A conversation with JAAN’s Chef de Cuisine, Kirk Westaway, and his mother
Dining at the one Michelin-starred JAAN is always a beautiful culinary adventure. It starts off with that unparalleled vista of the Marina Bay area, which easily rivals the view from New York City's Top of The Rock on a clear blue day. The music is soft, the ambience is pleasant and quiet, and the wait staff are genuinely polite and well-informed.
Whether it's a lunch or dinner degustation, you're in for a treat. Chef Kirk Westaway helms the team at JAAN, bringing with him a passion for quality produce, and creating profiles and techniques that enhance the natural flavours of each unique ingredient. From his signature Fish and Chips, to his gorgeous Alaskan King Crab, each dish brings together a glorious mix of textures and flavours that have taken a long time to craft. The cod in the Fish and Chips, for instance, is seasoned with peppercorn, salt, fennel seeds, and coriander seeds for six hours, and then poached in milk with onions, garlic and bay leaves. It's then served in a baby potato sack, reminiscent of how potatoes are packed when they are imported into England.
There were a few unforgettable dishes, in our opinion. The Roasted Potatoes and Truffle Bouillon is a warm blend of potato espuma and potato gravel served with ground macadamia nuts and chopped chives in a wonderful soup made of mushroom and seaweed stock. It was divine, and it was all we could do to not request for more. Chef Kirk's Scottish Langoustine, glazed in red caramelised butter, is another otherworldly delight.
Before our meal, we had the grand opportunity to sit down with Chef Kirk, and his mother, Julia Westaway, who was in town for a week. We find out more about how Chef Kirk's childhood memories in Exmouth, England, play a part in his cooking today, and what the mother-son pair have learnt from each other over the years.
Kirk, how did your mum play a role in your cooking career?
Kirk Westaway (KW): Growing up, we did a lot of cooking and baking together — like soups, vegetables, and Sunday Roast. Mum would always involve us in the kitchen from a young age, and I always remember making lots of wholesome, comfort dishes.
And Julia, what was your first reaction when Chef Kirk said he wanted to be a chef?
Julia Westaway (JW): He didn't actually say I think. He grew into that, and he enjoyed being in my kitchen, and participating and creating food. He went from there to enjoy cooking for restaurants locally and overseas. He never said, "Mum, I'm going to be a chef." That never happened.
What's the first skill you taught your children in the kitchen?
JW: Peeling potatoes! We used to grow potatoes as well.
What do you think of Chef Kirk's cooking?
JW: I always tell him I'm impressed and I'm very proud. I never thought he would be where he is today. We were from humble beginnings — I didn't have aspirations for them; I wished them well and encouraged them in all that they did. I didn't quite have the foresight that Kirk would be where he is today.
"I grew up in a very friendly household, where I have loving parents and a great family, and that's an attribute I take to the kitchen."
What are some of the greatest skills you've learnt from each other in the kitchen (or out of the kitchen)?
KW: I've learnt all about cultivating a great personality from my parents. You know, I grew up in a very friendly household, where I have loving parents and a great family, and that's an attribute I take to the kitchen. Kitchens are always perceived as aggressive boiling points of fear and anger, but my parents were good to people and nice in the kitchen. Now, we have 15 guys here at JAAN and while I am strict and serious when it comes to work, we're also best friends out of the kitchen.
KW: What did you learn from me, Mum?
JW: So many things, but I believe the main one would be focus. I'm a bit haphazard and quite random when I cook, and your focus is something I can have more of.
In terms of the dishes you put up at JAAN, does Mum and your family have a heavy influence or has that evolved over the years?
KW: Every time I do a dish, I think of the memories I had as a child, like what I was had in my hometown or fed at the dinner table and it still has an influence. Like the ingredients I enjoyed then, and the styles of food that I used to eat. Obviously, if you look at it, you'd never see any kind of resemblance but the flavour profiles and the ideas in my head have evolved from what I used to know.
What do you make of the food scene in Singapore?
KW: It's buzzing and expectations are incredibly high. People really expect the best which is a great challenge for all of us. Food is at the highest level, from fine dining to hawker centre fare. I mean, I take the guys out at 2am for a snack after work and we'll go out for Tian Tian Seafood, and it costs a couple of hundred dollars amongst 15 people and that's amazing. Everybody is a foodie, knows about food, and wants to be involved in food.
What's one advice you'd both give to a budding chef?
JW: My advice would be to start at the bottom because you have to learn everything. To be a top chef, you need to know what the person washing up is doing, and if you start there and work your way up, you'll appreciate all the hard work your team is doing.
KW: Don't just cook for glory, or because you're in for a target. Cook because you enjoy it, because you enjoy being with people, the team, and you enjoy food. That's what energises me every single day — seeing the ingredients, being creative and putting together dishes.