(Update: Les Amis scored three Michelin stars at the Michelin Guide award ceremony on 17 September 2019.)
When a 22-year-old Cheryl Koh first showed up at the Raffles Hotel Singapore — her university degree in hand — asking for a job in its kitchen, the hotel staff were baffled. The fresh graduate had studied geography and European Studies in school, and had no formal education in culinary arts. Such qualities made her an unlikely candidate for kitchen work.
The human resources manager there suggested she join the marketing or communications department instead, but Koh was adamant that the kitchen was where she wanted to be. As it turns out, there happened to be a spot in the hotel’s pastry kitchen, so she was hired.
That was back in 2002. More than a decade on, Koh, 36, has become a prominent name in the local culinary scene. She is the pastry chef at two-Michelin-starred French restaurant Les Amis, and was just last year, declared Asia’s Best Pastry Chef at the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants award ceremony.
She also runs Tarte, an artisanal tart shop at Shaw Centre. “I never chose to specialise in pastry. But when I got into it, I never considered doing anything else. It was just so all-encompassing in its techniques and skills, and had essentially everything I wanted to learn,” she said, when we recently met her for lunch at French establishment Rhubarb Le Restaurant.
Home economics 101
Born and bred in Singapore, Koh’s earliest memory of cooking was during her secondary school years at CHIJ St Nicholas Girls’ School, where she always looked forward to Food and Nutrition classes. Those lessons saw her try her hand at basic cooking and table setting.
She enjoyed being in the kitchen so much that once, she and a classmate impulsively decided to bake curry puffs at the latter’s home together. “I don’t remember how the curry puffs tasted, but I think they might have been pretty good,” she said. “Back then, what I found interesting about cooking, was how so many skills, thought processes and ideas could go into making one product. And it was so satisfying to see the completed dish.”
So eager was Koh to learn more about cooking, that during her junior college days, she spent her school holidays working part-time at Raffles Hotel’s pastry production kitchen. “I spent my days piping chocolate mousse, preparing food for the afternoon tea, and making mousse cakes. I also baked my first scone there,” she recalled fondly, adding that she loved the experience so much, she was determined to work full-time at the hotel one day.
Most aspiring cooks typically go to culinary school, or start out apprenticing in restaurant kitchens. So it may come as a surprise that Koh opted to study geography and European Studies at the National University of Singapore, after receiving her A level results. Her reason for this was an entirely practical one: “I could go to university, so I decided that the money and time then would have been best used for getting an education. I enjoyed geography and had always wanted to travel. And I was also intrigued by European history and literature.”
Those years spent pursuing her degree, also saw Koh mastering the French language — which would later come in handy during her cooking journey. And she began mapping out her future plans: Complete her education, get back into cooking, and go to France to develop her craft.
“In Singapore, you can easily find a kopitiam or coffee shop below any housing block. France’s equivalent is that every street corner has a pastry shop or bakery, and buying a baguette is like having a bowl of rice for every meal. That’s part of its lifestyle. I wanted to work there, because I felt it had such a strong culture in terms of food,” she said.
City of Lights
Filled with determination, Koh embarked on her quest. She returned to the Raffles Hotel after graduation for a year-long stint in its pastry kitchen, before jetting off to Paris with a suitcase of clothes, big dreams, and a list of chef contacts she had amassed from past hotel events.
“I went to France with the mindset of getting a job there. I told myself, ‘This is it. I cannot go back home, I must make it work.’ Going back or doing something else wasn’t an option,” she said. “ I knew a few [chef] names, and decided I was going to find a job at one of their restaurants.”
One of these eateries was Lasserre, an upscale two-Michelin-starred restaurant specialising in classic French fare. The posh establishment was founded in 1942, and has hosted luminaries the likes of artist Salvador Dalí and actresses Audrey Hepburn and Brigitte Bardot. It is also famed for its retractable roof, which can be opened for patrons to dine under the stars. Koh approached its then-chef Jean-Louis Nomicos — whom she once met during a food and wine festival at the Raffles Hotel — and was hired to work in its pastry kitchen.
Cooking at Lasserre was an eye-opener for Koh. Not only was it her first foray into a full-service fine dining restaurant, it also marked her maiden trip to a place outside of Singapore. “It was my first time being so far away from home. I didn’t speak much French, and I didn’t know how service was supposed to run in a restaurant. You see, I had never been exposed to fine dining before — I had never even eaten in such restaurants. So it was a steep learning curve,” she explained.
There was also the challenge of juggling her work shifts with French lessons at a language school — classes she had to take, to fulfil her student visa obligations. “I took the lessons for 20 hours a week, from 8am to 1pm daily. And I’d be at the restaurant from 2pm onwards,” said Koh.
Despite the difficulties, the young chef savoured every minute of her experience, and learnt crucial skills such as making pastry cream and vanilla ice cream. “Lasserre equipped me with knowledge of how the industry worked. I didn’t make a single muffin, brownie or cheesecake there, because those weren’t important techniques in the French pastry environment. Creating a nice dough, making a good puff pastry, and cooking vanilla sauce — these were high on the list of things I had to know. And I discovered that the simplest things were the hardest to get right.”
She also relished the fast-paced environment and camaraderie within the kitchen. “I enjoy being in a team and working at a professional level. The adrenaline, the high stress levels, the dynamics within the kitchen — I think the whole atmosphere really draws me to the work.”
Off to see the world
Koh loved being at Lasserre. Her fellow chefs were friendly and nurturing, and the sous chef even gave her a lift home on his motorbike whenever they knocked off late at night. But after two years there, she longed to explore other parts of the world, and expand her culinary portfolio.
So in 2006, she left for the ritzy Burj Al Arab Jumeirah hotel in Dubai. The iconic building is known for its visually-arresting sail-shaped structure, and sumptuously furnished rooms. At that time, the hotel had six in-house restaurants, which were served by one massive central kitchen. Koh was appointed Chef de Partie of a section that focused on making ice creams and plated desserts. “I was in Dubai at a time when it was booming. The restaurants and hotel were always full, and the city was growing. And to see that kind of extravagance and luxury, was quite a special experience,” she said.
Living in Dubai also taught her about different cultures and customs. Once, she made a faux pas by sitting in the back of a public bus, which had segregated areas for men and women: “Women could only sit in front, and the men behind. So everyone looked at me when I got on, walked straight to the back and sat down. I didn’t quite get it until someone told me I couldn’t sit there. You learn new things from travelling.”
Hungry for more adventure, Koh moved to Macau a year later, where she worked at the newly opened Don Alfonso 1890, an Italian fine dining restaurant at the Grand Lisboa Hotel. The opulent establishment is a branch outlet, with its flagship located along the Amalfi coast. Both eateries are run by veteran chef Alfonso Iaccarino, who is known for not using cream or butter in his cooking. One of the pioneers of the farm-to-table movement, he grows his own vegetables and fruit in an organic garden near his Italy restaurant, and harvests them for his food. At the Macau restaurant, these ingredients are flown in.
“Chef Alfonso’s philosophy was a big shock and change for me, because I came from a French culinary background, which frequently uses cream and butter. At his restaurant, we made chocolate mousse with yoghurt, and cakes with olive oil,” said Koh, adding that she learnt to make traditional Italian pastries such as sfogliatella (a cone-shaped pastry stuffed with ricotta cream), zeppole (a deep-fried cream puff rolled in sugar), and mini rum babas, small rum-soaked cakes.
After a year, Koh set off for Italy to work at the flagship restaurant, which has two Michelin stars. “These days, you see many young up-and-coming chefs growing their own plants, and embracing the farm-to-table concept. But chef Alfonso has done it for his entire career. So I wanted to see it for myself,” she said.
During the four months she spent there, she observed how the chef pressed his own olive oil, used pasta that was naturally dried in the sun, aged cheese in a well, and made pasta cream by blending zucchini with milk for a purée texture. A regular day saw her making pastries for lunch and dinner, and whipping up breakfast for guests who stayed at the boutique hotel in the same compound. As it was the olive season, she also went olive-picking with her co-workers.
“The chef had two gardeners running his garden. Even the streets where his restaurant was, were lined with orange and lemon trees. He made his own limoncello from those lemons, and his rosemary and basil came straight from his garden,” recalled Koh.
But it wasn’t all work and no play. Koh formed tight friendships with her co-workers, and spent her days off exploring Southern Italy with them: “During our break times in the afternoon, we’d go down to the Amalfi coast to the beach, and sit down facing the Isle of Capri. Sometimes we borrowed the chef’s car, and went on trips around Naples and Sorrento.”
Chef Alfonso took great care of the staff too — Koh and another female chef stayed in the chef’s home, in his son’s old bedroom, while the male chefs lived in a three-room apartment nearby. “The windows to our apartment opened up to a view of Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii. It was very a magical and beautiful place,” she said.
In 2008, Koh moved to Hong Kong, to be “closer to home”. She joined The Landmark Mandarin Oriental’s pastry team, which created desserts for the hotel’s in-house restaurant, bar and banqueting service. “I think moving to Hong Kong was easier, because it was a more familiar place to be. I had a great time there; it’s such a dynamic city,” she said.
She spent two and a half years at the hotel, before taking up a pastry chef position at Cépage, a fine dining establishment in Wan Chai district. The now-defunct restaurant was operated by Singapore food and beverage company Les Amis Group, and its kitchen was helmed by French chef Sebastien Lepinoy. The elegant, classy venue was known for its produce-driven cuisine, and boasted a rooftop bar and private dining room. There, Koh served up sweet treats the likes of tarts and ice cream.
She stayed on for three years, until the restaurant’s lease ended in 2013. The Les Amis Group decided to close it permanently, and invited Koh and Lepinoy to reprise their roles at the flagship Les Amis restaurant in Singapore. “It was a natural progression, as Les Amis’ previous chef had left for a year, and they were looking for someone to fill his place. And we had been informed over a year in advance, that Cépage was due to close,” said Koh.
The two chefs arrived in Singapore in August 2013, to start work at Les Amis. Founded in 1994, the restaurant is very much an institution in the local dining scene, and specialises in contemporary French cuisine incorporated with seasonal ingredients. It offers prix fixe menus of scrumptious dishes such as pâté-en-croûte with duck foie gras, Omi beef, and a puff pastry stuffed with pheasant, as well as an extensive wine list of Old and New World vinos.
“Coming back to Les Amis was a continuation, a growth and getting better at what we were already doing at Cépage. And this process is still ongoing,” said Koh, whose tempting creations at the restaurant include a dessert of baked apples with cinnamon ice cream, and a sugar sphere filled with clementines.
An upcoming recipe is a chocolate soufflé with Tahiti vanilla ice cream, which she hopes to perfect by March or April. She is also thinking of pairing it with black truffle ice cream in the near future. “We’ll shave the black truffles on top,” she said. “I want to revisit simple, classic pastries and flavours. A big part about pastry-making, is really the craftsmanship.”
In 2015, Koh added another achievement to her growing resume: Opening her own pastry shop. Named Tarte by Cheryl Koh, the takeaway counter offers tarts with a variety of toppings and fillings including lemon curd, berries, pandan coconut and peanut butter mousse. It was borne out of a suggestion from the Les Amis Group’s owners, who noticed how popular her tarts were among diners. At that time, Koh often served chocolate and fruit tarts as a treat for guests celebrating birthdays and anniversaries at Les Amis.
“My vision for the shop was to do the tarts fresh, using the best ingredients of the season. Even the flour, butter and almond powder had to be top quality. I want customers to say the tarts are the best they’ve ever eaten,” she said, adding that the tarts are baked from scratch daily, by a small team she appointed. Tarte is a joint venture with Les Amis Group, but she has free rein over its menu and concept.
Creating desserts also brings her much joy, especially when she sees the satisfaction on customers’ faces: “I always say the dessert or pastry is the most pleasurable part of the meal. People don’t need dessert, but they want to. I work in an industry that creates the happiest part of people’s day. I don’t think there are many jobs like that.”
Last year was a particularly memorable one for both Koh and Les Amis. In April, she was crowned Asia’s Best Pastry Chef, making her only the second Singaporean to clinch the prize. A few months later, Les Amis bagged two Michelin stars at the Michelin Guide Singapore award ceremony.
“I think we’ve been really lucky. I was really honoured and surprised to receive the award. For the Michelin star, the team deserved it. A lot of hard work, and time and effort were put in for that,” she said. “For myself, I don’t feel I’ve achieved where I want to be yet. I hope this year is much bigger; I personally feel we’ve just started, and there’s so much more to do and grow.”
Not one to dwell on her accomplishments, Koh is focusing on her next project: Helping to expand Tarte into a proper dessert bar equipped with seats and a full kitchen. Its menu will be refreshed to include more options such as cakes, and the place will remain open for longer hours — it currently closes at 7.30pm daily. This revamp is slated for later this year.
Tour de Singapore
With Les Amis open daily for lunch and dinner, Koh has barely any time for hobbies. She spends her free time after work cycling around Singapore with Lepinoy and the kitchen team. “There was a period of time that I did it almost every day,” she said. “We usually start at Orchard Road, go down to Marina Bay Sands, pass through Gardens by the Bay, and carry on through Marina Barrage, Tanjong Rhu, East Coast Park, Changi, Rochor, Little India, Newton Circus, and back to Orchard.”
Koh also enjoys bonding with her niece and nephew, who are aged seven and nine respectively, over cooking and baking sessions at home. Some of the dishes they have produced together include fried bee hoon and Victoria sponge, a fluffy cake covered in jam or custard. “It’s nice that I have the ability to teach them to cook, and that they’re confident they can fry an egg or cook rice. I think it’s a great life skill,” she said.
An avid foodie who’s always looking to try something different each time, Koh doesn’t have a favourite eatery in Singapore. But one place that she frequents, is the Hainanese Village Centre along Lorong Ah Soo. She has her breakfast there every Sunday, before heading to its market with her family to buy groceries.
She recommends the hawker centre’s nasi lemak, mee siam, kway chap and fishball noodle soup. “I go there every weekend, so I try different things. It’s such a popular market that every stall has a long queue,” she said. “I like the market environment too. When you go to European markets, there’s a proud farmer talking about where his produce comes from. In the same way, the local vegetable and fish sellers can tell you about where their food comes from. I enjoy that interaction.”
Due to her working hours, Koh doesn’t dine out often at fancy restaurants. But when she does, it’s always a new place. She recently visited New York’s Momofuku Ko, a popular fine dining restaurant serving up Asian-inflected cuisine, and was intrigued by its Japanese-style soft cheesecake dessert, which was topped with shaved white truffles. The eatery’s kitchen is headed by Singaporean chef Max Ng. “The cheesecake was amazing. And going all the way there and seeing a Singaporean guy being the head chef, made me feel very proud,” she said.
During our lunch at Rhubarb — a restaurant she has always wanted to try — Koh was particularly impressed with its foie gras topped with smoked sturgeon, pigeon with rhubarb and rose purée, and a combination of butternut pumpkin with black truffle purée. “The flavours are really clean and distinct,” she said, digging into the latter, a silky and sweet emulsion interspersed with the deliciously earthy flavours of truffle.
“Prior to today, I’ve never been to Rhubarb, but I’ve heard good things about it. It’s very technique and ingredient-driven, and very classically French — which is similar to Les Amis. Its Michelin star is well-deserved.”
Les Amis, 1 Scotts Road, #01-16 Shaw Centre, Singapore 228208, +65 6733 2225
Rhubarb Le Restaurant, 3 Duxton Hill, Singapore 089589, +65 8127 5001