How a Zi Char Chef from Clementi Won Gold at a International Culinary Competition
At A-Poh Kitchen, a halal restaurant in the heartland of Clementi, Chef Zhen Shun King, 31, is a master of the wok, cooking up the flavours that every Singaporean tastebud is familiar with and craves when they are away from home. But his initiative, hunger to learn more, and tenacity through failed culinary attempts got him through hours of gruelling training after work, to clinch himself first place in a very prestigious competition- the 5th Golden Chef Challenge, held in Kuching, Sarawak in Malaysia in July this year.
Just how prestigious is this competition?
It involves over 500 participants, more than half of whom are international participants from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, the United States, South Korea, and Indonesia. Among those present at the opening were Sarawak Tourism Ministry permanent secretary Datu Ik Pahon Joyik, Consul General of the People’s Republic of China in Kuching Fu Jijun, and culinary consultant Martin Yan — host of the long-running ‘Yan Can Cook’ show. You remember the famous tagline in the 90s don’t you? “If Yan Can Cook, So Can You!” (Unfortunately Mr Yan, you are a famous culinary consultant and I am a normal human being, so I still can’t cook.)
“Boss, I want to join this competition, can or not?”
When Chef Zhen Shun King, or better known as King, wanted to enter this cooking competition, he told his boss- Operations Manager Sulaiman, 38, about it. Sulaiman was initially shocked that King wanted to enter this competition but encouraged it. There was a catch. If King wanted to enter, he would have to train under Sulaiman. It was only then that King found out that Sulaiman was a well trained Western chef, having served as a private chef for many years, perfecting the culinary methods in the Western style.
With a set of ingredient list that they could work with for the competition, they had only four months to the competition. Four months for Sulaiman to come up with recipes which reflected Chinese culinary cuisine, and for King to learn all he could about new Western culinary methods.
“I squeezed everything I learnt over decades, into four short months. It was intense,” recalled Sulaiman.
With four months left into the competition, King had to train everyday with Sulaiman, directly after his work at A Poh Kitchen ended at 10 p.m. at night. They would learn and practice all the way till 3 a.m. everyday until the competition date (naturally this didn’t make their wives and children happy!)
Fail, so what? Try again!
With such new and complicated cooking methods, like smoking meat and creating espuma, or culinary foam (much like sea foam), King messed up many times. On top of that, he had to create seven plates of dishes in 2 hours. Standard competitions required only three dishes.
“I failed many times. Sulaiman shouted at me a lot of times but I took that as good feedback. Everytime I failed I repeated the process again. I actually liked that he scolded me. It means that he wanted me to learn and be better,” said King. He had to persist on to present something truly new in Chinese culinary cuisine. Sulaiman and King wanted to serve Chinese flavours, through Western cooking styles. At the same time, they innovated using non-conventional techniques, like using a wok to create oven-like conditions to create smoked meat.
King had only perfected the dish two days before the competition. The day after, they had to fly off to Sarawak. There was no more time to practice. It was time to just go for it.
Challenge after Challenge Before the Competition.
In a quick turn of events, upon the team’s arrival in Kuching, they found out that the organisers would not be supplying ingredients for them. Unable to have time to panic, they woke up at 5 a.m. the next day to head to the markets to find the freshest ingredients. They came across another problem, no matter how many markets they went, they could not find several ingredients. Sulaiman decided to replace the ingredients on the spot.
When they were called to compete they found out that other participants had brought along ingredients which were not included in the list of ingredients allowed, including typical Chinese delicacies like abalone. But King put his head down and continued to do what he had been training the last four months to do.
“And the winner is…!”
The team did not think they stood a chance against the other chefs in the competition from around the world, but it was Chef King who could hold the trophy, which weighed 20kg. His name would join the previous winners and be engraved onto the trophy.
Chef King had achieved what he set out to do by participating in the competition- learning and mastering new culinary techniques.
When asked what’s next for him, he answered, “I am looking out for new competitions, maybe next year.” Chef King’s determination and curiosity to learn more new things keeps growing.
“This time we definitely need to give ourselves more time to prepare so that it won’t be so tiring and intense!” added Sulaiman.
Till then, you can view the Challenge Trophy at A Poh Kitchen and try out their delicious Chinese zhi-char style cuisine. If you ask nicely, you might try taking a photo with the huge trophy at their counter!
A Poh Kitchen is located at Block 354, Clementi Avenue 2, #01-223 Singapore 120354. Find out about their opening hours and more about the restaurant here.