There isn’t enough young talent that herald the shifts in fine-dining in Asia. It is inevitable that my ears pricked up, upon hearing that chef Zor Tan’s restaurant BORN is opening on 21 June.
What would the food be like?
Instantly, my mind zips back to my time at Sichuan Moon a few years ago where my appetite is challenged by a A4 wagyu staffed giant turkey leg, albeit very late into the game during a 26-course menu, where Zor was piloting the kitchen in the absence of Chef Andre. He emerged from the kitchen just a little shy of midnight after a 5 hour long meal, impish smile and all as he checked in on our abating food comas.
Fast forward to the BORN epoch, or, “Best of Right Now”, the food philosophy is inspired by Zor’s personal journey and takes diners through a harmonious exploration of nine principles: Birth, Roots, Memories, Craft, Relationship, Vicissitudes, Time, Progress and Legacy. He stresses that the intended cuisine is not so much bounded by a specific culture, but is defined by his endearing relationship with food – from his early SHATEC days to more professional dalliances under the mentorship of Chef Andre Chiang, formerly from three Michelin star restaurant, Le Jardin Des Sens.
Josiah Ng, director of Andre and his Olive Tree, a Netflix documentary following the restaurant’s last days, shares with us some observations of the young chef whilst filming and describes their mentor-mentee dynamics as “mutually-involved.”
“Chef Zor had a certain quiet confidence and stability about him in the kitchen, a trait I assume was a factor in making him Executive Chef then. The duo had a deep sense of respect for each other, and it is within this safe space that, Chef Zor would speak his mind or argue his case if need be.”
Josiah Ng, director of Andre & The Olive Tree
12 years later, border closures was the straw that broke the camel’s back and Zor would make a life-changing decision – to return back to Singapore.
Timing, grit and a ton of shifting in the winds are responsible for the opening of BORN. “You could say that Covid ended my time working with Chef Andre,” says Zor, “but it also brought forward my plans to start my own restaurant.”
BORN is staged in the iconic Jinrikisha Station and brings a higher spatial resolution to its pre-existing historical realms – inside, there will be Asian nods but mostly a certain luxuriant intimateness conveyed through form, colour and texture, such as via a paper sculpture by Peter Gentenaar. It is a lot of big words that are ribbed with gold tinsel, yet remain mostly abstract, so in order for you to truly transpire what was so poetically conceived, one must first understand the threading of this young chef.
Zor tells us more about the massive undertaking at the new restaurant that is launched in partnership with 1855 F&B.
What inspired you to cook and how did you get the opportunity to start at Jaan?
Zor: Growing up, my parents operated a simple local food stall, and despite their busy schedules, we always had food on the table. From young I understood that to cook food from the heart meant love, and that ‘happiness comes from a belly that is full and contented’. As I was watching them cook, I remember thinking a chef would never go hungry.
When I graduated from SHATEC, I applied for a job at Jaan par Andre and got an interview. I was disappointed that I didn’t hear back from Chef Andre but instead of giving up, I decided to make a personal call to him. I was persistent – I kept calling and checking. It turned out that he had misplaced my application and couldn’t reach me.
In one word, describe Andre Chiang’s leadership style and share some experiences that left an indelible mark on you.
Zor: I would say ‘laissez-faire’ leadership style. He will give me the freedom to express my own creativity, and he will then work with me to enhance the dish.
He also recognised our hard work and allowed the team to share the limelight. When Restaurant Raw received the best of country award in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants one year, he insisted to stay in his seat, such that my colleague, the co-executive Chef, and I would receive the award on stage.
Are you excited about the tying in of the historic location with your new restaurant?
Zor: I am very excited to realise my dream in this iconic heritage building. I was mesmerised by the architecture of the former Jinrikisha Station. The conservation building is situated within the historic precinct of the central business district of Singapore, built in 1903 and served as the depot for rickshaws until 1947. Not only did I fall in love with the exterior red bricks and the voluminous ceiling, I fell in love with its deep-rooted history.
For me, rickshaw operators worked hard and served an important and essential role in society. For someone who also started from humble beginnings, I saw the building as a platform for hard work and dreams. A space to share my culinary philosophy, to express my personal identity on the plate, and a stage to fulfill my aspirations as a chef, a husband, a father, and a positive example to the next generation of chefs after me.
Finding the right location took a long time. I had been to more than 20 different shophouses and even some old chapels. Jinrikisha Station was recommended by a friend.
Moving from Restaurant Andre to RAW to Sichuan moon, how has that helped you to hone your skills? Share with us some specific incidents that have led you to this opening.
Zor: I started at Restaurant Andre in 2010 as a member of the pioneer team until the restaurant closed in 2018. In 2014, with the opening of Restaurant Raw, I was asked by Chef Andre to be the Co-executive Chef there, travelling to Taipei monthly for the initial phase. I started in Sichuan Moon in 2019 after the closure of Restaurant Andre.
Until 2014, my professional career was predominantly in French fine dining. My experience in Restaurant Raw gave me the opportunity to learn first-hand about the Taiwanese cuisine, its flavours and produce. Moving to head Sichuan Moon, I had the opportunity to spend some time in Sichuan for a culinary immersion, which helped to further open my palate for new knowledge and local flavour profile.
Have you endeavoured to delve further into the history of the cuisines as well and what was the most interesting thing you’ve learnt so far in your journey?
Zor: Yes, I believe it is always interesting to study the history of cuisines – as it shows you the reason why something was created and how it came about.
When I started at Sichuan Moon, my culinary immersion in Sichuan gave me an insight into how Sichuan cuisine has developed its own style, made up of multiple flavour profiles. I learnt about how the layers of flavours were built, and the reasons behind them. To me, it was fascinating.
As Chefs, we learn and practise the foundation of cuisines, but it is also our responsibility and duty to continue to evolve with the times, to represent the cuisine of our generation – be it a reflection of the cultural or societal shifts, the local and global evolutions, the produce availability, and our own life experiences.
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