“In the orchestra of a great kitchen, the sauce chef is a soloist,” Fernand Point is quoted in Larousse Gastronomique. If that’s true, then Lee Boon Seng, a chef who reckons himself a “saucier at heart”, appears to be not just a soloist but also a maestro, with not one but two restaurants under his name.
Imbue is the baby of the 38-year-old who’s also the executive chef at contemporary European restaurant The Spot. Newly opened at Keong Saik Road, Imbue is the culmination of Lee’s 21-year journey in the culinary arts and a celebration of his Asian heritage, with its inventive menu of dishes driven by contemporary European techniques, elevating humble ingredients and centred around Asian sauces. For this reason, the restaurant’s logo features grains of rice.
Another eye-widening point in the meal is the bread course, served in the middle instead of the beginning because Lee is well aware that filling up on bread right at the start is often too tempting to resist. He presents a “Malai” bread inspired by malai gou, the steamed brown sugar sponge cake commonly found at dim sum restaurants. The malt molasses bread, with its dark, nearly-black glaze, is served with salted ginseng honey butter, resulting in some seriously unexpected flavour that’s exciting, yet comfortingly familiar.
He does recall, however, the excellent Peranakan cooking of his Hokkien grandma, who made very good laksa with her own hand-made rice noodles. “Unfortunately, she passed away without passing down the recipe.”
In his formative years, though, the thought of helming his own restaurant did not occur to him. Instead, he was focused on learning and perfecting the craft. Specifically, it was the alchemy of sauce making that fascinated him.
“When I started in training, ‘saucier’ was always a senior position,” he said. “I slowly worked my way up to it. I enjoy how diverse a sauce can be.” For instance, sauces can vary from ingredient to ingredient, and a combination of ingredients can “add up to be so tasty”.
The French famously have their five foundational mother sauces; meanwhile, at Imbue, sauce-loving Lee is working on a collection of his own mother sauces, too, which can be built upon for different dishes.
One is an XO sauce, which is currently used as a base in a dish of grilled octopus with tamarind brown butter soya and cuttlefish XO sauce.
Another is his own take on a traditional Chinese “xian” stock “similar to dashi” that’s made from dried cuttlefish, dried scallops and kelp. “Xian”, he explained, is a flavour approximating to umami.
A dish of horse mackerel served Peking-duck style, with a delicate onion potato pancake to wrap the fish up in together with vegetables, features a spiced jus made with tangerine aged for 30 years.
Some welcome news for diners without the time or energy to sit through a tasting menu is that dishes are available a la carte at dinner time, and even as snacks for those who want to grab a drink at the restaurant’s bar.
RICE TO RICHES
In spotlighting familiar Asian flavours and ingredients, Lee wants to see where he can take them. “Century egg, for example, is very humble and underrated,” he said, but he marries it with caviar in a beautifully presented snack of crab marinated in kelp paste, with creamy century egg emulsion and pickled ginger jelly.
You’d get scolded for a bunch of other things, too. “Once, I was washing a hand blender, but I didn’t know how to do it, so I cut my hand and it was bleeding. I got scolded, and then my chef gave me an even bigger hand blender to wash.”
It was through enduring trials by fire, staying focused on learning and working his way from a modest starting point to a mastery of his craft that Lee became the chef he is today. That’s why, if he were a sauce, he mused, he’d be soya sauce.
Ubiquitous and foundational in Asian cooking, “I’ve loved soya sauce since I was young, and it is a very important sauce,” he said. “Soya sauce can also be made, for example, into a demi-glace, which is a very European sauce and creates a very distinct taste.”
You could even say that it’s the sauce of this chef’s inspirations.
Imbue is at 32 Keong Saik Road.