Inside the mind of a chef

Willin Low loves to use pie tee shells for canapés as they make wonderful vessels you can eat like his Penang laksa pie tee – Pictures by Choo Choy May
Willin Low loves to use pie tee shells for canapés as they make wonderful vessels you can eat like his Penang laksa pie tee – Pictures by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 16 — This month, Singaporean Willin Low, 41, will make his debut on the Asian Food Channel (AFC) with his cooking show, A Party Affair.

The former lawyer-turned-chef owns a string of restaurants on the island that includes his eight-year-old flagship restaurant Wild Rocket, a chill-out bar Wild Oats and burger joint Relish. Recently, Low also joined forces with the coffee maestros from Papa Palheta to open up Compl(e)ments Of, a pop-up eatery in Little India.

Low’s foray into food kicked off in England during his university days because he hated the food served in the halls of residence. He was also craving for local food.

Even after he returned to Singapore, that love for cooking saw him juggling a law career and being a chef-for-hire over the weekends.

After eight years, he decided to abandon his law career for the F&B world. The self-taught chef is famed for his Mod Sin or modern Singaporean cuisine – a clever way of presenting local dishes Low grew up with, in an unexpected manner. Case in point: laksa reinvented as a pesto.

In the show, Low will showcase easy-to-make party treats with global influences. Expect dishes like Thai-inspired grapefruit orange and pomelo salad, or duck adobo tacos that combines influences from the Phillipines and Mexico.

The show is a challenge for Low who finds that even though he likes to talk and eat, doing both simultaneously can be quite terrifying. An avid Instagram user (@willcookwilleat), Low loves to eat and believes, “Life is too short, so eat well and do not eat rubbish.”

How did you end up cooking?

When I was a child, if I ate something my mother cooked, say fish, and it was overcooked, I would refuse to eat it. I would get a caning and be sent to my room. Over time I got smart and used to hide Calbee prawn crackers under my bed. When I got sent to my room, I’d put them in my mouth until they got soft so my mum would not hear me. As I was so fussy, I ended up cooking for myself and that is really how it all started.

Which chef inspires you?

I had the honour of cooking for the late Charlie Trotter about eight years ago. Like me, he was not formally trained as a chef and he was a chef-for-hire bringing his utensils in his car. I could relate to him.

The secret ingredient in Willin Low's salsa is a spoonful of cincalok or fermented shrimps to enhance its taste
The secret ingredient in Willin Low's salsa is a spoonful of cincalok or fermented shrimps to enhance its taste

Since you did not have any culinary background and as you were a lawyer, what was the transition like?

As a lawyer, you will never apologise to your client even though you are wrong. You always took a stand, but as a restaurant owner, you always apologise. The funny thing is I don’t like public speaking and wanted to run away to the kitchen but then I’m doing this show now.

How long did it take you to develop your niche?

When I first started I really wanted to cook whatever dishes I was making as a student. We opened the restaurant nine years ago and about a third of the dishes was modern Singaporean while the rest were classic Western favourites. I was terrified that people would go.....“What have you done to our laksa? Are you crazy?” But in fact it was very well received. People started ordering only one-third of the menu. Over time, we got more confident and the menu became entirely modern Singaporean.

Why do you call your cuisine modern Singaporean?

A lot of people were asking us what is our cuisine and I would describe it as food I cooked for myself. They started labeling us as fusion. We are really fusion but in the 1980s, a lot of the Westen chefs were doing fusion wrong – like a gimmick, just adding things for the sake of adding it. I remember I had foie gras and seaweed. It was disgusting and turned out to be confusion rather than fusion. I didn’t want to use the food fusion, and I thought hang on, I am Singaporean and modern, so I called my cuisine, modern Singaporean.

When did AFC approach you for a cooking show?

AFC started around the same time as my restaurant. The two founders of AFC, Hian Goh and Maria Brown, often frequented my restaurant and they would ask me to do a cooking show. At that point of time, there were only two of us in the kitchen. There was no way I could get out unless the restaurant closed, hence it was a case of “we’ll see, we’ll see.” Recently they came to see me and said, let us do this show. I told them, okay I can get some time off so it just happened.

How did the concept of the show come about?

We bounced ideas and finally we decided on the party theme. Some of the recipes featured in the show are based on the dishes from the restaurant, while others were created specially for the show. I was asked to make it simple so people can follow.

Once the pan is smoking hot, add the scallops to pan fry to achieve a nice crust
Once the pan is smoking hot, add the scallops to pan fry to achieve a nice crust

What was production for the show like?

It was a bit stressful as it was just only one person. With a host, it’s easier as you banter and if you forget something, they will say... “are you going to add something inside?” so it is more natural. You can never cook and talk at the same time. It is very tough as no one is responding to you except the camera.

You are not a stranger to televsion but how did this end up being your first English speaking show?

All my previous shows were in Mandarin. In terms of opportunities, Singapore’s Channel 8 is more active in producing their own shows. My first Chinese show was hilarious, as it was peppered with English words. Over the years I have improved my Mandarin and my last show saw me hosting it by myself.

You do extensive work for charities. How did this start?

A lot of the times I do not want to do things outside of the restaurant as I feel tired but I get a lot of invitations for talks or endorsement for products. Since it takes up a lot of my time, there should be a value to it hence I thought, why don’t I donate my entire proceeds to charity. Each year, it has been a different charity. The first year was The Straits Times Pocket Fund (helping children from poor families) and the second year was Autistic Resource Center. For the third year, I discovered Morning Star Project – an orphanage in Beijing for abandoned babies with severe heart disease. I decided to adopt that as my personal charity. Every cent of my speaking engagements and television appearances go towards the charity. In the past, I was not inclined to do events but nowadays, my colleagues urge me to do it, or else the babies will not have any diapers or milk powder.

Wild Rocket will be closing at the end of November and relocating to new premises next March. Why did you think you needed to revamp the restaurant?

We’re no longer the sexy new restaurant and after eight years in the business, we felt we had to reinvent ourselves for the next eight years. It also forces me to think or else I get too comfortable. The new dining concept will depend on the space. One of the ideas is to have counter dining with special plateware. Currently no decision has been made on the new space. My landlord at Hangout Hotel is also trying to convince me to stay as they are renovating so it’ll be a new place.

Party favourites: pan seared scallops, guacamole with salsa pie tee and Penang laksa pie tee
Party favourites: pan seared scallops, guacamole with salsa pie tee and Penang laksa pie tee

Will the menu change?

I have been working on some new dishes but the DNA will not change and the flavours will be the same. What may change will be its platform – whether it is a no-choice tasting menu, a la carte or small plates.

You love curry puffs. Would you add that item in your menu?

I’ve never made curry puffs as I’ve always held them in such high esteem. The pop up eatery has been asking me to make curry puffs. Maybe when I have more time, I’ll make it as it needs a lot of R&D to get it right.

The seven part series A Party Affair premieres on November 20, 9pm on Asian Food Channel (Astro Channel 703).

This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on November 15, 2013.

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