Talking Coffee and Cooking with Celebrity Chef Justin Quek
Justin Quek knows that most memorable dining experiences are those that end with a great cup of coffee. The celebrity chef, who's also one of Vittoria's long-time ambassadors has always been a perfectionist when it comes to choosing quality ingredients and this extends to his choice of beans and blends. Quek has been the Principal Chef at Sky on 57, a celebrated restaurant on the 57th floor of Singapore's Marina Bay Sands for the past seven years.
"Coffee is such an important part of the meal," laughs Justin, who's in Sydney to cook at an exclusive Vittoria dinner at the Star and has collaborated with the brand since 2010. "In the morning, people want their coffee! When I first started at Sky, I said, 'I want fresh coffee' and the manager said to me, 'please no, its too hard with 300 covers.' But I'm very particular, I want to see the crema. I decided to go with Vittoria because they use 100 percent Arabica beans. Customers remember how they start and end a meal. Good coffee gives a great first impression. It's not a small detail.
Along with passion and determination, Justin's attention to small details have seen him become one of the best-known culinary forces in Asia and rank among the most respected chefs in the world. Over the last three decades, he's trained at the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok. He's worked in Michelin-starred restaurants in France and London - under the likes of Roland Mazere and Michel Roux Jr. And he's co-run Les Amis, the award-winning Singapore restaurant that introduced Asia to Franco-Asian cuisine. It's a trajectory so sparkling it's easy to forget that he started out as a catering hand on a merchant ship.
"Before I was in the military, I was helping my mum who's a fruit-seller and met backpackers who influenced me to see the world," says Justin, who also runs a bistro called Grignoter. "I didn't do well at school and thought the cheapest way to do this was to become a seaman. I wasn't qualified to be an engineer so at 19 I became a catering hand. When I first learned how to bake bread, I was so inspired by the flour, sugar, the smell in the kitchen! In 1985, I went to Bangkok and ended up in the Mandarin Oriental and for the next four years I got paid 80 cents an hour and worked 15 hour days! I met a French Chef in the cafe who trained me and made me cry but he really pushed me. In life, it's important that you meet the right people.
Justin used his savings to move to France where chefs were swapping heavy, classic dishes for lighter, produce-driven nouvelle cuisine. This set the stage for the culinary style he's become famous for, a fusion of French traditions and Asian flavours. It's an approach that still drives his vision today.
l'd been cooking for seven years by the time I moved to France but it was all about discipline and leadership so I had to start all over again," says Justin, who counts fois gras dumplings filled with consomme and Hokkien noodles with live lobster among his signature dishes. "In Asia, we have so many spices and whether you're Thai, Vietnamese or Cantonese, the technique is amazing. European cuisine is simpler but the finesse is so high. I'm also inspired by hawker stalls - but I'd omit the bad produce and use lobster, wagyu beef from Japan and Australia.Unsurprisingly, Justin sees possibilities for every kind of ingredient. Although he starts his day with a long black, he thinks coffee doesn't always have to be sipped.
"I recently made a roasted lack of lamb with Vittoria coffee creme and a Vittoria creme brûlé with hazelnut creme," he grins. "These are dishes you need to try!"