Justin Quek: From Sailor to Legendary Kitchen Warrior

Justin Quek: From Sailor to Legendary Kitchen Warrior


Passionate and approachable. As I sat next to renowned celebrity chef Justin Quek, these two qualities immediately stood out and I knew the interview was going to be a lot of fun.

As one of Asia’s most celebrated chefs, Justin is a very humble and friendly figure. So good is his modern approach to French cuisine that the French ambassador to Singapore had to visit the kitchen to believe that a Singaporean was responsible for such wonderful food back when Justin was sole chef at the embassy.

At Marina Bay Sands third Epicurean Market, Justin sat down with us and shared the story of his humble beginnings, his versatile cooking mastery, and his personal experience in Jogja, Indonesia.

Q: I feel very fortunate to meet you here at this amazing international culinary party! How powerful do you think this event is and have you enjoyed your time here so far?

A: Oh, very much! The ambience is unbelievable. This year is more organized and there’s a very healthy traffic all day long. The response is amazing as well. We are here to share and to let people experience what we have to offer as much as they want. This goal, I believe we’ve more than accomplished. I mean look, you can notice even kids and the elderly are out here enjoying themselves.

Q: Given the success of this year, what are your expectations for next year’s Epicurean Market?

A: I think next year will have to be a lot bigger than this. The organizers will have a lot of work on that I’m sure. I’m talking in terms of space in particular. This hall is big but apparently not big enough! The traffic is amazing. There’s a queue coming in and there’s a queue going out. So yeah, definitely more space would be nice.

Q: Since day one I’ve noticed how you show up here earlier and leave later than most people, while talking to your guests and the media and it’s like you don’t even stop and rest. Where is all this energy coming from?

A: I really enjoy meeting people and serving people, and of course to get to know everyone here. Because like I said, we’re here to meet people as well and to discover what they’re like. People ask questions and I’m here to answer them. I’m sure it’s not just me, but everybody participating here agrees that this is an opportunity to show people how passionate we are. And of course, it’s a good time to meet and catch up with old friends as well.

If you notice how at peak hours like lunch or dinner time there’s never enough seating available? Despite this, nobody complains. They eat standing up while chatting or just walk around, but they don’t care. How can I stop when these wonderful guests are not?

Q: What is it that continually drives your unrelenting passion for the art of cooking?

A: I’ve been cooking for more than 30 years. I actually became a chef by accident. I had a very humble beginning. I have 11 siblings and we grew up in the Bugis Street area, and we sold fruit for a living. After finishing primary school I helped out at the fruit store. We had backpackers come by the store a lot and they would tell me about places — Penang, Jakarta, Bali, Phuket, Pnom Penh, and many other places. It was then that I decided I wanted to see the world. So when I finished army boot camp, that’s what I did.

There weren’t a lot of options for a dreaming kid without a proper education like me, and my only chance to travel for a living was to be a sailor as a kitchen helper on luxury cruise ships. So that’s what I did for a while, and I learned the basics about F&B there.

Eventually I ended up in New York and attended a culinary school, where thankfully, my passion made me an A student. I got very few Bs. In the following years after that I went to work under harsh mentors — people that really worked me hard in trying to bring out the potential they saw in me. Those are only a fraction of my early days, but I can tell you that cooking has been my passion since I was that carefree seaman working the kitchen. My fascination lies in the art of converting nature’s bounty into something that brings happiness and delight for a lot of people.

Q: What are some of the upcoming trends you see happening in the region in the near future?

A: There’s always new stuff going on around these parts, but I guess I have to say Asian essentials. People love the distinct Asian flavours like sweet and sour or dishes with generous herbs and spices and mildly spicy fusion food. Asian-style foods made from top products have always been a big thing as well.

The thing about changing trends is they happen relatively quickly, and most of the time it’s not easy to predict what will come next. The F&B industry is big because of its dynamic and ever-growing consumers. What we producers can do, however, is respond to what the guests want and adapt to changing trends in a timely manner. But with enough experience and if you’ve been around for some time, you can generally sense where the trend is going and decide whether it is worth following or otherwise.

Q: Although published in 2006, we’re still hearing a lot of good vibes about the Passion & Inspiration Cook Book! Could you tell us a bit about the public’s response when it was published?

A: After I came back from Europe and opened my first restaurant in Taipei, I was largely inspired by the vast market there. While passionately tending to my small restaurant there I decided to pour my awe into the book. It is essentially a book to help budding chefs fine tune their techniques, but also to share with people delicious recipes that they can cook at home. It may be tough if you are new to cooking, but if you have a bit of the basics, everything is quite understandable.

Following the launch of the translated version last year, the book has sold over 2,000 copies so far. So that’s good. In terms of feedback, most would tell me that after the first or second attempt at realizing some of the recipes, they successfully pulled it off, as well as feeling their techniques improve. The book is very visual and leads the readers directly to the results that you can achieve. I’m happy to see that the book came to be very useful for home cooks as well as professionals, and people actually keep it in their kitchen as a guidebook to refer to, as I intended it to be, as opposed to just being another coffee table book.

Q: You seem to be the seize-the-day type of person. Never shying away from a challenge or opportunity to better yourself. How has this quality helped you be who you are today?

A: Funny you should ask. I’ve always been the hardworking type. So much so that my life was in danger when I was a sailor. You see, seamen don’t like it when one of them works harder than the others. They get jealous and probably thought I was sucking up to the captain. Fortunately nothing bad happened to me. One word of encouraging advice came from my captain one time. He was this old English guy — very wise and very friendly. He said I was too hardworking for my own good around there [the ship], and that I didn’t deserve to live out my life in the sea. He actually advised me to take my carpe diem and hardworking nature to achieve better things.

And obviously I reaped the benefits of being this way. I never gave up even when I had to start from the bottom or worked in a militaristic kitchen. Nowadays I really enjoy doing everything I can for my passion. I won’t have it any other way.

Q: The industry recognizes you as one of the most influential figures in Singapore’s gastronomic scene. How do you deal with the pressure of having the world’s attention or having to come up with new things all the time?

A: Most of the time, I don’t exactly feel any pressure. I love what I’m doing. I’ve travelled a lot and I see what people do. As a chef, I look for three simple things: product, protein and essential taste. Being a Singaporean who travels and eats, I don’t create something for the sake of creating it. I create what my passion compels me to create, and when my guests love it, that’s an added bonus. There’s no such thing as regular guests — for me, all my guests are VIPs. Not only because of what I cook, but because I cook from the heart. When you look at things this way, doing what I do is a breeze.

Of course I have a team and we have certain guidelines to follow and other things that influence our style, but these are not the main driving power. I don’t work for the media or the government, but I work for my guests. When you come to me, I am your menu. Maybe it is your wife’s birthday and you want her to have something special, well just tell me what she likes and I’ll make sure of it.

Fresh Mushroom



500 g champignons (button mushrooms)
1.5 litre chicken stock
1 pinch salt
200 ml milk
100 ml fresh cream
50 g unsalted butter
1 tbsp truffle oil
12 g summer truffles

How to Make:

1. Clean mushrooms and cut into quarters. Place mushrooms in a saucepan and add chicken stock. Add salt, cover the pan and cook over moderate heat for 1 hour.

2. Add milk, cream and butter to the mixture and bring to boil. Turn off the heat and blend the mixture in a food processor or blender until smooth, before pouring it through a conical strainer.

3. Bring the soup to boil and add the truffle oil. Remove from heat and transfer it to a metal jug. Froth the soup with a hand blender and pour it into coffee cups.

4. Shave some truffle over each portion of the soup and serve.