitchen, it’s a different story. That’s when I went into the kitchen to work and I worked for 8 to 9 hours straight without going to the toilet. It was so busy that I couldn’t even stop for a minute! But for the first time in my life, it was fun and I felt alive. And that was the moment.

Who has inspired you as a chef?
Going back to history, it would be mum and grandma. I learned a few things from them — love for food, love for people and being generous. This is what the spirit of food is about. We want to cook something for people to gather. Grandma’s house is like that. She cooks so many dishes during Chinese New Year and everyone comes back to eat the Peranakan food that she cooks. Food is what draws people back together. It is such a powerful tool. It will be such a waste when young people go to restaurants for their reunion dinners in future. If you don’t cook, we lose something.

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How would you describe your food?
Essentially we are doing Peranakan cuisine with a modern approach. I put it this way because we are still cooking Peranakan food and not in a fusion style. It’s still very much in the spirit of Peranakan eating which is a lot of dishes, family-style and sharing.

The approach to the cuisine is very simple. I ask myself what people want in a particular dish and I reverse engineer the process. How do I achieve that tender beef, how do I achieve the nice sauce that is not too watery, how do I achieve this flavour? And it has to be consistent all the time — that is my philosophy. I approach it from a chef’s point of view, just like how Michelin restaurants enforce discipline and quality.

Our traditional dishes are done in a consistent manner. For example, we cook our chicken for only 22 minutes, leave it in the stock for an hour and reheat only once to serve. That is the best texture for chicken. It is all very precise.

We try to approach Perankan food like how it was approached many years ago — looking at ingredients as ingredients.

What is your favourite local dish?
There are a lot! Cereal prawns is such a simple dish. You can go to the provision shop to buy the cereal. And who would have thought of salted eggs or coffee ribs made from 3 in 1 coffee? You can describe these dishes in one word — genius! This is Singaporean food at its best. We should continue this spirit and think of how we can create new Singaporean flavours. We have something very special that is very unique to this country. We need to understand our history and culture. That’s why I learned to cook Perankan food. And I’m very proud of it.

What do you do outside of the kitchen?
I read cook books, eat at restaurants and watch cooking programmes. That’s pretty much it! I live and breathe food 95 percent of the time. I start my day at 8.30am at the market and only end work at about 10 plus. After which I consolidate my thoughts about service and plan new dishes. When I get home after midnight, I continue to read cook books.

When I’m on leave, it’s eating. I want to expose myself to food and I travel to eat as well. This Sunday I’m flying to London for nine days. My itinerary is just packed with eating at restaurants where we’ve already made reservations at.

The British chefs are now very serious about cooking British food — British produce done well. They are creating a new generation of cuisine and I think we are also going down the same route.

I really hope to see one day, maybe in ten to twenty years’ time, a new generation of Singaporean chefs pioneer the new Singaporean cuisine that is something really special.

As part of Singapore Food Festival 2015, Chef Malcolm Lee is one of the three local leading chefs curating a 5-course Singaporean menu for STORIES, a pop-up theatrical dinner series. This theatrical dinner will transport diners to another time and place through stories about Fort Siloso and Sentosa. All chefs will imbue their signature dishes with local flavours and present the food in a manner that would complement the stories being told.

  • Where: Fort Siloso, Siloso Road, Singapore 099981
  • When: 22 to 25 Jul: 6.30PM – 9PM
  • Ticketing details:
    For 5 courses
    $158/pax (Wine pairing)
    $138/pax (Non-alcoholic)
  • For more information, kindly visit www.myprivatechef.com.sg

Find out more about the events for Singapore Food Festival 2015 HERE!

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Words by Crystal
Photography by GNineThree

Interview, Singapore

One Response to Singapore Food Festival (SFF) 2015 | Behind The Apron: Malcolm Lee (Candlenut)

  1. […] For more on Chef Malcolm Lee, one of the participating chefs in My Private Chef, check out our interview with him HERE! […]

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