Chef Joseph Ong cooks with a grill because, by his own admission, it is the cheapest piece of equipment around. “I don’t have money to buy a stove,” said the 23-year-old, who helms The Art of the Grill. It is an interactive 11-course barbecue he hosts at the Naiise pop-up store.
Ong’s ingredients are fresh and locally-sourced – in his first dish, which he calls mussels in kimchi, the mussels are sourced from a local kelong that also does seafood home deliveries. Later, he reveals that the baby potatoes in a potato and pea salad were a last minute addition because he saw some nice baby potatoes at the wet market that morning. No one could tell – most of us at the table agreed that the baby potatoes lent a nice savoury counter to the rawness of the peas.
In this way he brings the art to the grill – Ong’s cooking is creative and experimental, stumbling upon happy accidents and arriving at great flavours.
His version of old cucumber soup is tart, concentrated and intense, unlike any other rendition I have tried at a Chinese restaurant. It is made purely from the flesh of old cucumbers – roasted overnight, the skin chars while the insides liquify, and Ong merely strains and seasons the soup before serving it with a sprinkling of pork floss.
“No water?” asks one of the guests in disbelief, echoing my thoughts. Ong affirms, adding that when he first tried grilling the cucumbers, he was just trying to soften the insides. But I cut one open and it was all liquid, he said. So soup it was.
The aspiring chef, who has done stints in local restaurants such as Tung Lok, as well as in Denmark, is heavily inspired by a meal he had at Noma, which topped this year’s list of 50 best restaurants in the world. A basket of smoked and pickled quail eggs was adapted from a dish he tried at Noma. Their version pickled the eggs in apple cider vinegar, but Ong wanted a more Asian flavour, so he smoked them in tea leaves and pickled them in rice wine instead.
The result is a meal that is fun, earnest and always surprising. Eat it all, then I’ll tell you what it is, says Ong multiple times throughout the course of the three-hour dinner.
Together with his assistants, which includes ‘chef and foodie’ Chris Ng from Ah Bong’s Italian, he pops in and out of the dining area to serve food, top up drinks (a roasted barley concoction that is thick, gelatinous and gently sweet) and explain the elements and inspiration behind the dishes.
Ong uses this time to interact with the guests – there are just ten of us, making the whole thing feel like a dinner party in someone’s home. The event, which was advertised on Naiise’s Instagram feed (@Naiise), was fully booked within two hours.
“I could work in a restaurant, but then I wouldn’t get to talk to people,” he says. He also solicits feedback about the food. A pumpkin and prawn dish topped with pumpkin puree is one of the favourites of the night, and when we tell it to him, Ong shines.
For many aspiring F&B owners the dream is to own their own establishment, but Ong has not even looked that far. For now, he just wants to host dinners like these on the beach, although he concedes that the elements pose the biggest threat. I would love to eat dinner like that at the beach, so I want to serve meals there, says Ong, who who holds down a day job at Ah Bong’s Italian and did the preparation for the pop-up dinner all night.
Ong’s enthusiasm is evident not just in the food, but the little touches he brings to the dinner. At the end he hands out handwritten menus on red construction paper, a keepsake from the dinner. The food items are simply named – ‘Quail eggs.. actually just egg,’ he writes.
“I’m bad with naming my food,” said Ong, when the Instagrammers at the table (that means all of us) asked what some of the dishes were called. Even Instagram is too much of a stretch for him – “I can’t take pictures of food – I made all the food at Noma look like shit,” he laughs.
But he can leave the Instagramming to us. All Ong needs to do is cook, and the pictures will follow.