Profile: The Mixtape Chef
It was a particularly mellow Thursday evening at Seletar Mall, an urban oasis on the outer fringes of Sengkang but in actuality, precisely located in the up and coming neighbourhood of Fernvale. I am very familiar in this area because I live just four bus stops down at Anchorvale and this is the only place this part of town that has Han’s - my go-to casual dining outlet for a plate of fantastic beef striploin aglio olio and a piping hot cup of Teh-si.
The dining options here also run the gamut of cuisines, from the traditional Singaporean fare (Toast Box, Ya Kun Family Cafe, Song Fa Ba Kut Teh) to the more mainstream choices of Swensen’s, Fish & Co, and Hai Di Lao. Although filled to the brim with choices aplenty, unknown to many, there stands a novel dining experience laying dormant amongst non-descript HDB flats, painted green, white, and a shade of wet moss. A dining experience that unlike most, is bespoke, intimate, and exclusive to those in the know, whispered in hush tones amongst those for whom dining is not merely a way to satiate hunger, but a way to distinguish the august from the hoi polloi.
I am of course talking about The Mixtape Chef, a moniker given to home-cook Kenneth Yong, who runs this home-dining experience with his wife and muse, Laureen Goh. The Mixtape Chef appeared on my radar solely because its page was liked by a friend on my list and you know how far my curiosity tends to get the better of me (the answer is far, very, very far). Several clicks later and a few minutes of research and I decided this seems like a very good story to chase. Plus it’s so near where I stay. Could this be a sign sent from the culinary Gods (Christina Tossi, Jordi Roca, and Nancy Silverton)?
At 7.30pm sharp, I arrived with Ian, my friend, and photographer for this evening, greeted buoyantly by a very enthusiastic Laureen, perhaps playing the role of an informal maître d', ushering us into her home that looked every bit as modern as the dining experience they’re promoting. Polished cement flooring covered every inch of this 4-room HDB flat perched on the 18th floor, overlooking Layar LRT Station. Soft ambient music plays out from really fancy speakers, filling the home not just with the smell of a paella being cooked in the kitchen, but also tunes reminiscent of a jazz bar in New York City circa 1995. This careful and almost deliberate setting is almost like a mise en place to the dinner that is about to commence not to be confused with the actual ingredients being prepared by Kenneth who, by now, has conveyed his hello from the kitchen which he has so lovingly and methodically designed from scratch.
Kenneth tells me that essentially, what he and Laureen are doing with The Mixtape Chef is private dining with cuisine inspired by global classics. “Initially, it was difficult for us to pin down our dining concept because we were doing a lot of western food. But I believe that what we do is rooted in classic cooking. It’s also a cuisine because it is not static; it depends on what ingredients are available at the market at the time. We want to refine what are classic cuisines in Singapore and see how we can adopt one classic cuisine into another. For example with our Hainanese chicken risotto, we utilised flavours of Hainanese Chicken rice and combined it with the classic risotto dish, and it turned out really well.”
The customers of The Mixtape Chef are mainly Singaporean foodies with an insatiable appetite for travel. Which bodes well for Kenneth and Laureen as a lot of their recipes and dishes were inspired by the places they travel to. Take his signature Paella for instance. A well-loved Spanish classic, Kenneth recalled having this dish during one of his many travels, inspiring him to not only produce a version closest to what he remembered having but to improve and make it his own. “Food became my way of understanding the world. When I go to a certain country and eat the food, I learn the culture and their way of life.”
As Kenneth popped back into the kitchen to put the finishing touches to the Paella-in-progress, Laureen shared with us the origins of The Mixtape Chef. Back in 2014, they were already toying with the concept of cooking for strangers due in large part to the encouraging comments Kenneth received from friends who praised the food he prepared for them at every dinner party. It didn’t help that Kenneth had a trying time at work and was slowly resentful of his work. Cooking full time started becoming more and more attractive the longer the thought lingered in his mind but he didn’t really have the full and wholehearted support of Laureen. Yet.
That all changed when Laureen witnessed an incident at work where she personally saw the great and ugly lengths people were willing to go climbing up the corporate ladder. It finally dawned on her as to the reasons why Kenneth felt so miserable every day. Empathy firmly in hand, she picked up the phone and told him, “Let’s do this.”
“We started by cooking for people at their houses,” she explained. “We took one week to pack because we didn’t know what they had in their kitchen. He will decide which pots and pans to bring and I will work on the table setting. I’ll ask the hosts to take a picture of the table and when I arrive, I’ll wrap it up with Muji paper to make it look more presentable. Sometimes we’ll arrive at the house and realize that their oven is spoiled. It was very stressful. At the end of the meal, we will clean up the kitchen and most times, we left the kitchen cleaner than when we found it.”
Kenneth is an only child, who grew up in a home where his parents were protective of him and he was expected to follow the prescribed path society chose, both academically and in his career. Being put in a box from early on in life, he developed a ‘stupid sense of adventure’, travelling and playing guitar in a Band. Laureen, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of Kenneth’s wild streak, being extremely comfortable with the status quo. “I don’t mind staying in the box,” she shares with a laugh. “I’m not very motivated or ambitious to explore the other side of my life. I’m very status quo. I know it’s not very good. I hate conflicts, debates. But Kenneth really pushes me beyond my limits. And that’s what I guess made our relationship work.”
“But the fact that we know each other so well is also challenging,” Kenneth chimed in. “I know her weaknesses. I am meticulous and I like to plan things in advance. And she’s not. And because I know she’s the opposite of what I am, I can sometimes come across as naggy to her. The benefit of knowing each other well can be both good and bad.”
Surely the best part of being married to someone who cooks exceedingly well is that one gets to savour some of the most lovingly and meticulously prepared food. It is an advantage Laureen acknowledges. “Kenneth will not allow anything instant in this house. If we want coffee, we have to grind it ourselves. If I’m hungry in the middle of the night, he will absolutely not allow me to eat instant noodle. Instead, he will cook me proper food. I’m not complaining,” she concurs with a smile.
The more he cooks, and with the unavoidable progression of culinary maturity, Kenneth has learned that simplicity is the better part of virtue - at least where cooking is concerned. The brash outlook of youth used to lead him to be slightly heavy handed with ingredients. “Why use water when you can use stock right?” But now, he keeps things simple and in a way extends that philosophy to his life, where he values quality over everything else, choosing to live life simply but happily.
Like a poet, Kenneth understands and accepts that there’s never a definitive end to cooking a dish. But he has several stages of cooking which he employs to ensure that the final presentation lives up to his expectations of what the dish should be.
“The first stage is technique, regardless of whether it is in the precision of timing or water to rice ratio. Stage 2 is flavours; what do you want to add or remove from the dish to contribute to its matureness. Stage 3 is when you start asking yourself, what variety of ingredient do you want to go into this dish. What type of tomatoes should you use? What type of rice? What type of prawns? Stage 4 is the presentation where you fuss over the crunch and the texture. Once you go through all these stages, then it’s probably at the end of its maturity and taste. To me, it’s done, when there’s nothing else I can do to make it better.”
Although The Mixtape Chef refers to Kenneth as the chef, in truth, it is more accurate to regard The Mixtape Chef as an air-tight partnership between husband and wife. As I sat at their gorgeous wood table asking question after question, I cannot help but marvel at how much Laureen and Kenneth complete each other - whether in terms of sentiments, sentences, or thoughts. And for them to welcome strangers into their humble abode and partake in the feast they've prepared with so much love, is a feat most ordinary people with lots of passion in their heart would struggle with. Not here at The Mixtape Chef, where the amalgamation of food, wine, and conversations is a charismatic experience that could only make an already wonderful evening even more memorable and special.