An interview with Stephan Zoisl from Chef’s Table
There are chefs and then there are chefs that amaze. For me, Chef Stephan Zoisl is one of those chefs that amaze. I remember the first time I went to Chef’s Table. They had only just opened their doors and I was treated to an eight-course dinner that was the best dining experience in Singapore that I had since moving here (I had been here for over four years by then). The ingredients were fresh and the food was delicious but what impressed me most was the fact that I had brought along The Vegetarian and his meal was equally outstanding. The ability for any chef to cook something on the fly and have it taste fantastic, with perfect combinations of flavour and texture, boggled my mind.
We sat at one of their tall tables and watched when the server told Chef Stephan and his head chef that we had ordered eight courses, one set of which was to be vegetarian. Chef’s Table is open plan so we could see all the way back into the kitchen and watch their expressions. Wondering if they would just refuse, I remember with hilarity, the look on their faces. They were the ultimate professionals and that night, they produced a meal that I remember to this day. The tomatoes tasted like tomatoes, the fish was sublimely cooked, there was a beef dish served on a bed of farrow that was meaty and savoury goodness. The vegetarian dishes were also on par. That year, I believe they should have been named Best New Restaurant.
One of the reasons I bought the 2017 edition of EATSingapore was because Chef’s Table is featured in it. I was beyond excited when I was given the opportunity to interview Chef Stephan with Karin and I’m proud to be able to bring you his story.
Chef Stephan, tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m an Austrian. I grew up in a restaurant. My parents took over a restaurant when I was nine and are still running it now. It’s in the countryside, close to the Italian border so there are Italian influences there. My dad is the chef and my mother runs the front of house. I was there from very young helping out, but of course I got the “unpleasant” chores like dishwashing and being a food runner. I actually liked the front of house more when I was young because it was more interactive, you got to talk to people and get tips and ideas from them.
One day, my dad said to me “I’m sick of cooking for you. I cook for you every day. You know the kitchen, you know the equipment, you can cook for yourself.” By the age of 13/14, I moved into the kitchen and I was already thinking about what I could achieve there.
I started my apprenticeship at age of 15. My father got me into a five star hotel and I worked there for three years. It was great there because there was alot of space so I could try out every station.
Why did you become a chef?
There were only two ways for me. Either a chef or a pilot. For me, both would allow me to travel. I wanted to travel as much as I could. My father told me, of course, to be a pilot because he’s a chef and knows the pain of it. But I told him, in order to become a pilot, I would be stuck in Austria for 10 or 12 years to complete all the certifications and even then, who knows if I would make it. Being a chef looked more fun and interesting as a job, even if I was travelling, I would be seeing different cuisines rather than being stuck in an aeroplane.
So I thought if I got the ability to be good enough, I could work anywhere in the world. It is one of those things that is never going to end. You will always need a chef in some capacity.
Where did you travel to when you started?
First stop for me was Vienna. A bigger city and I got a job for a company that supported corporates around the world. I just wanted to get as much experience as possible. Catering for 10,000 people on a weekend is totally a different experience.
My very first weekend with them, we had 12,000 customers and it was down to lobsters. So three days before they needed them, the head chef counted ten of us out and said, you guys do the lobsters. So we went to the truck and there were 4,000 lobsters, boxes and boxes of lobsters stacked up. It was an experience you never forget. Ten hours per day cooking lobsters, dropping them into big basins. It was really crazy.
After Vienna, I went to Switzerland then back to Vienna, working at the best restaurant in Austria. This is where I learned the biggest, fundamental skills of my trade. From there I went to Portugal, the UK, a quick stop in Shanghai and now here in Singapore.
Tell us about Chef’s Table why you opened it and how all happened?
It was open war! It happened out of an accident. Accidents are not bad sometimes. It was a cooking school previously for three years when I decided to take over the location myself.
It happened out of an accident. Accidents are not bad sometimes
It was going to be a very simple wine bar that I was going to open with another company. We needed a subtitle for that company so we came up with “Chef’s Table” because we had that big table and the high tables at the front.
It didn’t work out. After three or four months, it didn’t make sense so we changed the branding and the concept.
Chef’s Table is literally about coming to the table and serving the food to you, as the chef. The service staff do not serve the food here. Either myself or my head chef will serve the food to you and explain it.
There’s an open kitchen, if you’re close to it, you can see everything. For us, we don’t want to hide anything. We don’t want to copy people, it’s down to getting the ingredients in, fresh produce, thinking about what we want to do with it and trying not to be too complicated.
What is the concept behind your restaurant?
The concept is really straightforward. It comes down to the ingredients, the best, fresh ingredients. There’s a grid of 28 ingredients, the key ingredients we are going to use that day. And most days the same ingredients will not appear the next night. You can cross out ingredients that you won’t enjoy. We then create a 6 course meal for you.
We get updates weekly about what is coming in that is fresh. Sometimes it comes in late at night, we get it in the afternoon and but we know it’s coming so we know we will cook with it. Sometimes I get a call on the day about a great ingredient. Literally, we decide on the day.
What kind of food do you create?
We just do a Chef’s Table menu… It’s an ingredients-driven cuisine where we get the freshest things and just cook it. We don’t overcomplicate it.
How would you describe the menu and what inspires you when creating the menu.
It’s really down to the ingredients… Out of 28 ingredients, you can cancel out what you don’t like. One of our customers cancelled out 19 choices and we just went ahead and made something of it.
Can you let us know what produce or techniques you are really passionate about at the moment?
That again comes down to ingredients. It can change daily. We try and follow the European seasons as closely as we can. For me cooking is about the mood. Sometimes I’m just cooking sauces and I love that. It also depends on the vegetables that come in.
Most of the time, we create the menu on the day. Sometimes I come in here with no idea of what we’ll be cooking. It’s all based on mood. I don’t even write down recipes… (unless it’s pastry, that needs to be specific). In normal cooking, there’s no recipes. For example. broccolli is broccoli but how you cook it is what makes the difference.
It is hard sometimes to use new ingredients or ingredients that you’ve never used before. Sometimes we get a new ingredient we’ve never heard of before and we have to work out a way to make it delicious.
We get the produce in at three or four in the afternoon, there’s a grid of 28 key ingredients and then we need to finalise that by four pm. We have our “family dinner” around five and then we take out the laptop and write out the dishes we might make that night and put it up.
My favourite vegetable would be the artichoke because it’s the tastiest and there’s alot you can do with it. My other best ingredient is the potato. For one, I’m Austrian, I grew up on potatoes as a staple. It’s also the most versatile of ingredients. Any cooking technique you can do, you can do that with a potato.
What do you want people to know about your restaurant?
It’s all about having a good time and having good food. People ask why we have high tables and it’s because we want to come and talk to you in a very personal way. We come to the table and I want to have eye contact and tell you about the food. Whatever is on the plate is as good as it can be but for the rest of the time, it’s about having a good time.
We want you to have fun. There were a bunch of Google people (Googlers) who came in once and not one of them had a device out. They were laughing, having fun and it was a great vibe. We don’t want white tablecloths and a quiet environment. If you go out, you should be entertained.
What’s next for you?
There’s a new place at Orchard Central that I’ve been consulting on. It’s an experiential concept combining retail and cuisine, all glass so you can see everything. Similar food to here at Chef’s Table with really fresh ingredients, but more about sharing and ala carte dishes rather than a set menu. It’ll have a retail area and an artistic site that may teach art forms like print making. The whole feature will flow around with people moving around, cooking and experiencing.
What would you say to anyone interested in becoming a chef?
Stay humble. When you’re starting out, you will get the worst jobs.
I did it that way. Most people think it’s a very glamorous thing in the beginning but you have to start at the bottom to get somewhere. Even I’m far away from the top…
I’ve had 20 year olds with no experience coming in expecting a big paycheck. But we’ve had others who have come in just wanting to learn and that’s what gets them the job.
There are a lot of things to do that are not so pleasant when you are starting out but you have to do them. Now that I’ve been doing this for a while, the things that I used to do when I was 15 or 16 that I didn’t like, I now enjoy. I don’t need to think about it anymore. My hands just do the job.
For more information, visit Chef’s Table
Phone: +65 6224 4188
Address: 61 Tras Street, Singapore
Don’t miss out on the EATSingapore Chef’s Choice dinner for Chef’s Table which is scheduled for the 30th of May 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 Chef’s Table 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.