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How this acclaimed young chef is making food more responsible

Food, and the people who cook it, are often the stars of the culinary show, but an up-and-coming young chef wants to make dining more responsible by highlighting the other people involved in your meal.

Kevin Wong, head chef at the one Michelin-starred Meta Restaurant on Keong Saik Road, created a dish titled Celebration of a Duck for the 2021 S.Pellegrino Young Chef Grand Finale in Milan last month. Inspired by local flavours and roast duck hawkers in Singapore and Malaysia, Wong’s dish got him to the top three of the finals, which was judged by culinary luminaries such as Enrico Bartolini, Mauro Colagreco and Clare Smyth.

Crucially, the judges were equally impressed by how Wong collaborated with artisans to repurpose all wastage generated from cooking. Duck ashes and local clay are used to make the plates. The feathers were combined with fallen twigs, leaves, and parts of the banana tree to create a duck origami. Mangrove wood, used to light the charcoal that cooked the duck, was turned into wooden trays.

food responsible chef
Wong (far right) presenting his dish at the finals. (Image credit: Kevin Wong)

“I come from a multicultural country, and I wanted to represent that,” the Malaysian chef said during the finals. “I believe food is the only universal language. It brings people together. The only way to tackle any issues is for us to stand together to marry craft, cross border cooking and multicultural flavours.”

To find out more, we talk to Wong about his experience at the global finals, the challenges he faced, and what he plans to do next.

Kevin Wong (left) with Julien Royer, Wong’s chef mentor during the competition (Image credit: S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy)

How do you feel about your result?

Like my fellow finalists, the goal was to be the first. For the last three years I was very committed both mentally and physically to win the competition, so of course there was a slight sense of disappointment that I didn’t win. But there are no regrets. I did everything to my best, and the positive encouragement from all of the judges and my mentor chefs Sun Kim and Julien Royer was extremely rewarding. Coupled with the fact that I was able to make it to top three for a dish that represented both my roots and beliefs, I felt extremely proud of this incredible achievement.

Among all the hawker dishes here, why the duck?

I was thinking of an ingredient that is familiar to all internationally, and it does take skills to utilise the whole bird. As a chef, I wanted to show that while incorporating my roots.

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Wong training for the competition (Image credit: Kevin Wong)

What challenges did you face during your training and how did you overcome them?

There were many. To name a few, the training was extremely intense. We timed and recorded all of our processes and movements, over and over again for five months straight. Logistics – bringing over our equipment and ingredients were also difficult, especially during the pandemic. Poultry and meat can’t be brought over to Milan, so we had to source directly from France.

Because my competition dish required collaboration with local artisans, it also took some effort convincing them to work with me on this project on a short timeframe. I’d visit them weekly and pitch my ideas repeatedly. There were also occasions when I’d either get rejected or turned away during the innovation process.

food responsible chef
Artist Josiah Chua painting the duck origami made of banana, fallen twigs and leaves (Image credit: Kevin Wong)

How did your experience with chefs Sun Kim and Julien Royer influence the way you approached your dish?

I have worked on this dish with chef Sun Kim since the very beginning in 2018. For over four years he mentored me, and changed the way I viewed food. Meta was one of the first Asian-influenced restaurants I’d worked at, besides Benu in San Francisco. The foundation and DNA of this dish comes a lot from what I’ve learnt at Meta. From chef Julien Royer, I learned humility and the importance of camaraderie between all collaborators of the food industry.

Clockwise from left: Wong, Sun Kim and Julien Royer (Image credit: Kevin Wong)

How will you incorporate this experience in your cooking and what are your plans for the future?

This experience was not only about winning an award. It was about connecting and exchanging ideas with fellow chefs, from young peers to accomplished chefs. I was very lucky to speak personally with top chefs like Mauro Colagreco, Clare Symth, Massimo Bottura and Virgilio Martinez, who are all on the very top of their game. Seeing their point of view was a huge leap forward for me, and gave me new perspective and mentality on how I’d approach food moving forward.

The future plan would be to have my own humble place one day, where I’ll work with artisans and craftsmen from various fields to elevate the restaurant experience, and mutually champion responsibility in the restaurant industry by supporting one another.

(Image credit: Kevin Wong)

Can you recommend some hawkers that cook duck well?

My favourite was Foong Kee, which was formerly on Keong Saik Road. Unfortunately it closed due to the pandemic.

Check out Kevin Wong’s cooking at Meta Restaurant, 1 Keong Saik Road, Singapore 089109.

Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 6.30pm to 11:15pm
Thursdays to Saturdays, 12pm to 3pm and 6.30pm to 11.15pm

Jethro Kang
Jethro enjoys wine, biking, and climbing, and he's terrible at all three. In between them, he drinks commercial lagers and eats dumplings.
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