For some of us food is sustenance, while for others it’s an art. For Justin Foo, food is his entire life’s work. From training at the Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Institute in Canada, to being head chef at the age of 24, to hosting food channels, to founding Provisions Gastrobar – Justin has worked with food in almost every way imaginable.
It’s little wonder that it’s a topic close to his heart. Food is inextricably tied to family for Justin, whose first memories of cooking are that of making breakfast for his parents. Now, he shares his love of gastronomy with others through his private dining experience, where he uses food to tell a story. We chat with him about his inspiration and what the experience is like.
What got you interested in food in the first place?
I was inspired by my dad, because he likes to eat. When I was 15 my dad passed on, and it factored into this life decision. I’m very blessed, because my mom and dad never denied me entry into the kitchen. When my siblings and I were young, we used to stay up all night on special occasions to cook breakfast for my parents. I liked that experience, so after my O levels I went straight to work, and then after that into culinary school.
What else has influenced your work so far, apart from your formal training?
A lot of my inspiration is from film. I’m quite a movie buff and my favourite things to watch are films and documentaries. So for me, it’s a story I want to tell, a journey I’d like to take my customers on.
When I do private dining, I’ll usually ask what the purpose of this meal is – is it a birthday? An anniversary dinner? So when I cook for them it’s more than just eating at the table; it’s storytelling through the progression of the meal.
For example, in February I worked with Macallan for a Lunar New Year promotion, and the story was about the tradition of bai nian, where you visit somebody’s house and they offer you a drink, some tea, some snacks. So I used all these inspirations from flavours and memories to do the menu progression.
How do you choose what goes on your menu?
When I worked in fine dining restaurants, I flew for work. I also used to travel a lot, and it took me to places like North America and Canada and everywhere else. So all these are all bits and pieces of flavours that stuck with me through my journey over the years.
And more often than not, I feel like there’s a lot of similarity in flavour profiles across borders. For example, when I was at Provisions, the whole idea of doing claypot in a more extravagant manner was based on the concept of paella. So paella is really seafood and meat in one pot, with rice, and you need to have the burnt bits. And claypot rice is exactly the same thing – the mixture between crustaceans and meats is prevalent even in Asian dishes like bak chor mee, Hokkien mee and so on. It’s quite a common language in that sense.
My cuisine is – and it’s kind of a new term – Asiatique. There have been other names for it, like “modern Singaporean”, but that sounds time-specific and experimental. With Asiatique cuisine, there’s really no boundaries in terms of whether something is Singaporean or not. I like to work with ingredients from the region, like Thailand and Indonesia. Every item on the menu has a thought process behind it and it’s very intentional.
Tell us about your favourite part of the private dining experience.
I think it’s the surprise of my guests, when they see that it’s possible to execute restaurant-standard fine dining in their home. They always tell me there’s not much equipment in the kitchen, but it’s usually more than enough. I do the preparation in my own workspace, then go to the guest’s home to do the final execution and plating. I even do the washing-up afterwards, so they don’t have to lift a finger.
How do you think Singaporeans’ culinary tastes have evolved over the last few years?
I think we are much more open to different kinds of palates, because Singaporeans are in general more well-read and well-travelled. When I chat with my guests, it usually leads to a conversation about the kinds of food they’ve tried in different countries. We always bring pieces of our experience back with us. And there’s a deeper appreciation of the food – like when I have wagyu on the menu, they’ll ask what grade it is, which prefecture in Japan it’s from and so on. So people are really more appreciative of food these days.
What do you think is the next big thing in the food scene?
Well, I think bars are going to come back. So we’ll likely see a lot of smaller format dishes that are suitable for sharing. I think people miss the communal aspect of group dining. One of the things I’m doing with my private dining now is this thing called Mangez-Mangiare, which means “eat” in French and Italian respectively, where we do traditional recipes in a very casual family-style concept. I think what people want nowadays is honest food, with sincerity and authenticity.
To book a private dining experience or find out more, please visit www.instagram.com/justinfjh.