Pass the Salt: Kirk Westaway, Chef de Cuisine of JAAN

Updated on November 24 2016

Had life turned out a little differently, Kirk Westaway wouldn’t have become a chef. Instead, he might have spent his days fighting raging infernos as a fireman. “In my hometown, I always walked past a fire station on my way back from school, and I’d see the boys there polishing the fire truck. I thought it was an amazing job, because they were so respected. I wanted to be like them,” said Westaway with a laugh. The gregarious Briton is Chef de Cuisine of French fine dining establishment JAAN.

Westaway’s childhood dream, however, never materialised because he is colour blind. When we met him for lunch at two-Michelin-starred restaurant Les Amis — which specialises in contemporary French cuisine — he told us he cannot differentiate bright yellows and greens, along with dark reds and browns.  “Everyone knows that grass is green and the sky is blue. I can’t distinguish it myself, but I just know from memory that it should be. And I identify colours by their shades,” he said, adding that this makes him look deeper into ingredients’ textures and shades — which are instrumental to their freshness. “I pay attention to everything.”

Good thing Westaway didn’t pursue his childhood ambition. The 31-year-old found his true calling as a chef, and has since blazed his way through the Singapore culinary scene, scooping up accolades such as the Rising Chef of the Year title at the World Gourmet Summit Awards of Excellence in April, and emerging tops at the Southeast Asia leg of last year’s S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition. More notably, he also led JAAN to bag its first-ever Michelin star in June.

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Kirk Westaway is Chef de Cuisine at French fine dining restaurant JAAN.

Small Town Beginnings

Born in Exmouth, a port town in Devon, Westaway grew up in the countryside, where his family cultivated crops such as rosemary, strawberries, parsnips and courgettes in their home garden. His mother, who was a vegetarian, often incorporated this freshly harvested produce in her cooking. “We had to sow the seeds of the vegetables ourselves, nurture them with sunlight and water, and eventually reap the benefits. It was a very good way to grow up,” he said, adding that he was brought up on a mostly meatless diet.

He made his first foray into cooking at the age of 14, when he impulsively decided to join a friend washing dishes at The Clinton Arms — a nearby pub in a caravan park — during the summer holidays. “We worked crazy hours, like a hundred hours a week. We weren’t allowed to, but we did that to rack up the money,” said Westaway, who was later entrusted with preparing salads.

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Freshly baked bread at Les Amis, where we met with Westaway over lunch.

His stint there came to an end when, one day, frustrated with the mundane task of chopping cabbages for the pub’s weekly Sunday roast, the mischievous teen chucked the vegetables into the brook outside. “Fourteen years old and such a rebel in Devon!” he exclaimed, letting out a guffaw. “But I was very young, and had never worked in a kitchen before. I just got bored of the bloody cabbages. And it wasn’t just me — it was me and my mate. After that incident, they told us we didn’t need to come back.”

Kitchen Calling

Despite the cabbage fiasco, he remained on good terms with the chefs at the pub, with its head chef even recommending him for a job at another restaurant at the now-defunct Devon Quarter hotel and suggesting that he went to catering college. “I guess they saw something in me,” muses Westaway, who took up that suggestion and enrolled in Exeter Catering College, where he learnt the fundamentals of cooking, restaurant service and pastry-making.

While schooling and working part-time at Devon Quarter, which offered cuisine created with locally-sourced produce, he discovered how much he loved being in the kitchen: “To please people and see them enjoy something I created from scratch and worked on for a long time, was — and always is— a great feeling.”

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Westaway discovered his knack for cooking after enrolling in a catering college.

After several months of preparing food for hotel banquets at Devon Quarter, Westaway moved to The Puffing Billy, an Exton pub that also championed local ingredients. “All its vegetables came in from three miles around the area. We could get lamb from the field next door, beef from a farm down the road, and the milk was freshly squeezed a day in advance, just for us. Each morning, we’d take a bucket from the kitchen and collect mussels from the river,” he recalled. “That was my real beginning into doing proper food.”   

Work and school kept Westaway busy, but he craved for more experience. Along with his stints at The Puffing Billy and the restaurant within his college, he began helping out at a butcher’s shop weekly, where he was paid in meat. “My time off was from 1am to 8am, when I could see my friends, have a beer, and sleep. But it was fantastic,” he said.

A Taste for Adventure

Hoping to add Michelin-starred restaurants to his growing resumé, Westaway set off for Manoir de Lan Kerellec, a one-starred seafood eatery in Brittany, France, for a three-month work experience during his summer break. “My friend and I went together, and it was amazing. We’d take a couple buckets down to the sea every day, and fill them with seawater and seaweed. Then we’d boil the seawater in a pan, and cook shellfish such as lobsters and langoustines inside. That’s the perfect way to cook shellfish, because it’s naturally flavoured with the sea,” he said.

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This prettily plated dish at Les Amis consisted of potatoes sliced into petals and topped with caviar.

There was another aspect of the French restaurant that appealed to him: The camaraderie in the kitchen. The chefs spoke little or no English, but warmly welcomed Westaway and his friend. “Those guys would come to our rooms at midnight when we were asleep, bang on the door and say ‘Allons-y Anglais!’ — which means ‘Let’s go, English people!’ When we got up to open the door, they’d ask us to go with them to the discotheque,” said Westaway, joking that he only learnt a little bit of French during his experience — the names of certain food items, and a few swear words.

Filled with newfound culinary inspiration and an arsenal of cooking techniques, the budding chef returned to Exeter, where he completed school before jetting off (again) to Melbourne’s Tutto Bene — an Italian restaurant famed for its risotto. The eatery trained him to work under pressure: Every day, he and the rest of the kitchen team would prepare 12 kg of rice, cook some 25 different tubs of stock filled with ingredients such as saffron and rabbit, and serve up the risotto at rapid speed for the lunchtime crowd.

“People would come in, grab their lunch and get out. It was busy and intense every day,” said Westaway. “But that restaurant had the best risotto I’ve ever tasted in my life. In fact, I’ve not seen a better risotto made in any Michelin-starred restaurant around the world.”

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Hungry for experience, Westaway worked in France and Melbourne to hone his cooking skills.

On the Chopping Block

In 2008, Westaway felt he was ready to make his mark in London, which has long been recognised as one of the world’s most vibrant culinary capitals. The city is also a hotspot for renowned, Michelin-starred eateries such as Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and Le Gavroche. Confident that he would, like in all his previous experiences, excel in the kitchens there, he joined the now-defunct Patterson’s as a sous chef. The family-run restaurant was popular for its Modern European cuisine featuring Scottish ingredients.

What Westaway never expected, was the brutal working hours. A typical day began at 7am, with chefs toiling non-stop until 1am without any breaks. Food and water became optional, because there was just too much to do in the kitchen. “In my college, I kind of topped the class and thought that’s just the way it was, that I was special. And because I worked in restaurants in Australia and France, I thought I was kind of better than everyone else,” he said. “Then I went to London, and realised I was nothing. I was at the bottom of the pond, a terrible cook. I saw the level that everyone else was at, the speed they worked at, and the pressure they worked under.”

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It was in London’s kitchens that Westaway discovered how much more he had to learn.

Patterson’s was a rude awakening for Westaway, but he wanted to make the most of his time there and soldiered on for two years. According to him, the London cooking scene was notoriously competitive and “full of aggression” then, but he was fortunate to work with a friendly, tight-knit team: “We were all exhausted — we slept three to four hours a night if we were lucky. But we were side by side, 16 hours a day, which created a bit of brotherhood.”

He also found a mentor in its head chef Raymond Patterson. “I really respected this guy. He’s the most hardworking person I’ve ever met,” said Westaway. “He worked like 20 hours a day and didn’t care about anything except the restaurant, kitchen and the food. He was exhausted he could barely open his eyes sometimes. But if anyone asked him if he was tired, he would say, ‘Tired? Never in my life.’ He had incredible passion for his work.”

Mission to Cook

The next stop on Westaway’s culinary quest through London was The Greenhouse, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant celebrated for its delicate French fare and beautiful garden terrace. “Patterson’s taught me a lot about cooking, but it was at The Greenhouse that I learnt to refine my food. We had to balance the flavours and create fine, elegant sauces,” said Westaway, who was a Chef de Partie there.

It was also at The Greenhouse that he met its then-sous chef Julien Royer — the current chef-owner at two-Michelin-starred Odette — who would go on to play a major role in Westaway’s story. The two worked on separate sides of the kitchen, but Royer sometimes stopped by Westaway’s section to help out. “Julien’s a great cook. He was a nice person then, and still is a nice person now, even though he has excelled in the last five to six years,” said Westaway.

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Les Amis’ roasted sea bass on a bed of baby leeks.

After honing his cooking skills at The Greenhouse, Westaway took a short break from the London dining scene and moved to South America for a year, where he worked in eateries across Argentina, Colombia and Brazil. “I wanted to travel, and I’ve always wanted to work in South America — particularly D.O.M restaurant in São Paulo. It’s a real inspiration because of its ingredients, which are picked from the Amazon rainforest,” he explained. He joined D.O.M’s kitchen for several months and observed how its chefs created unconventional seasonings out of live ants obtained from the jungle. To his surprise, the insects tasted “similar to lemongrass, ginger and galangal” and added explosions of flavour to the food.

Scarfing down live ants doesn’t sound particularly appetising, but D.O.M must be doing something right: Last year, it was the first and only restaurant to be awarded two stars in Brazil’s inaugural Michelin Guide — an accolade it still maintains today. “I got many new ideas from that restaurant, because of its ingredients. The whole concept behind it was fantastic,” said Westaway, who eventually left to continue his travels through Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina.

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We won’t be seeing ants any time soon on Westaway’s menu, but he was particularly intrigued by D.O.M’s use of the unusual ingredient.

In Argentina, he received an unexpected, life-changing phone call from Royer, who had just taken on a new role as Chef de Cuisine of JAAN in Singapore. “He asked if I wanted to come to Singapore to work with him, and I thought, why not, I had nothing else to do anyway. My initial plan was to return to London and continue there,” he said. “I decided to just take a leap of faith, and see where this Singapore opportunity took me.”

Great Expectations

At JAAN, a posh, 40-seat restaurant at Swissôtel The Stamford, Westaway was second-in-command as its sous chef. The place specialised in Modern French cuisine incorporated with seasonal produce, and, despite its fine dining slant, attracted patrons because of its delectable food and unobstructed view of the city skyline. “JAAN was the perfect opportunity for me to put together all the inspirations and skills I had picked up around the world,” he said. “Julien taught me how to focus on using the best products, and how to refine my ideas.”

The next few years saw JAAN flourish under Royer’s leadership. It ranked 17th at the 2014 Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants award ceremony, and in 2015, climbed to 11th place. So it came as a shock to the local dining community when Royer revealed last June that he was leaving the restaurant to open his own venture — a fine dining establishment named Odette, at the National Gallery Singapore.

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When Westaway was appointed the new Chef de Cuisine at JAAN, he encountered critics who felt he wasn’t good enough.

Royer’s departure marked a major turning point in Westaway’s career, because he was appointed to take over as the new Chef de Cuisine. Although Westaway had worked at JAAN for over three years and was more than familiar with its food, he also faced his share of naysayers who believed he couldn’t measure up to his predecessor.

Everyone had very low expectations of me. And the one thing many people said to me was, ‘Kirk, you’ve got big shoes to fill.’ For an English boy to take over from a great French chef who’s acclaimed and done fantastic things, everyone had the worst expectations. They were like ‘JAAN’s finished,’” he said. “But I had two choices: I could accept their opinions and give up, or I could give the restaurant everything I had. So I did. I worked every day, 20 hours a day. There were days when I slept in the restaurant for a few hours at night before heading back to the kitchen.”

Food Fight

Determined to prove his critics wrong, Westaway toiled tirelessly in the restaurant, drawing from his heritage and experiences to create innovative new recipes. An intriguing signature item is his Tomato Collection, which features a vine-ripened heirloom tomato cooked sous vide in a tomato consommé and filled with a blend of cubed Oxheart tomatoes, capers, gherkins and oregano.

The stuffed tomato is presented in its original shape, and is accompanied by basil sorbet. “When you peel back the tomato layers and start to distinguish what’s inside, you see there’s more to it than just a tomato. The flavours are pretty impressive and I think when people taste the dish, they know how much work went into it,” he said.

Some of his dishes are also inflected with “English sensibilities”, such as a fish and chips-inspired canapé of fish poached in milk and mixed with potatoes and capers: “I’m using French techniques, but I still use some core ideas and recipes from England. Everyone knows fish and chips, so what I do is very different: I maintain the crunch of the batter and add vinegar to the fish. It sparks my memories of being on a beach in England, eating fish and chips with vinegar on top.”

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In a nod to his roots, some of Westaway’s creations are infused with British concepts and flavours.

Pressure Cooker

Westaway’s efforts paid off: JAAN came in 29th during this year’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants award ceremony, marking its fourth consecutive year on the prestigious list. And earlier this year, it earned one Michelin star at the inaugural launch of the Michelin Guide Singapore.

“My dream for my entire life has been to get one star. I still remember the moment I got the call from the Michelin Guide people — it was such a good feeling. I told my kitchen team and we brought out the champagne,” he said.

His next target? To lead JAAN towards becoming a two-Michelin-starred restaurant within the next couple of years. “Now is time to focus more, discover more interesting ingredients and design new recipes. At JAAN, we never want to slow down. There’s always room to keep going,” he said, adding that he’s already working on several new dishes. One of his latest creations is a carrot cake dessert, which is inspired by the American confection. Comprising a cake with a molten centre, it was introduced to the menu last week.

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Westaway now has his sights set on two Michelin stars and hopes to develop the JAAN brand further.

With his first Michelin star and an ever-growing list of accolades, Westaway has truly come a long way from his cabbage-tossing days. But he remains modest. “Never cook for glory,” he said. “I do tasty food, but I’m nowhere great. I never have the opinion that I have arrived. This is only the beginning.”

He hopes to one day further develop the JAAN brand on a regional scale — perhaps even opening outlets in places such as Jakarta or Hong Kong and sending members of his team to oversee them, while he remains at the Singapore restaurant. He has no concrete plans for this yet, though. “We’re building something special with JAAN. I feel it’s going in the right direction, and I am so excited for what’s to come,” he said.

The Eat List

Outside of work, Westaway unwinds by riding his self-built fixed-gear bike around Singapore and cooking “one-pot-wonders” such as beef stew at home. He also enjoys indulging in local fare such as salted egg crab at Tian Tian Seafood Restaurant along Outram Road: “I had never tasted or heard of salted egg before coming to Singapore. But it’s really impressive and I like it. I go to Tian Tian with my team sometimes. We will sit at a big, round table and order 20 beers. And me and the sous chef will drink 19 of them.”

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Meaty and gamey, this pheasant pie was one of Westaway’s favourite dishes during our lunch.

His other favourite restaurant is Les Amis, which he adores for its “clean, elegant flavours”, premium ingredients and seasonal produce. Earlier this year, Westaway even treated JAAN’s sous chef to a meal at the restaurant, as a wedding present for the latter.

During our lunch with him, Westaway was particularly enamoured with two dishes: An exquisitely plated concoction of caviar atop delicate petal-shaped potatoes, and a hearty, gamey pheasant pie stuffed with duck foie gras and served with shaved white truffles.

“Pheasant is very popular in my hometown, and I love it. Les Amis’ way of cooking it is fantastic,” he said. “I think [Chef de Cuisine] Sebastien Lepinoy has some of the best products in Singapore. He’s always one of the first in the country to get seasonal produce like white truffles — he’s always ahead of the game.”

JAAN, Level 70, Equinox Complex, Swissôtel The Stamford, 2 Stamford Road, Singapore 178882, +65 6837 3322, www.jaan.com.sg

Les Amis, 1 Scotts Road, #01-16 Shaw Centre, Singapore 228208, +65 6733 2225, www.lesamis.com.sg