DEAR Chef Ramsay,
I’M a fan. Truly I am. Your pug nose and sweaty red face filled my screen in glorious technicolour all those years ago, and in that instant, I fell in love with cooking shows. Never mind that I can’t cook to save my life — my attempts will give you a mini stroke, but do disregard that one jarring little anomaly.
I learnt cooking jargon from you. Julienne is not a girl’s name but a technique to cut food into thin matchstick-like strips. Jus is not the Malay language equivalent of juice but gravy made with stock thickened through evaporation rather than the use of thickening agents like flour. Sweat isn’t just what gets you all shiny and prune-faced as you scrunch your face to scream at someone in a steaming hot kitchen. Rather, it’s the gentle heating of vegetables in a little oil or butter which you stir and turn frequently to allow evaporation that gradually results in tender, sometimes translucent pieces of vegetable. Ah, all those glorious cooking jargon you throw around as often and freely as expletives.
You constantly tap dance around that invisible boundary that one can never quite figure out if they’re going to get a beautiful meal or a verbal sucker punch from you. Either way, you’re entertaining.
The way you treat your food with reverence and great respect is almost sexy. Almost. Never mind that you’re one laughter-line away from a hernia. Forget the fact that you scream so close into terrified contestants’ faces, you’re practically a human hairdryer blowing into them relentlessly when dishes don’t measure up to your exacting standards.
Masterchef, Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares — I’ve seen them all. Who cares if you’re a “shouty” man? You can certainly afford to be one. You, Gordon Ramsay, are not merely the bad-boy chef of television, you’re also internationally renowned, hold a number of Michelin stars and own a string of successful restaurants across the globe. Who would’ve thought that a footballer with the “gammy knee” (a torn ligament put paid your football aspirations) would one day hold court in the kitchen and cause the world to stop and take notice?
I’ve seen enough of your programmes — laughed at your acerbic wit and salivated over your dishes — to wish fervently that the culinary gods would one day lead me to your hallowed kitchen.
Well, the gods must have heard my whining and I got the chance recently. “We’re going to Bread Street Kitchen for dinner,” announces Gladys Sim, communications assistant manager of Marina Bay Sands, Singapore, who played host to a motley bunch of journalists, including me recently. I almost have an aneurysm. From joy, I promise you that.
His stare greets me as I make my way to the entrance. I can’t help myself, so plenty of selfies ensue with Ramsay’s ostentatious effigy plastered on the side glass. Make no mistake, this is his restaurant, marking the Brit chef’s first foray into Asia. So if he wants to plaster his larger-than-life scowling image for all to see, that’s his prerogative.
Like the other Bread Street Kitchen restaurants in London and Hong Kong, his Singapore outpost offers what he describes as “traditionally British fare”. But of course, he’s shrewd enough to add the “Asian twist” to his cuisine, as his nod towards this part of the universe.
I’m pleasantly surprised at how unimposing it looks. The part-industrial warehouse chic, part-bustling city brasserie works like a charm and feels approachable even to plebeians like me. Like its sister properties in London and Hong Kong, Bread Street Kitchen draws its inspiration from East London’s industrial roots.
The two-storey restaurant and bar, designed by Wilson Associates Blueplate Studio-Singapore, exudes an intimate, atmosphere-driven dining experience with its chic classic black and white chequered flooring, mustard-yellow tufted leather upholstery along with many other design elements which include vintage pendant lights, striking ceiling details and yes, even corrugated steel. The natural light filtering through glass windows offering vistas of Marina Bay’s waterfront is a nice added touch.
It’s a little bit like the good chef himself — part classy, part riff raff. Chic meets industrial. Elite meets commoner. The hum of conversation, laughter and the clink of cutleries greet us as we step in. The restaurant is surprisingly full and bustling. As the ebullient chef declared in a recent interview: “Bread Street Kitchen is about fun, tapping into the culture and dining in a relaxed environment where you can go in the evening with friends, have lunch with colleagues, or have a family brunch.” It’s pretty obvious that the dinner crowd here concurs with him.
“Still water or sparkling?” the friendly waiter breaks my reverie and I settle back into my seat, my eyes still taking in the atmosphere of the restaurant. I long to explore the length and breadth of the space, but the curated menu placed in front of us distracts me. After all, I’m hungry and the surreal experience of finally sampling Ramsay’s food precedes everything else.
“It’s a fuss-free menu,” I think to myself, which is atypical of Ramsay, a fierce proponent of simple dishes done well, using top-notch local produce. Watch any of his Kitchen Nightmares episodes and chances are there’s a scene of him going red in the face, yelling at inept chefs and telling them whatever crap dinner they’re serving up could be upgraded by slimming down the menu (always slimming down!) and sticking in a few easy-to-cook Ramsay specials.
It’s a simple enough menu. For starters, there’s a choice of salad, mushroom tart, chicken wings or salmon tartare. We look at each other and unanimously decide to try everything. Spicy salmon tartare with mango, cucumber, garlic and chilli, complete with wanton crisps. Tamarind spiced chicken wings with spring onion and coriander. Mushroom tart with caramelised onion, garlic, cream cheese and topped with a balsamic glaze. Watermelon, feta cheese, avocado, rocket leaves and pumpkin seeds coupled with a balsamic dressing. They sound divine and I can’t wait to try them all.
In the meantime, a complimentary basket of breads is placed on the table. A glorious conglomerate of all things bready — wholemeal buns, bread sticks, seeded crackers and more — with a slab of butter prove to be a worthy introduction. I stop myself from reaching out for another cracker richly peppered with flaxseeds and sunflower. “Save yourself for the meal!” I remind myself sternly.
Our starters arrive promptly. I’m not disappointed. The Asian notes on the spicy salmon tartare are inspired. Granted to some, uncooked protein may not seem like much of a cause for celebration, but this is Ramsay at his most sublime. The texture is springy and the mango, cucumber, garlic and chilli hints lend freshness and tanginess to the fish. I’ve no complaints over the rest of the starter, bar one. The tamarind-spiced chicken wings are really not as, well,... delicieux... as the rest. To be honest, I’ve tasted better at lesser restaurants. Our chicken wings appear to have been smothered and drowned in a thick overpowering sauce.
The main course of slow-roasted Dingey Dell pork belly with spiced apple puree, traditional fish and chips served with crushed peas and tartar sauce, mushroom risotto with aged parmesan and deep-fried enoki mushrooms and the short ribbed beef burger with Monterey Jack cheese and smoked bacon ketchup served with chips assuage my disappointment over chicken. The pork belly is delicious, buttery and tender but the crackling is a little too hard for my knife to slip through. I give up and use my hands instead. Forget trying to look atas (uppity). I plan to savour everything on the plate!
Anyone who has ever watched Hell’s Kitchen knows that risotto is one of the dishes Ramsay forces contestants to prepare during the dinner service. And risotto is often one of the dishes he screams about when he is presented something that’s seasoned poorly or overcooked (because this dish is easy to overcook, coupled with its notoriously tedious-to-prepare reputation). As I savour the delightful mushroom concoction, I’m once again reminded why a stodgy, crumply- faced man with a fiery temper is much revered. His risotto is perfect.
The chef’s selection for the dessert platter comprising pineapple carpaccio with coconut sorbet, chocolate fondant with mint chocolate chip ice-cream, cheesecake with mango sorbet and BSK snickers with popcorn ice-cream caps the evening. The chocolate fondant with the warm melting chocolate centre (not unlike the chocolate lava cake) is my favourite.
The popcorn ice-cream that has all the sweet, buttery appeal of my favourite go-to movie snack comes a close second.
And then just like that, it’s over. Ramsay’s show is done. The plates are cleared, good byes are exchanged, and the curtain closes on what has been a memorable dining experience. What do I make of his restaurant? Has the hype of who he is eclipsed the food that was served? Was I disappointed that not everything plated was perfection, befitting his high standards?
Not really. Good food is uniquely made, and it’s hard, almost impossible, to reproduce unique food by definition, especially when it’s reproduced in what is effectively a chain. It requires more than discipline and recipes. It needs more than just a name of a phenomenal chef. It needs a philosophy. And Ramsay has certainly spread his food philosophy over to this side of the world with some success.
You’ll be glad to know that Bread Street Kitchen in Singapore does serve up some great tasting food. As I leave his restaurant, I find myself smiling at Ramsay’s scowling face plastered outside. The culinary gods have certainly been very kind. To both of us, I think to myself before briefly wondering if there’s going to be a Masterchef episode aired on television tonight.