The Accidental CHEF

John Chye, executive chef of Courtyard by Marriott Singapore Novena, may look every bit the part, but it might not have been so, if not for some accidents along the way.

JOHN GREW UP in Penang, a veritable food haven, so it wasn’t difficult for him to assimilate good food. From a very early age, he was exposed to a lot of the renowned Penang dishes such as Assam Laksa, Hokkien Prawn Noodles, Fried Kwey Tiao and White Curry Noodles. There was definitely an interest but little did he know that cooking would end up being his career.
“My first encountered cooking was when I was 6, I tried to bake a cake after seeing what my aunt did. However, my parents didn’t allow me to use the oven, and I ended up steaming the cake instead, of course it turned out to be inedible and I ended up throwing it to the bin. It was fun and I still find it amusing when I think about it,” recounts Chef John.
Many years later, John started to work at a restaurant as a waiter. But that was not about to last too long. “I was the accidental chef – I soon realized it would be more enjoyable if I had the opportunity to create the dishes instead of just serving them, and that’s how it all started. And of course, my love of eating plays a huge role for the switch too.”
As executive chef of Courtyard by Marriott Singapore Novena, John’s main focus is the food served at the hotel. Their restaurant Sky22 is where he focuses most of his attention. Located on the 22nd floor, Sky22 is the new contemporary dining enclave of the hotel. The Novena neighborhood restaurant, aims to deliver innovative dining experiences to inspire and satisfy the most discerning palate. It focuses on local cuisine, and is committed to using premium quality ingredients and local aromatics to create signature dishes including ‘Nasi Ulam’ Wild Rice Salad with charred octopus, Pan-seared Red Grouper with Sambal Oelek and Tiger Prawn Laksa Lemak.
During my recent visit, I was able to try some of Chef John’s signature dishes and was pleasantly surprised how interesting and tasty they were. His creativity and attention to detail was palpable, making for a lovely meal.
‘Nasi Ulam’ Wild Rice Salad
The Nasi Ulam is a forgotten traditional Peranakan dish, it packs a punch of flavors, using many interesting fresh herbs and spices. “I wanted to revive the dish, giving it a twist. Instead of white rice, I wanted it to be a healthier option thus I replaced the white rice with black wild rice that is full of antioxidants and nutrients. To give it a twist, Sky22’s ‘Nasi Ulam’ features charred octopus, long beans, fire-roasted sweet potato, organic betel leaf, ginger flower, crushed peanuts and toasted coconut.”
Sky22 Tiger Prawn Laksa Lemak
This is an elevated version of the nyonya delight. This Singaporean favorite uses thick vermicelli, charred tiger prawns, quail eggs, bean curd puffs and fish cakes, all dosed in a rich spicy coconut gravy. “On my menu, I wanted a Singapore classic, a dish that all Singaporeans know about and my version is slightly richer than those you can find in the regular hawker stores,” John adds.
Singapore Chilli Crab Pizza
A thin crust pizza interpretation of Singapore’s national dish, Chili Crab. It is topped with generous chunks of crab meat and garnished with Spanish onions, red chili and scallions. “This Singaporean favorite, is usually served with Man Tou buns, instead of serving the chili crab dish and buns side by side, I wanted to create a dish that allows diners to eat both together, thus I thought of adding the dish onto a pizza, which in turn also gave the dish a crunch from the pizza. And now you can eat chili crab without dirtying our hands!”
These dishes just show how creative Chef John is and that he won’t shy away from reinterpreting dishes. “I love to experiment with food and with local spices and herbs, as they elevate the taste and fragrance of a dish. Cooking with spices and herbs can bring a dish to a whole new dimension and most importantly herbs actually give the dish a cultural identity.
Serves 4
1⁄3 cup Wild Rice Mix
160 gr Raw Salmon, sashimi grade
1 cup Chicken Stock
1⁄2 cup Sweet Potato, cut into bite sized cubes
1 cup Long Beans, cut into 1-inch length
1⁄3 cup Dried Shrimp
1⁄2 cup Coconut, grated
2 pcs Torch Ginger Flower, finely sliced
1⁄4 cup Thai Basil, finely sliced
1 pcs Red Chili, finely sliced
1⁄4 cup Laksa Leaf, finely sliced
1⁄4 cup Mint Leaf, finely sliced
5 pcs Kaffir Lime Leaves, finely sliced
2 pcs Lemongrass stalks, white part only, thinly sliced
10 pcs Shallots, thinly sliced
4 pcs Betel Leaf, medium, finely sliced
1 tsp Sugar
1 tsp Salt
1⁄3 tsp White Pepper
1⁄3 tsp Black Pepper
1⁄4 cup Peanuts, cooked, crushed
• Cook wild rice mix in chicken stock for 10-15 minutes, over medium heat, with a pinch of salt. For slightly softer wild rice mix, add a little more water. When rice is cooked, set aside and leave to cool.
• Preheat oven to 180°C. Sprinkle a little salt on the sweet potatoes and drizzle with olive oil. Roast in oven for 10-15 minutes at 180°C. Test softness with a fork.
• Blanch long beans in boiling water. Set aside to cool.
• Soak dried shrimp in warm water until softened. Coarsely pound them using a mortar and pestle.
• Sauté pounded shrimp in a wok till fragrant.
• Toast grated coconut in a wok till golden brown. Set aside to cool.
• In a big bowl, combine cooked wild rice, all herbs, shallots, toasted coconut, and dried shrimp. Add salt, sugar, and pepper to taste. Toss well.
• Plate wild rice with cubes of fresh salmon. Sprinkle crushed peanut and serve.
Courtyard by Marriott Singapore Novena
99 Irrawaddy Road, Singapore
T: +65 62 500303
Instagram: @courtyardsingapore

Written by Jed Doble May 30, 2018.