Eight menu changes after and Chef Dylan Ong shows no signs of slowing down when it comes to his quirky Franco-Asian restaurant, The Masses.
This is your mid-range neighbourhood restaurant where you get plush velvet chairs, neon wall decor, and impressive Chinese calligraphy beaming from the mirror. This is your devilishly surprising retreat for food that blends the intricacies of French cooking with unpretentious ingredients. This is where contrasts pick up flavour and unexpected marriages leave a great taste in your mouth.
For Dylan, it is all about playing with the balance and his most recent menu is a move towards authenticity and heritage, despite its bold fusions. There are 13 new dishes, ranging from creative starters to well-constructed mains. He serves excellent Pork Trotter Jelly, mixing the contours of the terrine with traditional Teochew notes. The Foie Gras Spring Roll is perhaps the most Asian-inspired, coated with hoisin sauce and paired with mango.
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Leave room for the Chargrilled Char Siew Lamb Rib, where Australian lamb rib meets homemade char siew sauce for a 24 hour marination session. The meat is incredibly tender as it goes through a fat-rendering ritual on the binchotan grill where kisses of char and crisp are planted. The Soft Shell Prawn Meunière is a feast for the eyes, where soft shell prawns are lightly battered, tossed in the Cantonese “Typhoon Shelter” style, and served on a bed of creamy kelp and spinach purée.
We speak to the man, who is already planning the next version of his menu, about the philosophy behind his culinary journey, the lessons he picked up, and the mission to stay HypeBeast-chic.
It all started when…
At the age of 18, when life was really tough, all I knew was that F&B was an industry that would allow me to secure a job without having to go through “formal interviews”. I held some odd jobs back then, while studying Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering. The tenacity required in the F&B industry runs in my blood — my parents ran a kway chap stall together, and my father’s other wife and their family were and are still hawkers.
It took me a while to realise that I had a thing for running a food business too. After my father passed when I was 18, and the initial self-denial and great reluctance to follow my father’s footsteps wore off, I saved up and enrolled in a culinary school. I started working at my parents’ hawker stall when I was about seven years old, so I was quite the natural. I embarked on my culinary journey, working for few semi-fine dining restaurants for over two years, before I entered SHATEC. After graduation, my school mate Joshua Khoo and I founded Saveur.
Fast forward six years, we both made an exit and I set up The Masses. I’m proud to say that thanks to regulars who are often kind enough to recommend our food to their loved ones, we were confident enough to have recently renewed the lease for three years. We are brimming with gratitude and promise that more happy food is on its way!
How has your experience at Saveur shaped the way you operate The Masses?
I have no partners at The Masses, but I have kept it this way because I know the weight on my shoulders serves as great motivation to run The Masses to the best of my ability.
The experience gained from operating Saveur has been vital in my current strategies. I believe sustainability is one of the key elements that constitutes a successful business — this goes beyond eco-friendliness to include talent retention, valuation of creativity, use of resources, and finances.
I also strongly believe in the intimacy between restaurant management and guests. My team and I aim to create a very personalised and intimate space at The Masses as opposed to more commercialised establishments under the umbrella of a Group. It’s about personal touch here. From the interior to the service, The Masses has personality, and aims to accommodate all who share our love for happy food. We aim to be a refuge, where guests can congregate and have fun while filling their tummies. Ideally, of course, they leave us that bit happier.
What is the food philosophy behind The Masses?
We have recently arrived at Menu 8.0 after seven menu changes. Beginning at French Contemporary upon launch in May 2017, we found ourselves substantially incorporating Asian influencing by Menu 3.0, still not quite settled in that identity. In each dish and with every new menu, we ask “why” — “Why kway teow with duck confit?”, “Why not be radical and deep-fry foie gras?” While French cuisine is at the core of the cuisine served at The Masses, Asian elements taken fro childhood memories, my parents’ hawker stall, and my team members’ unique culinary experiences have been essential in creating the food we want our guests to enjoy.
Upon arriving at Menu 8.0, it becomes clear to us what we and our guests enjoy are 70-30 Franco-Asian or vice versa, two components complementing each other almost as if they’re yin and yang. We strive to respect each ingredient, choosing quality produce and creatively fusing modern techniques with traditional ones to bring out the best in the ingredients, hence creating remarkable dishes. In our humble abode, we look at pushing culinary status quo, providing guests a place to call second home, where they get to enjoy affordable high-quality food, surprising and tasty natural wines, and creative cocktails. The hope is to convert guests to friends, and keep prices accessible and wallet-friendly definitely helps!
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Take us through the different processes that lead to the menu changes.
Each menu change takes about two months of preparation to complete. With each menu update, 60% of the dishes are replaced with new ones and 40% of them are retained either in their original form or upgraded. The same goes for the new Menu 8.0. Some metrics we employ are below. We kickstart R&D after assessment and evaluation based on: 1. Qualitative feedback of each dish 2. No. of portions sold per dish 3.Seasonality and freshness in the upcoming months and 4. Extent of utility (is every part of the ingredient usable).
As for our core values of creating each dish, there are six: Taste profiles and Flavour harmony, Texture(s), Aesthetics, Portion size, Pricing and Value, and The X factor. With these core values in mind, we proceed to develop dishes the 70-30 Franco-Asian structure, or vice versa. During R&D, each dish comes under scrutiny several times, to test for consistency. It’s a tedious process as we pride ourselves on being surprising, wallet-friendly yet delivering great value. You guessed right — we do love a challenge.
How do your signatures reflect what you believe in as a chef?
My belief in quality ingredients, the use of a wide range of techniques, and the value of my culinary heritage come through quite strongly. An example of such a signature dish is the C&C&C&C Pasta, a dish that has caused a frenzy since Version 1 at Saveur. But when I moved to The Masses, I wanted something more, I wanted an upgrade for it. Quality ingredients (chorizo crumble, crab, al dente capellini, lemon confit, and lobster bisque) make up the dish, and because of skilful cooking techniques, the flavours of seafood and chorizo (which in this case tastes like dried shrimp) come together in glorious harmony. Best part? Its accessible price and great value keep guests returning time and time again.
Another example is the Purple Cabbage, an absolute umami bomb thanks to the ikura, scallop, and prawn head butter it is served with. Though softer from the hours-long braise in a two-year-old mother stock, it loses neither texture nor bite, and gains maximum flavour. The use of such a humble ingredient as cabbage grants the challenge to try and make it shine. Elevating a seemingly simple ingredient to unleash its full potential is our thing. With dashi beurre blanc and a finishing sear on the binchotan, the popular and accessible Purple Cabbage of The Masses is complete.
What are some of the key lessons you learned from your mentors and/or team?
Integrity and prudence seem to be mutually exclusive especially in for F&B businesses, but these principles are my lessons learned from mentors, and my team.
Amazing skills and talent need to be accompanied by integrity. Our customers are human and as a business owner, integrity must be upheld in order to continually build trust with them. Internally, integrity as a principle also guides the team and helps put their great skills to even better use.
Competition in the F&B scene in Singapore is stiff, to say the least. Numbers don’t lie, and hence besides culinary excellence, one needs business acumen, a deep understanding of P&L, and a relentless drive to do better month on month. Prudence sums them up well. It is also one of the principles I try to instil in my team, as my hope is that one day some of them, if not all, can go on to become a chef-owner themselves. I take great pride in enabling that development through teaching prudence.
Lastly, from my father, leaders encourage themselves. It can get lonely at the top, so self-encouragement should be a way to bounce back from setbacks, or simply to calm the occasional nerves as a decision-maker.
We noticed that your restaurant is very HypeBeast, just like yourself. Tell us more what inspired the interior look of The Masses.
Haha hope this is a compliment! To be honest, if I had a bigger budget and could incur a shorter downtime, I would want to make it even more HypeBeast-chic. At the moment, we make do with the best decor we can find and take it one step at a time to give the interior a little facelift.
I’m inspired by art pieces, especially those that are fun yet chic and classy, so guests can find an eclectic variety of posters mounted on the walls. They represent a different facet of the team at The Masses from our fighting spirit, to the warmth that the service crew exudes. We also want guests to feel comfortable while they have a meal, hence the velvet sofas and chairs, which sound like a careless choice of furniture but in fact matches the whole look very well.
When? Now till otherwise specified
85 Beach Rd, #01-02, Singapore 189694
Featured image credit: Ong Wee Jin
Some of the questions have been edited for brevity and clarity.