Head chef Luke Armstrong on revamping The Kitchen at Bacchanalia and retaining the coveted Michelin star
A young toque talks
Since it opened along Hongkong Street in 2015, The Kitchen at Bacchanalia has inched its way into that cabal of intimate, almost-fine-dining restaurants serving food that beguiles the mind as much as the palate. Its former head chef Ivan Brehm, a Fat Duck alumnus, built the restaurant's culinary identity upon a delicate line that balanced Southeast Asian flavours and produce, and a cerebral approach to cooking.
No one was shocked when the restaurant earned its first Michelin star last year, but several months later, almost everyone was surprised to hear that Brehm was leaving his post (he declined to comment on his future plans). The young man brought in to take the helm is no neophyte. Twenty-nine-year-old Australian Luke Armstrong was most recently the head chef of Gordon Ramsay's Maze and counts among his mentors Brett Graham of one-Michelin-star The Ledbury, and Sergio Herman, whose now defunct restaurant Oud Sluis boasted three Michelin stars.
With Armstrong behind the range, Bacchanalia has been revamped as a contemporary French restaurant serving fare such as garoupa with poached oyster, mizuna emulsion and a saffron sauce; or grass-fed beef roasted with paperbark and served with bone marrow and a black truffle sauce. Dishes like these are decidedly easier to appreciate and almost quotidian in their concept if not for their underpinning finesse and technique. The dining room, too, has seen a bit of sprucing, with simple yet perceptible touches like the addition of starched tablecloths.
We can't help but wonder if the changing of guard will affect Bacchanalia's chances of keeping its Michelin star this year. Co-owner and director Raj Datwani says he is confident. "We have a new vision of where we want to take Bacchanalia to," he said. "Obviously, we want it to be a place that is first and foremost, busy every day. Luke's background and CV speaks for itself. The restaurants he has worked for have all trained him for this and we are ready for the inspectors to come back."
We spoke to chef Armstrong about his move to Singapore and where he hopes to take The Kitchen at Bacchanalia.
Why did you decide to come to Singapore?
It was a wonderful opportunity to run a restaurant with 34 covers where you are in complete control from the start of the service to the end. The produce we receive from neighbouring countries, from Europe and from Singapore is wonderful. So now we work on the whole package — the food, the wine, the service. And that's very exciting for me.
How are you shaping Bacchanalia?
I think that when a guest comes to the restaurant, they should feel they personally know the chef, they feel the vibe of the restaurant, and the experience. All these small details add up to a lot for the guest. We've gone from what was a restaurant you would go to once a month and of a different style, to a restaurant you can come to two to three times a week for lunch and then come again on a Saturday night to have eight courses and eight different wine selections. I really want to offer something that's outside of the box. We change the menu regularly based on the seasons. We have a very solid technique and foundation behind every dish. Nothing is left to chance. Everything is very thoroughly thought about.
Will you continue to focus on the Southeast Asian produce as chef Brehm did?
I go to the market two or three times a week. I always buy my leafy greens and herbs from Tekka. My fruit usually comes from the market as well, unless it's something like white peaches and white strawberries that we may get from Japan in season, then we really seek out the product.
We use garoupa on the lunch menu because it is a product from Singapore. We don't produce a lot of stuff in Singapore, so we support the local guys out here who are doing a great job. With the local stuff (that we use), it has to be from a complete chain. I have to know the guy, I need to know how the fish is treated, what it's fed, and the process of killing the fish. That all needs to be clear. Once I feel confident about it, then I use it.
How have your experiences at your previous restaurants informed the way you cook today?
I'm so grateful to have worked with all the mentors that I've had. They are, literally, the best chefs. Sergio Herman probably had the biggest impact on my career, from small details to the end product, such as the thought process of putting together a lunch menu where we satisfy the business, guest and neighbouring locals, to working on an eight-course tasting menu with fresh ideas, less butter, less sugar, more high-quality butter when we roast our meat and fish, but no cream in the sauce. Really, really light cooking, fresh produce and lots of citrus.
We're in Singapore, we're not in Alaska. We have to make sure that the food is relevant to the weather. I want to make sure when they leave, guests feel light, fresh and energised after having eight courses, as opposed to wanting to go home and roll over, you know? I really want people to feel the excitement of the dishes whether they've had three courses or eight.
What has been the biggest compliment and toughest critique you've received since taking over Bacchanalia?
The best compliment was when a very well-known chef from France came in for lunch one day and then came back again the next day for another meal. I didn't know him before I cooked for him. We've had this happen not once but three times — people have come in for lunch and then dinner or for dinner and then lunch the next day. That's a huge compliment for me. I haven't had any critiques or complaints... but by all means, we don't take anything for granted.
Do you think you'll be able to keep the restaurant's Michelin star?
I get up in the morning to cook fantastic food for my guests. I don't get up in the morning to cook for awards and accolades. Once you start doing that, then you start making mistakes. My focus is to make lovely food for all our guests. It's like Premier League football — none of the teams focus on winning the championship; they focus on the game. And that's what I do.
The Kitchen at Bacchanalia. 39 HongKong Street.