An appetite for success

17 May 2018

Author: Maryanne Blacker

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First-time restaurant owner-chef Sam Aisbett is making a name for himself in Singapore, notching up a swag of awards, including a Michelin star, at Whitegrass. Aisbett honed his skills in Australia under the tutelage of some heady cooking talents, beginning at home with his mother.
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Singapore-based, Michelin-star chef Sam Aisbett credits his mother for his stellar cooking career.

“My mother is an amazing cook with an incredible palate,’ he says.

“She was my earliest inspiration when I considered pursuing a career as a chef. Through food she exposed me to cuisines across the globe, skilfully interpreting recipes into her own unique creation.

 “She inspired me with her natural talent in the kitchen.” 

Aisbett began his food journey modestly enough in the family’s butcher shop in far-north Queensland. At the age of 16, he traded sausage-making for cheffing, working in restaurant kitchens in Australia and the United Kingdom. In time, he was cooking alongside celebrated chefs, including Australia’s Tetsuya Wakuda of Tetsuya’s and Peter Gilmore of Quay. Both have featured on the world’s best restaurants lists. Aisbett became head chef, a position created uniquely for him, at Sydney fine dining landmark Quay in 2012 at the tender age of 23.

“From Tetsuya I gained a deep respect for the ingredient and its source, as well as learned the importance of balancing flavours and umami,” he explains. “At Quay, playing with textures was one of the key elements I grasped and this has impacted my current dishes with its different layering of textures.”

The knowledge gleaned from these two masters is now enjoying full rein at Aisbett’s upscale restaurant Whitegrass in Singapore. 

Opened in 2016, Whitegrass has garnered rave reviews and a string of awards, including a Michelin star, for his take on modern Australian cooking. 

“Our cuisine here at Whitegrass is not defined by boundaries or geography,” Aisbett says.

“I wanted to introduce a part of Australia to Singapore diners that they have yet to experience, so our menu has touches of Australian native produce, from coastal herbs to desert lime depending on the season.”

A taste for Australia

Aisbett is one of a gifted bunch of young Australians plying their food finesse in Singapore.

Singapore pioneer David Pynt has been wowing diners with his modern Australian barbecue joint Burnt Ends since 2013. The award-winning restaurant is renowned for its custom-made grills, an oven fired by coal, apple or almond wood and dishes such as 45-day aged Australian wagyu beef. Pynt’s head chef and fellow Australian Jake Kellie was named the San Pellegrino Young Chef Southeast Asia in 2017.

Another Tetsuya alumnus Rishi Naleendra heads up Cheek by Jowl, Luke Armstrong is at the helm at Bacchanalia, while Aitor Jeronimo Orive controls the food action at Singaporean dining stalwart Iggy’s. All have managed to win, or maintain, coveted Michelin stars for their respective establishments.

“Australia is a melting pot of traditions and cultures from around the world,” Aisbett says, “and Australian chefs respect this range of influences without being confined by them, affording them limitless creativity in the kitchen.”

Aisbett’s culinary history with Tetsuya Wakuda, whose Singapore restaurant Waku Ghin holds two Michelin stars, earned instant respect in this food loving capital. However, the chef readily admits that setting up a restaurant for the first time in Singapore was both a challenge and a huge learning curve. Luckily, the rewards have made it worthwhile.

“When we received our first Michelin star win last year, it was a huge recognition for us all that we were on the right track,” he says. 

This year, Whitegrass added to the accolades, securing a spot on the list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018. The reviewers nominated Aisbett’s exemplary rendering of sashimi – raw-shaved Japanese yellowtail, white vereduna beetroot, land caviar, with smoked organic soy – as the standout dish.

Local heroes

The move to Singapore has stirred Aisbett to be even more creative in the kitchen.

“I discover something new everyday and enjoy experimenting with seasonal ingredients,” he says. I’m always frequenting local hawker centres and markets, trying local ingredients and fruits and getting inspiration for new dishes.

“Asian ingredients that I’m currently using in my menu include XO sauce, lotus seeds and preserved longans. I marry these ingredients with the best of native Australian produce and modern culinary techniques, giving everyday ingredients a refined twist.”

That might translate on the plate as South Australian organic grass-fed beef with fermented black beans, raw mushrooms, and coastal sea blight (a native Australian salt water vegetable), or fennel pollen from the Blue Mountains in New South Wales teamed with fresh curd, pickled watermelon rind and Western Australian marron. 

A volunteer for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an international non-profit, marine wildlife conservation organisation, Aisbett only serves sustainable line-caught fish and seafood at Whitegrass. He works closely with local suppliers to source specialist ingredients, and has lately begun to grow his own garnishes – cress, nasturtium, pea sprouts and sea succulents – in the restaurant.

Aisbett’s modern aesthetic isn’t confined to his food. The 70-seat restaurant housed in a mansion built in 1840 for a senior magistrate’s clerk, channels a relaxed mid-century vibe with its pastel-coloured furniture and splashes of polished brass, marble and warm timber. The floral murals by local artist Tan Zi Xi reflecting the owner-chef's love of, and respect for, nature. Just like his creations on the plate.

Read more about Whitegrass.