With a spoonful of drive, a dollop of hard work, a splash of opportunity and a bucketful of determination, Mathew Leong may well be on his way to his dream of opening a Michelin-starred restaurant. Find out how a 13-year-old’s brush with a simple salmon dish fuelled him to the head chef position at Norway’s RE-NAA today.
20 Apr 2022 / By Mathew Leong
The humble beginnings of a Norwegian salmon
I was 13 when I had my first brush with culinary — under my teachers’ recommendations, I took part in my first culinary competition in Secondary School. My first culinary competition was also the competition that gave me my first gold.
During one of the competitions I had competed in when I was 13, the theme for the competition was Norwegian Salmon, and Chef Jimmy Chok was one of the judges. Even though I did not emerge as champion, Chef Jimmy Chok saw the potential in me and offered me the chance to spend a day with him in his kitchen at his restaurant located in the Supreme Court. I remember being in awe the first time I stepped into his professionally run kitchen — at that moment, I knew that this is where my passion lies, and this is what I want to do.
This experience really ignited my passion to be a chef. If it were not for this opportunity given to me, I would not be where I am today, embarking on this culinary journey.
There is Norway I thought I would get this lucky
I did not specifically choose Norway to pursue my career. The opportunity came and I decided to take it. After completing my National Service, I sent more than 100 resumes to restaurants all around the world and was lucky enough to get a reply from two-Michelin-starred RE-NAA, which is in Stavanger, Norway, to take on the role as Chef De Partie.
I know that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so without hesitation, then 21, I packed my bags and left for Norway. I heard so much about all the great chefs from Scandinavian, including Chef Geir Skeie, a Norwegian chef and restaurateur, winner of the 2008 Bocuse d’Or Europe, the 2009 Bocuse d’Or world final, and my inspiration. He was only 29 years old when he was crowned the champion at 2009 Bocuse d’Or, and I told myself that I want to make history and be the youngest Asian contestant to clinch gold.
After my one-year stint with RE-NAA, I returned to Singapore for 8 months before Chef Ulrik Jepsen, Co-owner of a Michelin Plate restaurant, À L’aise in Norway, Oslo, offered me the role as a Chef De Partie. In a span of 3 years, I was promoted to be the Head Chef.
Now, I am back in two-Michelin-starred RE-NAA, as the Executive Chef.
Life up North
Compared to Singapore, the pace of life in Norway is a lot slower hence it was quite a bit of a challenge to adapt when I first moved to Norway as I was already so used to the fast-paced society in Singapore. But I love how Norway is so naturally beautiful! The first time I was in Norway, I was visibly struck by her sheer beauty. Although it is normal to experience episodes of rain and wind along the coast, the beautiful landscapes truly make up for it. During my breaks, I also go to other cities for hiking and skiing!
Singapore Repping at the culinary Olympics
The most memorable part of my journey is being the youngest candidate representing Singapore to compete in Bocuse d’Or Finals 2021, a biennial world chef championship in France which is the equivalent of the ‘culinary’ Olympics. I finished 12th place against 23 culinary giants from around the world and was one of my career milestones! It was an honour to represent Singapore on a prestigious global stage.
To prepare for the competition, I was training alongside my team for three years. Back then, I was working as a Head Chef at Restaurant A L’aise from Tuesday to Saturday. During my days off, I would train for Bocuse d’Or Final 2021 with my team in my own kitchen, each training session averaging 10 hours. The three years of preparation was a tedious process, yet an extremely fulfilling experience.
Drawing inspiration from our garden city
My favourite dishes are the two that I prepared for Bocuse d’Or Final 2021. I had around four months to plan and conceptualise my dishes, as well as to design my platter and takeaway box. Singapore is known as a Garden City, with natural elements weaving in its architecture. With the theme for the competition placing strong emphasis on sustainability and nature, I wanted to showcase Singapore’s commitment in being the world’s greenest city, hence I decided to take inspiration from Gardens by the Bay. I wanted to show everyone Singapore’s transformation into a sustainability garden city through our effort and commitment on this global platform.
I chose Gardens by the Bay to be the focus because apart from it being recognised internationally, there are many other elements and attractions like the Supertrees and Cloud Dome which I brought to life through my food by employing the use of innovation and technology – both which I strongly believe will shape the future of food.
6000 miles away from home
Other than my family and loved ones, I really miss local food of course.
Besides my mum’s signature dishes — Cantonese steamed fish and Stir fry beef with scallions, I also really miss eating local food like Or Jian (Fried oyster omelette), Hokkien Mee (Fried prawn noodles), Chilli Crab, Satay, and drinking my favourite teh-peng (Iced milk tea).
Although I do make some of these dishes in Norway whenever I crave them, they just don’t taste the same as home. Whenever I am back in Singapore, I will visit Long Beach at Dempsey, which serves amazing chilli crab and salted egg crab — two dishes that truly provides a real taste of Singapore!
… and some final words for dream seekers.
I always believe that tough times don’t last, tough people do. The road during the start of the journey may be tough, with many hurdles and challenges to overcome along the way, but preservation and hard work will eventually pay off.
My motto in life is that success will only come to those who work hard for it, for themselves.
Being in this industry is never easy, we work long hours and there is a lot of pressure. But if you are passionate about it, it is important that you create opportunities for yourself and not just wait for opportunities to come knocking on your door. Be courageous enough to step out of your comfort zone because that is how you will learn and grow.
Advice for those looking to chase their passions overseas? Always stay focused and driven. You moved overseas for a purpose — so it is important that you stay disciplined and focused to achieve your dreams.
Mathew is currently the Head Chef at two-MICHELIN-starred restaurant Re-naa in Norway, Stavanger. At the age of 21, after completing his National Service, he moved to Norway to embark on his culinary career. Last year, he was the youngest candidate ever to represent Singapore at Bocuse d’Or Final 2021, a biennial world chef championship in France which is the equivalent of the ‘culinary’ Olympics.
Connect with him here.