Petrina Loh, Morsels, Singapore

A former banker, Chef Petrina Loh has come a long way after leaving her well-heeled private banking job of 8 years to fully pursue her passion and love for food and wine. Since she graduated from the prestigious California Culinary Academy which runs the Le Cordon Bleu program, Chef Petrina has accumulated years of experience working in San Francisco at Michelin starred restaurants such as Spruce, Atelier Crenn, State Bird Provisions and Bouchon. She has also been mentored by Chef Walter Abrams, previously from The French Laundry, and Chef Mark Sullivan, one of America’s Best New Chefs 2002 and Chef John Madriga previously from Manresa.

Petrina Loh

Chef Petrina continues her pursuit of fine-tuning her craft . She has staged at Studio under Chef Torsten Vildgaards and the Meyer Group, which is behind Noma and NamNam (2014),
Husk under acclaimed southern chef Sean Brock, focus on fermentation and smoke (2015) and most recently returned to San Francisco and spent time in State Bird Provisions with Chef Stuart Brioza (2015), Rich Table with Chef Evan Rich (2015) and Spruce with Chef John Madriaga (2015).

1. What is your philosophy when it comes to food?

My cooking philosophy when it comes to food would be flavour. How to balance the dish with sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. Im very produce driven, and constantly am in search for good produce, although it is frequently a struggle in Singapore. Flavour, can be derived from different techniques. Fermentation is something we use a lot in the restaurant. We make all our stocks, sauces in house, I dislike the use of processed food. I need to know how things are made, right down to peanut butter, five spice powder, garam masala and hoisin sauce we make. It is important that I make food that nourishes the body as well. I pay close attention to the yin and yang of ingredients. I guess you can’t take the Chinese out of me. I was taught since young of how you must balance ‘cooling’ ingredients with ‘heaty’ ingredients, and how to use neutral ingredients. So that has always been at the back of my head when I create.

2. Name your most Favourite dish on the menu? And why?

There’s too many! I love the steamed venus clams with fig broth, I created that 4 years ago, from a soup I drank most growing up. Being a sick kid, I was constantly fed a lot of traditional soups to nourish some part of me. The Fig broth is for lungs, it has a Chinese herb Yu Zhu in it. Two new dishes of late which was created  for our fall menu, I love too! The pork jowl with fermented apple sauce is such an interesting combination. I mean we all know pork and apples go together. But that’s just so boring. So I thought about it and said what about if we fermented the granny smith there will be an added dimension of flavour to the sauce. This particular dish I find is most balanced. There’s sweet from the taro paste, sour and salty from the fermented apple sauce, mussels I used were Boston Bay Blue Mussels, I used the Spanish method of dry heat to cook the mussels, and all the briney flavour goes back into the mussel and I use that to offset the fattiness of the Kurobuta Pork Jowl, you got earthiness from the chanterelles, and quinoa that’s cooked in jowl fat and the ‘snow’ its shaved toasted cashew which adds another dimension of flavour and not to mention the pickled Chinese chive just to cleanse your palate every now and then in between each bite of pork jowl. As for the duck set, I’ve always wanted to use white chocolate in a savoury application. So for the duck set, I made a yuzu white chocolate sauce, its base is a dark chicken jus. Making Kimchee has always been my thing, so for this set I made a fennel kimchee to pair with the dish and you got duck and chicken skin crackling and some burnt kale to add another dimension to the dish.

3. Main considerations when it comes to choosing your ingredients?

My suppliers all know the first question I need to know is where do these produce come from, and if it from a sustainable source. How is the cow raised? What are they fed? Where the greens are from? One of my favourite fish producers locally is Kuhlbarra, they took me to the farm I saw how the fish swim, how they are fed, how clean the waters are, its amazing! And no wonder the barramundi has such a nice fat content which is not usually present in fish. I use the Kuhlbarra Barramundi for both raw and cooked application. You send in the order, they harvest the catch the next day and you get it. It doesn’t sit in the freezer forever. Wherever possible I try to use local produce.

4. How do you see the growing demands for sustainable produce affecting the food world?

It is absolutely important. We pick only sustainable produce. If its trawler caught, I don’t use it. If it is raised in a cage in a poor environment I don’t use it. Monkfish liver, I only do Ankimo when I can get it from the catch from small fishing boats. We all need to do our part to make sure the generations behind us have food to eat. Of course, running a restaurant in Singapore is quite tough to use absolutely ALL organic, but we do our best to feed people good sustainable food and minimize GMO items.

5. If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?

Florist maybe? I’m pretty ept with my hands so anything that keeps me moving and creating or making something keeps me happy. I used to do freelance landscape photography and sold print, but I don’t have time these days.

6. Do you have a memorable food experience that impacted you as a child or young chef?

Most might know that my late dad took me to the wet market since a young age, taught me how to cook eggs at 4/5 years old. We are Hokkien, but strangely we have a lot of soup dishes at home. I learnt how to boil various soups and traditional Hokkien dishes like Kong Ba and Kiam Chye Ap Soup. He brought me out to eat hawker food a lot, and taught me how to not be a picky eater. He made me eat ginger when I was 4. I ate chili when I was in primary school and never stopped since. I love vinegar, not the stuff kids usually would eat. I never had soda and processed food. Hence, I never believed in processed food. Also, being a banker for 8 years brought me to taste many amazing flavours and restaurants and trained my palate.

7. What do you enjoy most about being a chef?

I love being a chef because I know food makes people happy. And it brings joy to my guest. Also, it’s the whole process of creating that makes me happy. It’s a creative process. You need to have a deep respect for produce, and understand flavour of each ingredient to know how to create. I’ve always been a rather avant-garde type of chef, who has a very strong directive on flavour and how I like to create, I’m big on flavour, so everything on the plate needs to have a flavour on its own.

8. Other than creating good food, what are the most important qualities that make a successful chef?

A chef is also a leader and mentor. A chef who is also a restauranteur has another set of job tasks because then you are also the businessman/woman. To me being successful, is bringing joy to my diners, making their day and having someone appreciate the fine details that goes into each dish. There’s also the balance of passion and paying the bills. There’s a lot that goes on behind owning a restaurant and being a chef who cooks on the line. Also, as a female, I’m commonly misunderstood to be the pastry chef. But I really dislike working on sweets due the lack of a sweet tooth.

9. If you had a choice of anything for your last meal, what would you choose to have?

I love asian food, local food. I’m a fan of noodles. I also love chicken rice. I grew up eating Tai Hwa Bak Chor Mee, its bitter sweet for me that they got one star, my usual one hour queue became two and I rarely get to eat it now.

10. Do you have any tips for budding chefs or restauranteurs?

Have your own voice, be what you want to be. It’s all a journey. Don’t let anyone tell you what is right or wrong. There’s no right or wrong in cooking, its all a matter of preference. Technique yes, learn the basics and let your wings fly and take you places. Only when you open your mind, you can create something that is truly your own.

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