S'porean chef, 26, creates Gardens by the Bay-inspired dish in prestigious cooking competition in France

Singapore represent.

Ashley Tan | November 09, 2021, 05:17 PM

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Editor's note as of Nov. 10, 3pm: A previous version of this article stated that the highest position a Singaporean candidate has come in the Bocuse d'Or is 12th. This is inaccurate as William Wai attained bronze in the 1989 edition. The article has been amended for accuracy.

Singapore was one of the countries participating in the Bocuse d'Or 2021, a prestigious cooking competition held in Lyon, France, which is often referred to as the culinary equivalent of the Olympics.

Representing Singapore was 26-year-old Oslo-based Mathew Leong, who moved to Norway at the age of 21. Since then, he has worked at a two Michelin star restaurant, and is now the head chef of Michelin Plate restaurant.

He is also the youngest Singapore candidate in the Bocuse d'Or thus far.

Leong, who was up against 23 other international chefs from all over the world, spent three years training for the competition, which involved practicing in simulated competition environments in the kitchen and repeatedly cooking the dishes till he could do so from memory.

Inspired by Singapore's iconic attraction

For the competition, chefs are required to create dishes for a "platter" and "takeaway box", with the former comprising a hot dish showcasing a whole braised beef paleron.

There is also an emphasis on sustainability and nature for this year's Bocuse d'Or.

As such, Leong decided to take inspiration from Singapore's iconic Gardens by the Bay for his "platter" dish.

Elements of the Supertrees and Cloud Dome can be seen in the elaborate set-up.

Photo courtesy of Mathew Leong

Speaking to Mothership, Leong shared that considering the competition's nature-focused theme, he had wanted to showcase Singapore's commitment to being the "world's greenest city".

"Gardens by the Bay was part of our nation’s plan to transform our “Garden City” to a “City in a Garden” and I wanted to show everyone Singapore’s transformation into a sustainable garden city through our efforts and commitments on this global culinary stage."

His choice was also made for certain practical reasons — Leong felt that the attractions had elements which he could conceptualise and translate across to actual food.

Photo courtesy of Mathew Leong

Photo courtesy of Mathew Leong

Photo courtesy of Mathew Leong

Four months to conceptualise dishes

Another of the competition's requirements was the "takeaway box" challenge.

This challenge is a novel one created in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and increasing use of takeaway food during this period. Chefs were required to whip up a takeout menu with a starter, main course, and dessert, using tomatoes as an ingredient.

Chefs also had to design a reusable and sustainable takeout box, which was a criteria for the competition.

In this case, the dishes in the takeaway box were inspired by the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

Photo courtesy of Mathew Leong

The theme for this year's Bocuse d'Or was announced in March, which gave him around four months to conceptualise his dishes and design the takeaway box.

Leong described the process as "really tedious", but that the time and effort he spent was worth it, as the finished products turned out exactly as he had envisioned.

"Disappointed" but no regret

Leong managed to make it into the Bocuse d'Or Final, which took place from Sep. 26 to 27, and ultimately finished in 12th place.

Leong said that he had been aiming to finish in the top 10, and having trained so hard for the past three years in preparation for the competition and being unable to achieve his goal left him "feeling a great sense of disappointment".

Despite this, he says that he does not feel "an ounce of regret", and that the entire experience has been meaningful for him.

"This whole experience has taught me a lot, and I was able to gain many valuable learnings through the whole journey, including myself and the people around me.

All learnings and setbacks in those three years have been so valuable and contributed to my growth. Who I am today is because of those experiences and learnings, and I wouldn't change any of them."

Photo courtesy of Mathew Leong

Photo courtesy of Mathew Leong

Leong is also grateful for his team, which includes Singapore celebrity chef Eric Teo and his coach and the owner of the restaurant he is currently working at, Ulrik Jepsen.

In the meantime, Leong is already gearing up for the next Bocuse d'Or in 2025.

His goal to be the first Singaporean to rank in the top 10 in the world still stands.

Photo courtesy of Mathew Leong

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Top photo from Mathew Leong