It’s 1am and the gas stoves at Bib Gourmand recipient JB Ah Meng in Geylang are still roaring. Huge ladles clang the woks in the kitchens and the aroma of wok hei dishes titillate the many eager guests waiting in the dining room.
Among them is a table occupied by some of Singapore’s most celebrated chefs: Jason Tan of one-Michelin- starred Corner House, Han Liguang of Labyrinth, Andrew Walsh of Cure and Kenjiro Hashida of Hashida Sushi.
These culinary luminaries are regulars who drop in for friendly banter and to unwind over good food, and good company.
“It’s a hard game,” says Walsh on the need to gather with other chefs. “Sometimes, you just need to talk about it.”
For the Irishman, supper is down time. It’s when he allows himself to indulge in a good meal while finding support and to bond with other industry folks.
“Chefs are always associated with food, but we almost never get the time to sit down, relax and enjoy,” he adds. “There’s always something on our mind, we are worried about the next service or when supplies are coming in or that new dish on the menu.”
Hunting Down The Best Food
These chefs are not the only ones to have savoured JB Ah Meng’s humble fare. In fact, behind this merry band of supper buddies are two walls decorated with photos of top international chefs.
That includes Ferran Adrià, one of the world’s greatest gastro whizzes who gave the thumbs up on the signature pepper crab as well as celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain who reportedly invited JB Ah Meng to open a branch in the US, but was rejected.
As the chefs prattled and joked, signature dishes like san lou bee hoon, wok fried lotus root with snake beans, garlic tossed lala land one after another. Happily tucking in beside Walsh is Kenjiro Hashida from Hashida Sushi, on Walsh’s left, Han Liguang of Labyrinth.
Jason Tan, who initiated this grouping has been coming here for more than seven years. He was introduced to this popular spot by his former mentor, chef Justin Quek who admires the zi char dishes here.
“I like it because it offers Malaysian-styled zi char that not many other places do,” he says. “The dishes are a bit different from the Hong Kong-styled ones like sweet and sour pork you find at other stalls. It’s also a plus point that they open till 3am. We know JB Ah Meng and he knows what we like, sometimes I even bring ingredients for him to cook. If I am coming by, I’ll give him a call and he’ll reserve some of his specialties for us.”
At first, he brought his then girlfriend and now wife for supper. As time passed, he started bringing his foodie friends and other chefs. Before long, the supper club was born.
“We eat together, talk about food, things like what we have tried, where to eat next, we have malaysians, Caucasians, Japanese and locals and we eat in Geylang, imagine the fun.” This diverse combination works for Kenjiro Hashida as he gets to learn about other chefs and their culture while gleaning inspiration along the way.
SEE ALSO: What the Michelin Inspectors have to say about JB Ah Meng
Building Up Camaraderie
When chefs hang out, it’s like therapy. Walsh says, “[When] you are hungry, you need fuel, you need food. And when you are tired, you need comfort.”
Friendships are forged over time as industry contacts turn into buddies who bond over food and drinks. “Chefs are unique creatures and I find that no one understands our pain, our happiness and our joy,” says Han Liguang. “Sometimes you go out with friends, but they can’t relate to how you feel. With chefs at supper, you talk about the day and you feel like you have a support group because everyone has gone through it. “
“The bottom-line is, we don’t see each as competitors, but friends who share ideas, inspiration and travels,” he adds. “We share good customers, we talk about our staff, we don’t mind hanging out to 2 or 3am in the morning just shooting nonsense to each other, because at the end of the day, it can be very inspiring and lets us continue with what we want to do.”
Supper fare need not be expensive nor fancy – not if one has been in the kitchen for 16 hours.
In fact, it’s one of the simplest elements of the dishes that attracts these chefs: wok hei. “You eat it you taste it. There’s a story in it,” explains Walsh.
“You can sense that flavour, that charred element, that’s their thing. These guys nail it every time. The food is fresh, vibrant, tasty and there’s always that little char and smokiness that gives off its own umami-ness.”
Relishing the leftover bits on his plate, Walsh confesses, “Once you start eating it, you’d want more of it.”