Profile: Justin Foo, Provisions Asia
7 Dempsey Road, #01-04,
Perhaps it’s the inaccessibility of grand ole dame Dempsey Hill that adds to its allure of exclusivity. After all, here is where some of Singapore’s most unique and, dare I say, quality restaurants are housed. Dempsey Hill is home to produce-driven restaurant Open Farm Community, the oh-so-chic PS Cafe, and a Modern European dining institution that, in my opinion, serves up some of the best freshly baked bread as starters; The White Rabbit.
But those restaurants are not why I’m here at 1 pm in the afternoon, making my way up the hills of Dempsey, a cool breeze caressing my cheeks (it’s January, also known as Winter in Singapore). I’m here to speak to a Singaporean chef, born and bred.
Walking up the hill is all a little bit surprising to me, seeing all these lush green foliage dotting the surrounding knolls. I have never been up here in the daytime, usually dropping by for dinner or drinks nearer to the stroke of midnight and never on foot. So this is all new to me and as I make my way past the old military camp structures (now housing the odd carpet or furniture retailer) it almost feels like I’ve never been here before.
As I neared the dining enclave known as 6ix and 7even, it strikes me even more that I’ve never been to this part of the hill. But here is where Chef Justin Foo chose to open his first restaurant, Provisions, under the awning of his company, Union Bridge Lifestyle. Our appointment was for 1 pm, two hours shy of the restaurant’s operating hours that stretch all the way to slightly past midnight. As I sat down to prepare for this interview, I took a good look around the place and realised that its namesake is an obvious homage to the provision shops we know from the past, with the vintage coin slot toy capsule machines there, the old sewing machine over on the other side, and the many types of vinyl that adorn the length of the facing wall. I would soon realise how important this idea of homage is to Justin and his inspiration for Provisions.
I asked about his family and what was the exact moment he knew that cooking would be something he wanted to do professionally. “I come from a seemingly normal Chinese family. We had food to eat and a roof over our head. Before the recession, my dad started a company, but his business went south during the financial turbulence and he had to repay a lot of debts,” he shared.
The big recession of 1998 was a major financial blow for Singapore, a country thought to be too resilient to be affected by the the financial woes of the region.
“He went back to working and was about to pay off all these debts when he had aortic aneurysm and passed away when I was fifteen,” Justin continued, his gaze wandering off as most are wont to do when reminiscing. “All the main arteries on the right side of his body raptured. That was the moment I had to think of what to do in future. Do I want to do what my dad did? I didn’t really know what to do. But I knew I wanted to celebrate my dad’s life; he loves to eat. At that point in time, I was already interested in cooking. So I thought that I should cook for a living. You can say that my love for cooking started out from a very traumatic point in my life. I wanted to help my mum but I also wanted to do something that reminded me of my dad.” There it is, an homage to family.
Justin’s educational background in food is as exhaustive as it is impressive. He studied at the Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Institute in Ottawa, Canada immediately after National Service, from 2009 to 2010. Upon graduation, he worked with Chef Andre Chiang for a year and a half at Restaurant Par Andre as a Commis Chef before becoming Chef De Partie at Le Saint Julien at the age of 21. In 2014, he was appointed the Head Chef of Senso Ristorante and Bar and at 26 years old, was the Food & Beverage Manager of French company, Sodexo Singapore.
With such an extensive background (both in school and in the kitchen) in European cuisine, surely the decision to dedicate the food concept of Provisions to one that leans towards Asian fare is deliberate. Being Asian himself, Justin wanted to return to his cultural culinary roots and cook dishes that come from the heart. Having headed kitchens of fine dining European restaurants, he knows that, from a business perspective, it would be very challenging to compete with other French or European chefs simply because he is not of European origins. “I was a little bit jaded with European food. It was almost the same everywhere; from the accessible fine dining restaurant to the very exclusive ones, it’s all the same. Many items were repeated. They follow a trend. If someone uses this product, everyone will also use the same product. It was so industrial, so ‘chef-fy’.”
So intense was his love for Asian and Singapore food that for a period of time, he ate a bowl of Bak Chor Mee every night. This love, it seems, is only rivaled by an equal passion for Fishball Noodles, the creation of which he sought to learn from his Uncle. “But each time I thought I had it right, my uncle would say something is wrong. There’s a lot of soft skills and intricacies that go into the perfect bowl of noodles. I can make a passable bowl but knowing how the best bowl of noodles tastes like, I know it will take me some time to master the skill.”
“What could be more soulful, warmer than Claypot Rice?” Justin opines wistfully when I asked why he chose to make Claypot rice the main dish of Provisions. “Claypot rice was what I crave for last time. It’s damn shiok. On a cold day, all you need is claypot rice with the burnt crispy bits.”
And what, dare I ask, is the secret to a good Claypot rice? “The secret is in the control of the fire. People talk about the burnt bits, but it’s not actually burnt. It’s charred. If it’s burnt, you can’t eat it. The char gives it the aroma. Everything else is subjective. But the common denominator is that the rice needs to have that charred smokiness throughout the rice and all the ingredients.”
Justin founded Union Bridge Lifestyle because he wanted a space to bring people together. Indeed, that sense of camaraderie is reflected in the way he manages his staff; ensuring their well-being at work and being involved in their success and their growth at Provisions.
“I’ve always worked in companies where the bosses are not very good and the focus is on the money. Along the way, the values erode. What’s more important? Money or the people? A lot of the time we’re too people-centric and we have people who use the excuse of the company values to protect their self interest first rather than have a collective effort to get where we want to go as a company.”
He defines his measure of success by knowing that he has a restaurant to call his own. “When you see repeat customers and they love the environment, the food, the staff and the interactions with my staff and me then I’ve succeeded in some sense to translate my purpose into operations and subsequently into an experience for my customers.”
I like to ask all my guests what was their fondest food memory growing up. Justin took a moment to gather his thoughts and shared that his fondest memory of food from his childhood was the times when his family, all five of them, gathered together for a meal. “It rarely happens”, he quips, “To be together as a family unit, to talk over a meal, that’s actually a luxury. To have everyone at the same table, that makes the meal more important.”
He talks about his grandma with adoring fondness, recalling how she cooks for all 16 of her family members weekly even till now. In a way, it almost seems fated for Justin to venture into this line; his grandad was a chef, while his uncle had a noodle shop in Tanglin Halt.
“My grandad passed on early because of mental illness; the high pace of the kitchen did not help. He overdosed on medication and passed on. In a sense, my grandma and my mum are similar. Both of them are strong women. They supported the family, making sure everyone was well fed and well taken care of. So, everytime we eat at the same table, it’s always a warm feeling for me. There’s no one memorable meal. That one meal will remind me of the other meals we sat down together to eat. It’s just, special.”
There’s an unmistakable sense of melancholy and reflection when I spoke to Justin in the course of this forty-five minutes interview. Like all other Chef/Owner, he pours his heart and soul into the running of Provisions, often sacrificing sleep and rest to ensure success of his restaurant. Seven months into the launch, I wondered, what keeps him going?
“For me, everyday that I wake up, there’s an opportunity there. To be able to make it today, and to know you can make it for tomorrow and the day after, that is enough for me to keep going on.”