Have you always wanted to ask your favorite chef what they love to eat when they’re at home? Or perhaps what they think the next big food or dining trend will be? Look no further than this exclusive series of chef interviews by JustLuxe. So read on, as we bring you these answers and more — direct from the culinary masters themselves. Some of the most famous names in the industry, including legendary Michelin-starred chefs, have divulged exciting insider information and personal stories of their journey to the top just for our readers.
Restaurant: Strait's Restaurants Location: Various, including San Francisco, Houston and Atlanta Type of Cuisine: Singaporean and Chinese
JustLuxe: At what point in your life did you decide to become a chef? What influenced you to do so?
Chris: I was once more familiar with coiffing hair than steaming dumplings. However, food has always been my passion and I love entertaining people, I learned that early on as a hairstylist. I would meet many interesting people and as a hairstylist you have to be inviting and outgoing. I came to realize that people enjoyed being around me because of my personality! However, during a certain point in my career as a hairstylist I started missing home, especially sharing the food that was close to my heart. I enjoyed cooking at home, but couldn’t fit all my friends and family and clients into my house and with a restaurant, I could! So I decided to bring the cuisine of my native Singapore to my new home city and share it with everyone; that’s when I opened Straits and it was an instant success, and now today, I have multiple restaurant locations! Straits and SINO menus explore and merge culinary influences from Asia resulting in fare that is unique and complex in its fragrances and flavors and encourages guests to experience how the different combinations of Pan Asian cuisine complement each other by ordering dishes to share, family style.
Straits restaurants can be found in San Francisco, San Jose, and Burlingame, CA and Houston, TX and SINO which serves unique "New Experience" Chinese Cuisine, a combination of modern presentation and traditional Cantonese style food, can be found in San Jose. Had I not given up my blow-dryer for butane burners, I wouldn’t be blessed by all the foodies across the country enjoying my authentic and modern interpretations of Singaporean and Chinese cuisine.
JustLuxe: If you could give a word of advice to an aspiring chef, what would you say?
Chris: You will make mistakes and it’s ok! This is how you learn, grow, and innovate in the culinary world. Seek out a chef you could shadow for a day or a week on the job so you can have a realistic view of what the job and the lifestyle entails. Be sure you master a proven technique for cooking basics, like cooking fish, making bread, cooking whole grains, simmering and such. Also, be open to new flavors, textures and food pairings to keep your menu exciting and refreshed.
JustLuxe: Where do you get inspiration for the design of your dishes and plating?
Chris: A lot of my inspiration comes from the places I have lived. The local produce, colors, and flavors that surrounded me are all an influence. My guests' experience is most important to me so I try to translate the creativity and wonderful experiences I’ve had into each dish I make to reflect that. My Hong Kong birthplace inspired me, so that is why I opened SINO Restaurant & Lounge on Santana Row, for example. It boasts a spacious and urban feel, is elegant, sophisticated, and accessible to all. The dramatic space matches the exotic menu of updated “New Experience” Chinese classics like dim sum, Peking duck, and smoked sea bass.
JustLuxe: What do you predict as the next big trend in cooking and/or the restaurant industry?
Chris: I'm very excited to see guests welcoming new, artisanal interpretations of enduring favorites - like dim sum. We're crafting some very exciting new flavor combinations with exquisite ingredients to complement the traditional dim sum items that people have come to love through generations of sharing dim sum. We are also enjoying the continuing trend of guests sharing and enjoying small plates. It offers an opportunity for people to explore more and broaden their horizons - which is a really rewarding experience for me to be a part of.
JustLuxe: Which season do you look forward to the most for its ingredients?
Chris: I love all of the changing seasons, as they bring fresh opportunities for new seasonal ingredients - and I especially enjoy the autumn. I loved enhancing some of our more traditional Asian- Fusion dishes this year by adding new seasonal ingredients and flavors like apple, plum, and butternut squash in the autumn. I was able to add a new dimension to old favorites, with new colorful and flavorful elements to infuse the dishes with flavors that combine the familiar with the unexpected.
JustLuxe: What places or cities in the world have influenced your cooking the most?
Chris: I would say Hong Kong, my birth place, and Singapore. Singapore is a melting pot of so many wonderful flavors from other cultures that are too good not to share-- the flavors from Malaysia, Indonesia, China, India and Nonya cultures also have made a big impact on me over the years and my wish is to share the best of these with my guests at SINO and Straits restaurants.
JustLuxe: In your opinion, what innovation has recently influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way?
Chris: Innovations in integrating different cooking styles, techniques and flavors have really taken the menu possibilities to new heights for me. I love that guests who enjoy my cuisine expect that they will always find something new, and a little bit surprising to delight them when the visit us! I also love the invention of small plates integrating different cooking techniques and distinct flavor.
JustLuxe: What would you say is the current climate of business in the restaurant industry?
Chris: Our customers appreciate great food in a warm and welcoming atmosphere…I don’t think that ever goes out of style!
JustLuxe: What is your favorite dish to prepare at home as opposed to the plate you enjoy preparing in the kitchen?
Chris: I don’t really have a favorite dish to prepare…I tend to cook from the heart (I am a person who is constantly inspired and it shows in my food- I cook what I feel) but I do love using the Wok at home. The wok is great because I can add whatever I like, fresh ingredients, exotic spices and some kind of meat and it always comes out perfect!
JustLuxe: Besides gastronomy, what other passions do you have?
Chris: Thanks to the success we’ve had with the Straits Restaurant Group, I very much enjoy helping not-for-profit organizations in the Bay Area, like the Starlight Children’s Foundation. The Starlight Children’s Foundation is a wonderful group that helps seriously ill children and their families cope with their illnesses through entertainment, education and family activities. We are offering keepsake Starlight chopsticks at our restaurants right now in fact, and all net proceeds benefit the foundation. We thought this would provide a creative way for customers to give back while commemorating special times with family and friends every time they use them. I’m also a founding member of the ACA (Asian Chefs Association) and work closely with this professional organization that is designed to unify Asian chefs through various charity events. I also have a long-standing involvement with the CYC (formerly Chinatown Youth Center, now Community Youth Center), which fights hunger through twice-weekly lunch donations – fresh from the Straits kitchen – we feed hundreds of San Francisco’s neediest kids, which is extremely rewarding.
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