“I wouldn’t call my profession glamorous. You get to travel and meet cool people, but it’s not like you’re hanging out on a yacht or the Riviera all the time,” said Andrew Walsh, as we sat down with him for lunch at the one-Michelin-starred Jaan — one of his favourite restaurants in Singapore. The 33-year-old is the chef-owner of Modern European establishment Cure. “Whatever happens, be humble about it. No one likes chefs who think they’re rock stars. We’re just cooking food and putting it on a plate.”
Contrast Walsh’s comments with the recent implosion of cooking television shows, which showcase everything from budding culinary talents in MasterChef to the celebrity chefs and gorgeous cinematography of the Emmy-nominated Chef’s Table (so you can Netflix and cook, not just chill.) These sleekly produced programmes may leave one with the impression that a chef’s life is effortlessly glamorous, but the reality is a lot less romantic. Take it from Walsh, whose past experiences include cleaning dirty dishes and encountering competitive chefs who deliberately ruined his food.
A native of Breaffy village in County Mayo, Ireland, Walsh is chatty and easygoing with a penchant for dry humour — when asked about his close friends in the industry, he deadpanned, “I’m very popular, I have a lot,” before breaking into a cheeky smile. His interest in cooking began in his teens, when his brother — a chef at a restaurant in their hometown — asked him to wash dishes in return for pocket money.
Walsh picked up basic cooking skills along the way, and became intrigued by it. “My brother took me under his wing and taught me how to use a chopping knife. I was fascinated by how one can take something that’s raw, play around with it and make it into something completely different and delicious,” Walsh recalled. “So I started skiving off school and exploring how kitchen devices such as the grill worked. I became hooked on it.” He dropped out at age 15 to pursue cooking full-time.
Naturally, this decision didn’t go down well with his parents. “They weren’t happy and kicked up a fuss. But I think they knew I was serious about it,” he said. “I told them I had to just jump in and do it, if I wanted to get ahead of the game [in the culinary scene].”
Armed with dreams of cooking at Michelin-starred restaurants around the world, Walsh studied Culinary Arts at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology in Ireland, where he cut his teeth at d’Arcy’s Kenmare, a restaurant in County Kerry. “That was the first time I saw duck being cooked on the bone, jus made out of its bones, and monkfish being prepared. There was a team of only five chefs, but everything, including the bread, was made from scratch,” he said. “That was when I realised what it meant to be a chef. It wasn’t just about putting on a white jacket and apron.”
The following years led him to the kitchens of the one-Michelin-starred Sheen Falls Kenmare, which specialised in fresh, locally-sourced seafood and “opened [Walsh’s eyes] to foie gras, caviar and truffle.” He went on to join the two-Michelin-starred Thornton’s Restaurant in Dublin — a posh fine dining establishment with a focus on seasonal produce. It made headlines last month when its chef-owner Kevin Thornton revealed his plan to shut it down by end October. “Thornton’s really put Irish cuisine on the world map. Now it’s up to the young chefs in Ireland to step up and take up the mantle,” said Walsh, adding that he was sad to hear of the news.
Hungry for more experience, he later moved to London, where he worked for the likes of famous chefs Tom Aikens and Jason Atherton. Aikens runs several restaurants in the UK and at 26, became the youngest British chef to earn two Michelin stars. Atherton has an equally impressive track record, with Michelin-starred establishments eateries across Hong Kong, Shanghai and New York.
These stints were sterling additions to Walsh’s growing résumé, but he reveals that his time in London was particularly challenging because of the fierce rivalry between chefs: There were instances where other chefs would viciously switch off his fridge and ruin his food.
“You could make petit fours, and half the time they would be eaten by the rest in the kitchen. And if you confronted them, punches would fly. It was pretty hardcore. Some guys would get burnt on purpose with a hot spoon on the hand, if they made mistakes,” said Walsh. “Many days I would go in and find my food knocked off, so I had to start from scratch. But I could never give in or make excuses, because the [head] chef wouldn’t care. Those incidents toughened me up.”
It was in 2011 that Walsh’s cooking mission brought him to Singapore. Atherton, his former boss at Pollen Street Social in London, had been invited by local hotelier Loh Lik Ping to start Esquina, a Spanish tapas restaurant, and wanted Walsh to open up the eatery with him. “It was a 16-seater, counter-style place, where we were supposed to do 40 covers a night. And it did so well, we ended up doing 120 covers a night. It was great, I really enjoyed it,” said Walsh, who also helmed the kitchen at The Study, a bistro co-owned by Atherton.
Over the next three-and-a-half years, he helped build up a loyal customer base at both restaurants. Esquina drew the crowds with its trailblazing tapas concept — something relatively new in Singapore at that time, while The Study was popular for its cosy atmosphere and British comfort fare. It also didn’t hurt that the latter was interconnected to the trendy speakeasy-styled bar, The Library, next door.
Walsh enjoyed his stint at the two establishments, but a part of him itched for adventure. “I felt it was time for me to do something; to stand on my own two feet. I wanted a place I could call my own, along with the pressure and stress of running it,” he said. “I like doing things the hard way.”
The Mind of a Chef
With that, Walsh took the plunge and launched Cure last July. Focusing on “Bistronomy”, which he defines as “cooking with seasonal ingredients at accessible price points”, the restaurant serves Modern European cuisine in a casual, fine dining setting. Instead of starched white tablecloths and fancy tableware, it is a no-frills spot dressed in grey and equipped with an open kitchen. Its menu incorporates Asian flavours, with offerings such as hamachi ceviche and flame-grilled mackerel with whipped cod roe.
“We use the technique and precision of high-end fine dining restaurants, in a more relaxed environment. The atmosphere is not so stuffy,” he said, adding that the restaurant’s name is inspired by the Latin word “curare”, which means “to take care of”.
A year on, the restaurant remains one of the more popular spots in the Keong Saik neighbourhood — which began as a litmus test for interesting dining concepts back in 2013 and has since blossomed into a full-fledged dining enclave. It recently introduced a new weekday set lunch menu of dishes such as wagyu beef dumplings and a pumpkin granola with burrata curd and truffle honey.
Walsh is consistently busy, as he’s in charge of planning the menus and overseeing all the various aspects of Cure, from its finance accounts to its music — which includes upbeat tunes such as Flume’s Insane and Rather Be by Clean Bandit feat Jess Glynne. His working hours are long too — he wakes up at 7am daily and locks up the restaurant after it closes at 10pm. But he has no regrets. “There’s nothing better than having a full restaurant and seeing your guests [enjoying their meals]. It’s a great adrenaline boost, and is one of the best feelings in the world,” he said.
Outside of work, Walsh unwinds by playing soccer with friends and enjoys cooking the occasional meal at home. He does his grocery-shopping at the nearby Chinatown wet market, which he recommends for its excellent quality ingredients. “Why go to the supermarket to buy cauliflower for S$5 when you can get it from Chinatown market for less? You can get fresh fish and seafood there, as well as good produce such as coriander, Chinese green beans and bok choy,” he said. “So why buy courgettes when you can use bok choy? Be inventive and instead of S$6 for a courgette, you spend S$1.60.”
A fan of local food, he often dines at hawker centres for his fix of pig’s organ soup, mee goreng, prata and chicken rice (his favourite stall is Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice at Maxwell Food Centre). He recently visited popular zi char eatery JB Ah Meng in Geylang, where he and his friends feasted on some 20 dishes including clams and black pepper crab. “It was really tasty!” he said. “I even had a picture taken with the chef.”
For fancier affairs, Walsh recommends Jaan for its focus on seasonal produce, and has visited it three or four times. Some of his favourite dishes from the restaurant’s current menu include a snack of delicate foie gras macarons, a wobbly egg dish speckled with black winter truffles and artichoke chips, and lobster poached in a a Thai-inspired broth of mussel juice, lemongrass and coconut milk.
“[Chef de Cuisine] Kirk Westaway’s food is excellent. He’s a great chef,” said Walsh. “It’s good that he got Jaan on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list and received his first Michelin star at such a young age. I’m very happy for him.” The two chefs are friends, and their camaraderie was apparent during our interview as they bantered playfully and made plans to meet for post-work drinks later. “I’m going to take your petit four box away,” Walsh joked, as Westaway was about to leave the room.
Walsh is also close to other chefs in the industry, such as Julien Royer of Odette, Ryan Clift of Tippling Club, Jason Tan of Corner House and Paul Longworth of Rhubarb Le Restaurant. According to him, the cooking community in Singapore is pretty tight-knit, with chefs frequenting each others’ restaurants to hang out and show their support.
This is also something he has observed in the general dining scene over the years, which is a huge contrast to his early days in London: “Times have changed. Now everyone is doing pop-ups, helping each other out and even sharing recipes. Everyone works together now, not against each other.”
Not one to rest on his laurels, Walsh is constantly on the lookout for exciting new projects. He recently appeared in a video campaign to mark the opening of Uniqlo’s new Southeast Asia flagship store at Orchard Central, and in August, was the guest chef at a pop-up dinner at Ku De Ta Bali. In November, he plans to host a one-night-only pop-up dinner at Cure, where his mentor and former employer Tom Aikens will be present to cook up a special menu.
Walsh is also thinking of pursuing an overseas side project sometime next year, and in the near future, intends to further develop the Cure brand through potential spin-off concepts such as a bar and grill, deli or even a charcuterie. “I’ll explore these ideas because I believe there’s a lot more to give at Cure,” he said. “I like to keep busy.”
Cure, 21 Keong Saik Road, Singapore 089128, +65 6221 2189, www.curesingapore.com
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Jaan, Level 70, Equinox Complex, Swissôtel The Stamford, 2 Stamford Road, Singapore 178882, +65 6837 3322, www.jaan.com.sg