I’ll admit that I was a little bit starstruck when I walked into Pollen to interview Chef Steve Allen. Near the end of last year, Chef Steve took over the kitchens at Pollen, Singapore’s iconic and beautiful fine dining restaurant and bistro housed in the Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay. True, he had spent 11 years working alongside greats like Gordon Ramsay and Mark Sargeant. He was head chef at one Michelin starred Claridge’s in London. More recently, he was CEO at The Delicious Group in Malaysia.
Credentials like these could lead anyone to expect to meet someone truly inspirational and fascinating. I was not disappointed. At the same time, as an individual, Chef Steve was genuine, down to earth and had not one little bit of arrogance in him. It seemed as though his ethos of working hard and truly loving what he did was something he wanted to instill in the young chefs that he leads today. I was inspired by his willingness to share his knowledge. Not allowing himself to rest on the accolades he’s gained, Chef Steve still explores what can (or should not) be done with food. I was fascinated by his ability to question current trends, finding ways to seek out how it can be done better.
We swapped stories about vegetarianism and tips on where to find the best local fare before beginning our interview and I feel truly honoured to be able to share his story with you.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started as a chef.
I’m from England, originally from a small, tiny village with about ten houses. (Here I believe it would be what’s called a kampong.) Our village was in East Sussex, about an hour and a half from London. It was a farming community that grew tomatoes, corn, lots of flowers, but while I grew up around food, it wasn’t actually a massive part of my life.
My mum was a hairdresser. She would do this at home. Being a small village, there weren’t any shops so she would cut the local residents hair and I started to make cakes for them. I was young, about six or seven when I started baking (I’m not really into baking anymore). But when you’re young, you enjoy being creative and working with your hands.
My dad was a mobile DJ. He used to work at hotels so he got me my jobs as a chef in these hotels and I would work nights and weekends. From the age of 13, back in the time where there were no restrictions on health and safety, I was already working at big hotel groups.
My parents were the ones that forced me to go to London. I didn’t want to go to college. I wanted to work because I had already been doing this since I was 13. I did an apprenticeship at Boodles, a rather famous Private Members’ Club in London. There was no sign on the door and it was in a beautiful, beautiful building. A lot of government people would frequent there and back then it was men’s only. Apparently they used to say that the only woman allowed to walk through the front door was the Queen. It was one of those places steeped in tradition. I did an apprenticeship there for four years with a chef who was very well respected (and also the chairperson of Academy Culinary de France).
Next I went to work in an Italian restaurant. The chef who had done Pied a Terre, a two Michelin starred restaurant in London, had started a small Italian trattoria. He knew someone very close to Gordon Ramsay so I entered the Gordon Ramsay scholarship, a competition for young chefs. I met Gordon Ramsay and ended up working for him for 11 years.
Did you win that scholarship?
(Laughs) I didn’t actually. I came in second. I gave up on competitions a long, long time ago. I did the National Chef of the Year, I did the Young Chef of the Year and came in second every time.
In my 11 years with Gordon Ramsay, I worked at Claridge’s but also worked at all the restaurants in the group. He actually brought me to Singapore in 2003. We worked with Singapore Airlines. He was one of their guest chefs so I travelled around doing functions here and in Shanghai.
After 11 years with him, I came to Malaysia and wanted to try something out of the kitchen… But after four years out of the kitchen, I couldn’t wait to get back into the kitchen.
It’s funny, when you look at your career, it’s not just about money or success or anything like that. You’ve got to be really happy to do your job for free. (Laughs) Money is always a bonus, of course. But does it make you happy, no it doesn’t. Coming here was really wonderful for me. I came to spend a day here and thought, “I’ve really missed this (being in the kitchen) and I want to be here”.
When you look at your career, it’s not just about money or success or anything like that. You’ve got to be really happy enough to do your job for free.
It was really interesting to see what had changed in me over four years. The food I’m now creating isn’t a replica of what I did before. It’s a lot different but you can still see references of my past. When you step out of the kitchen and step back into it, you look at things completely differently. I look at how a dish fits in when we do three courses or five courses. I think about the progression of the meal. It’s got to taste good, it’s got to be balanced. It’s all about the overall experience.
If you want to do something, you really have to care about it enough to really do something special with it. So now I look at it as “what would I like if I were coming to Pollen”.
How did you transition into Pollen, a restaurant that already had a concept and reputation for itself. Have you changed it?
I feel like the food has changed a lot but it’s been a really easy transition. Pollen is French Mediterranean. It’s very European and based around flowers and herbs. My background is mainly European and I love herbs anyways. It’s one of my big things so to come in was really easy.
Basically, Peng (renowned hotelier and restaurateur Loh Lik Peng from Unlisted Collection) asked me to come and cook three dishes of how I wanted Pollen to be. That was it. It was about looking at the place and how I felt it should be. It was a natural fit for me.
So in effect you’ve made it your own.
Absolutely… you have to. Every restaurant of this calibre needs the chef to make it their own and truly care about the overall experience.
What is the concept of Pollen now?
We call it fine dining (European/French Mediterranean) because of everything that goes into it. We’re not wacky or gimicky. Really, we’re here to create a very natural experience. Everything needs to match. We don’t do abstract, it’s very natural around here, with natural wood and what we are surrounded with, so the food also needs to be natural. You’ll never get a dish where you say, “that looks fantastic… but what is it?” A duck dish looks like duck and beef looks like beef. We use the best quality ingredients that we can find and we create a very natural experience.
What kind of food do you create?
Seasonal food inspires me. We look around for what is best to use. At the moment, it’s squash, pumpkin, jeruselam artichoke… We’re a European restaurant so we’ll cook to the European seasons using the best ingredients that I know of. We look at the ingredients available and choose what is best at the moment. We then think about what is best to cook with it.
At least every season, we’ll change the menu. But more often than not, we are continually changing it. There are two restaurants here so we can do different things. Last week, I changed the menu three times. Of course, we keep our signatures but we have some guests who come in every two weeks and they’ll request us not to make the same dish for them so we keep changing and evolving. If you come once every six months, the menu will be very different and we also have great lunch menus and tasting menus that we change regularly.
I’ve worked in three Michelin starred places. You can go from one year to the next and make exactly the same food (with slight tweaks). I don’t want to cook like that. I want it to be continually evolving. With a kitchen like this, you can’t make it into a factory… we don’t employ workers to be factory workers. They are here to learn and I really want them to leave here thinking, “wow, we learnt about this dish and that dish…”. At Boodles, the menu changed daily so I’ve seen thousands and thousands of dishes. I want my staff to learn from this and and enjoy it.
Can you let us know what produce or techniques you are really passionate about at the moment?
I used to be passionate to learn about modern cooking techniques but now I’ve become passionate about taking modern cooking back to how people used to cook. I question current dishes and instead of getting carried away with all the techniques and tricks, we’ll try making it with traditional techniques and taste it to see what actually tastes better.
Just because it sounds great and modern doesn’t mean it will taste great. So now I’m passionate about questioning the use of modern techniques and seeing if we can go back to how we used to cook it. I want to teach my chefs how to do that too.
I’m on a mission to learn and teach traditional techniques, turning them into modern fine dining.
There was a time when everything was about sous vide and chefs have gotten carried away with all the modern techniques. They’ve forgotten that it wasn’t so bad before. So we’ll try it both ways. I’m on a mission to learn and teach traditional techniques, turning them into modern fine dining. But I’m also open to explore. Sometimes sous vide works. For our signature duck dish, we do, in fact, cook it sous vide. I can’t work out a way to cook it better. But for our beef, we just put it in the charcoal oven and it’s just better.
As for produce, here we have a herb and flower garden upstairs so we look at what we can use and grow ourselves. Every single dish here uses herbs. In Asia, the flavours are really strong. For example Nasi Lemak has sambal and it’s punchy and strong. With Western food, we tend to let the ingredients do the talking. We don’t make it spicy so adding fresh herbs helps to add to the flavour profiles.
We’ll be creative, for example, we’ll make a sorbet with beetroot and natural herbs (I love beetroot, it’s one of my favourite vegetables). Then the seasons will change and we look forward to what’s coming into season and get excited about that. You might as well wait until something is at its prime and make it really something amazing.
What do you want people to know about your restaurant?
I’d like people to know that it’s unpretentious cooking. It’s honest. I’m not trying to blow people away with wacky techniques. I’d like them to come here and see it as having a good night, a good meal. I’ve always been about creating somewhere you can go for very good cooking
I went to French Laundry when I was a younger and then went to Bouchone which is also by Thomas Kellar. I will always remember that. French Laundry was wonderful, over indulgent, but I can remember exactly what I ate at Bouchone. I want people to come and remember that they had that great duck dish or that great crab dish here. I want people to come and have that lasting memory because we’re really here to create an experience of taste.
What’s next for you and Pollen?
We’ve got two restaurants here – a cafe/bistro upstairs and our restaurant down here. We want to make them accessible and to evolve. When I was at Claridge’s, we had 11 fantastic years and we were full every night, even at the end… So I’d like Pollen to carry on as a destination, not because it’s in the Flower Dome but because you get the whole package.
It’s about becoming a place for that all round experience. We have a beautiful, iconic location but that’s that not all of what we are about. Upstairs is our bistro. It’s more casual. It had been a bit forgotten so we got the whole team involved in creating a great European menu that went beyond Fish and Chips. Now all my chefs are excited about contributing and coming up with ideas for the upstairs menu. We might perhaps work on adding weekend brunches or start doing supper clubs.
Downstairs is our restaurant and we want to create experiences… We could do different dinners, beyond the wine dinners that have been done. I love the idea of the upcoming EATSingapore dinner because it’s really a great opportunity where we plan and do something we’ve never done and create something exciting.
What would you say to anyone interested in becoming a chef?
Like anything you in life, do something you love… but you’ve got to make sure you really put a lot of effort and love into it to become successful. Know what you’re getting into first. If your main passion is to work nine to five, don’t be a chef. People don’t want to eat from nine to five, they want to eat from five to midnight!
Research it before you get into it. There is a lot of information out there that will say “read this before becoming a chef” and I encourage you to read it. But don’t do it because you think it’s good. Make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.
If you love cooking and you want to make people happy, I think it’s a really, really fantastic job. Honestly, I don’t know of any other job that you can, in the space of two hours, create something from scratch – work on it, finish it and serve it to someone – then even speak to them after it. I worked in a corporate company before and changing a menu was almost a three to six month process!
Becoming a chef like this is a passionate job. Be into it. Enter it if you love it but research it. Know what you’re getting yourself into because if not, you’re just going to waste time. We started our class at the academy with 16 of us and in the end there were just four, four years later, who finished. I mean, the four of us, we all did pretty well. One of us is a two Michelin starred chef in New York.
Don’t do anything you don’t love or something you wouldn’t do for free.
For more information visit www.pollen.com.sg
Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay
18 Marina Gardens Drive, #01-09
+65 6604 9988
Don’t miss out on the EATSingapore Chef’s Choice dinner for Pollen which is scheduled for the 5th of April 2017. Details on Chef’s Choice dinners be found at here.
EATSingapore’s Chef’s Choice dinners are unique because the menus are created by the Chef exclusively for EATSingapore book holders. The set meal showcases what the Chef loves rather than limiting them to standard menu items.
All images by Pollen unless otherwise noted. Please note that we were not paid for this article and we purchased our own EATSingapore book.
This article originally appeared on vanillabeige.com and may have been edited for this platform.