Who has the crown to the most expensive chicken rice in Singapore? Chatterbox, move aside, here’s the new champion.
Chef Justin Quek
Singaporean son Justin Quek made a homecoming to helm this rooftop restaurant anchored on his Franco-Asian inventions. After stints in Michelin-starred kitchens in Europe, being personal chef of the French ambassador to Singapore, and co-founding Les Amis, he went on to set up lauded establishments in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Quek is Teochew like me and his family business in the past was a fruit stall in Queen Street. His father died when he was seven. He has 11 other siblings and he attended Broadrick Secondary School. Quek had always wanted to travel. After his NS in Singapore, at 20 years old, he got a job as a steward. It was after two years as a seaman that led him to his passion of cooking.
He then went on to learn the basics of cooking at the Singapore Hotel and Tourism Education Center (SHATEC) for one year. After his graduation in 1986, Quek continued his culinary training at The Oriental’s hotels in Bangkok and Singapore under chef Bertrand Langlet, who encouraged him to go to France to further his training. In 1991, Quek used his life savings of $40,000 to travel to France to greatly improve his skills. He returned to Singapore in 1992, taking the place of personal chef at the French Embassy, serving two high commissioners.
Quek then joined Les Amis at Shaw House, Singapore. In 2004, he left Les Amis to establish a new restaurant called La Petite Cuisine in Taipei. He opened another French eatery La Platane, a fine-dining Chinese restaurant Villa du Lac and a restaurant named Fountain at Xintiandi, Shanghai. He sold all businesses in Shanghai in 2009 and opened Just In Bistro & Wine Bar and fine-dining French restaurant Justin’s Signatures in Taipei. Sold all business in Taipei in 2013.
In short, he is a serial entrepreneur.
The Stars on 57
While Justin is well-trained in the French techniques, he has made Sky on 57 his playground to showcase his Chinese heritage. While dinner was mainly French haute cuisine, lunch service was nothing short of a Chinese love affair.
Foie gras xiaolongbao – Here , the Chinese dumpling meets the French bourgeois. Everyone knows xiaolongbao. But Justin was one of the first to elevate the simple xiaolongbao to include foie gras as a lux ingredient. The result was a really flavourful and moist xiaolongbao that you would want to eat in a bowl, so that you would not waste any of the liquid in the dumpling.
Singapore “Sakura” Chicken Rice – Singapore’s contribution to the culinary roadmap is the Hainanese chicken rice. Unlike the Thai, Malaysian or even Hainan versions, the Singapore version is all about the chilli. If you get the chilli wrong, everything is wrong. Here at Sky on 57, the chicken was poached to a succulent and flavourful tenderness, the chilli was just right, and the rice was plump and flavourful, glistening with the chicken oil. So the holy trinity was complete. But he pushed the envelop further by using a rather lean and small chicken, hence you can only get 4 serves per chicken.
What is SAKURA chicken?
It is a commonly seen chilled chicken brand sold in major local supermarkets and wet markets. This “designer” chicken, which boasts succulent meat and lower fat and cholesterol content, is the brainchild of Singapore’s second largest poultry producer, the Kee Song Group. It produces 6.25 million chickens a year and is keen to make its presence known internationally for its stimulant- and medicine-free products, bred in a sustainable way.
What makes them “designer” is that Sakura chickens are bred using a Japanese farming technology in which chickens live in a temperature-controlled, clean environment with enough space for them to roam about while listening to Mozart. The birds are fed with lactobacillus-infused feed and are free from antibiotics and growth hormones. Kee Song came to know about this technology in 2005, when a Japanese professor came searching for chicken producers to test his lactobacillus strain that was to be added to the chicken feed.
Together, Kee Song and the professor embarked on experiments, importing the lactobacillus strains from Japan and testing them at its chicken farm in Yong Peng. In 2007, they launched Sakura chicken in Singapore, but it was met initially with a lukewarm response. The company then put effort into marketing and promotions to educate consumers on eating chicken that is free from growth hormones and antibiotics. My daughter’s pre-school used to serve these chickens to them, and she called them “Yakult chicken” because of the good bacteria. It has now gained a stable customer base. To date, Sakura chickens account for 30 per cent of Kee Song’s overall sales.
Wok-fried Maine Lobster Hokkien Noodles – the piece de resistance of Sky on 57 was their hokkien noodles. The lux treatment was the Maine Lobster and the stock made with the lobster. Everything else was what you and I would find in the best hokkien noodles in the hawker centre – wokhei, the mystical smokiness from the cast iron wok, was present in the French fine dining restaurant.
The rest of the food was good, but not exactly memorable. Perhaps it was the lunch service, perhaps it was the set menu, but the rest did not live up to Justin’s strong reputation from Les Amis.
However the view on the 57th level of MBS was the other attraction. Just imagine what a view ti would be if the sky wasn’t so smoggy from the Indonesian slash-and-burn at this time of the year.
PS : Another closed fine dining restaurant, and I promised it’s the last of the trilogy that I have put up for this series that talk about the short lifespan of fine dining restaurants in Singapore, starting with LP+Tetsu (what’s not), Guy Savoy (what a loss), and finally Sky on 57 (what makes money).
In today’s Lianhe Zaobao was an article about why Chinese fine dining could not get the proper accolades. I wanted to say, it’s not the accolades that fantastic chefs should be after. Great chefs get the food right before anything else. I am a big fan of Justin Quek since his Les Amis days. And I still think that his Maine lobster Hokkien mee and the foie gras xiaolongbao were fantastic ideas way ahead of the curve.
He is pretty sure that he is in this business to make money. When Michelin launched the guide in Singapore, many were surprised he did not get the nod. Now, a lot of those who did have closed their restaurants in Singapore. The glam around the shining new casinos was gone and finally the financials speak for itself – the money is in bistro and casual dining because that’s what the general population will ask for more. Now Justin has embarked on the next phase, armed with his xiaolongbao and hokkien mee, to open the Chinese bistro Chinoiserie and casual Chinese restaurant JustIN, both at MBS.
I am pretty sure these 2 will be given the Michelin nod pretty soon.
PPS: After my recent visit (Mar 2019) to JUSTin, I don’t think Michelin would be smiling at them anytime soon.
Sky on 57
L57 Marina Bay Sands Hotel
10 Bayfront Ave Singapore 018956
Date visited: Mar 2012