When Seroja’s Kevin Wong met Helm’s Josh Boutwood at the latter’s restaurant last April, it didn’t take long for the two to find their creative synergy.
“When I stepped into Helm, I felt at home,” said Wong, the Malaysia-born founder and chef of Singapore’s Seroja restaurant. Speaking before serving the dishes at their collaboration dinner, he remarked that what he and Boutwood do at their restaurants is similar. “We even have the same plates!” he added.
The two blazed trails as the head chefs of popular establishments in their home countries before striking out with fine dining restaurants of their own. Now, they get to do their own thing: Wong’s Seroja has earned him a spot on the Top 100 of The Best Chef Awards 2023 while Boutwood’s Helm has just embarked on its newest chapter in Makati’s central business district.
With Seroja, Wong highlights the flavors of the Malay archipelago, a decision that the chef came to after cooking all over the world and working with different mentors who embraced their own culture. “In Tokyo, I was cooking Japanese, in France I was cooking French,” said Wong of what he called “the seed of Seroja.” “After many many years of cooking for someone else, I thought why not do something of my own? Which is my own culture, my own region.”
Meanwhile Boutwood, the chef behind The Test Kitchen and Ember and known for his commitment to innovation, has just opened Helm’s new location at The Shops at Ayala Triangle Gardens. He felt that he had already exhausted all the possibilities they could at their previous BGC space, adding that they “wanted to have a new environment where we could really do a lot more.” The fine dining restaurant is known for its theatrical approach to multi-course dinners. Previously a 10-seater, the new space is now equipped to serve 24 guests in one seating.
That evening, Wong and Boutwood were collaborating on a one-night only 10-course inaugural dinner at Helm for the Singapore Tourism Board’s “Serve it, Singapore” project. As part of the project, STB will be introducing a series of dining experiences that bring the best of Singapore’s culinary scene to the Philippines. The dinner was the first of the series in partnership with the Asian Culinary Exchange, which will also feature collaborations with contemporary Seoul cuisine restaurant NAE:UM and omakase pizzeria Small’s in June, neo-Singaporean restaurant Labyrinth, and more. And in August, STB is hosting Singa-Pob, bar and cocktail takeovers in Poblacion, Makati, featuring drinks from the best of the country’s cocktail scene, including Employees Only, Republic, Sago House, The Elephant Room, Tippling Club, and more.
What should one expect at a four-hands dinner? Not uncommon in a culinary haven like Singapore, the trend of four-hands dinners involve two chefs (can be more, but usually from different countries) collaborating on a one-night-only tasting menu. In a 2018 article in Michelin Guide Digital, Kazuo Takagi (chef at the Michelin-starred Takagi restaurant in Japan) called these dinners “educational cooking field trips” in which chefs are able to learn and experience various “cultures, food, and culinary techniques from other countries.”
It’s easy for someone who isn’t used to fine dining to feel out of place at a restaurant like Helm, with its sleek interiors colored in greys, coppers, and blacks. But looks can be deceiving, as they say.
Entering the restaurant from its outdoor entrance, we were greeted by the sight of both chefs’ teams busy plating the pre-dinner snacks at prep counters. As I settled into my seat at one of the counters, I watched the chefs use tweezers to meticulously place the final touches on each plate, a little intimidated by the spread of snacks in front of me.
I popped the prawn sambal tartlet into my mouth first, thankful for printed menus and seeing familiar flavors. The sambal’s sweet and spicy combo was comforting, the leek floss on top adding a bit of crunch. With the succeeding snacks (a razor clam tart, fish & chips, and a buckwheat & onion tart with raw beef, horseradish), it was clear that the Seroja x Helm collaboration would lean more towards comfort.
Dinner officially started off with a bowl of Boutwood’s Mussel, Lemongrass, Chawanmushi, a Japanese egg custard topped with a mussel dashi (soup broth). It was followed by Wong’s Bluefin Tuna, Tamarind, Caviar. Taken from Seroja’s Kuntum tasting menu, it consists of cubes of raw tuna mixed in a special dressing, topped with a crisp and a big dollop of caviar, portioned so because the dish has no salt. “Break it, mix it, and make it ugly,” were Wong’s exact instructions as he introduced the dish. “But take a photo first because I didn’t sleep [to make it],” he added with a laugh.
After we were served Helm’s Seabass, Sunchoke, Kombu, chef Angelo Carlos from Boutwood’s team explained that it took a while for them to master the agar ratio for the film, which for tonight’s menu was made with squid ink instead of their usual coconut. The result was a shiny off-white film with streaks of black that blanketed the true star of the show: the seabass. The gelatinous film was a proper contrast to the tenderness of the fish, and it was fun cutting it open to see the surprise underneath.
Boutwood’s Egg Yolk, Barley, Kale is what he calls a “humble” dish that “you can’t get enough of.” A favorite at the new Helm, it features a potato foam over green kale oil that I finished in seconds. Three places away from me, I heard someone jokingly telling Boutwood that she wanted to curl up in front of the TV with a bowl of it, to which the chef responded by heading to the back of the kitchen and emerging a few minutes later to present her with another serving.
As a laksa fan, I was excited to hear about the noodle dish’s integration in Wong’s Scallop, Podi, Kesum, which came in the form of a sauce that he poured onto fresh scallops that were grilled and poached in butter and garlic. I mopped it up happily with the roti-tasting bread that came on the side.
The highlight of the dinner was the collaboration course between Boutwood and Wong that they called the Beef Percik, Lauk Pauk, paired with a 2016 Blasson d’ Aussieres. The center dish was a 24-hour slow cooked charcoal-grilled shortrib by Wong, with a Fiddlehead salad, sambal, and a thick brown sauce made from the broth they used to cook the shortrib on the side. Boutwood created the side dishes for the meal: the decidedly Pinoy adobong baka rice (made with wagyu), a daikon (radish) topped with beef tendons toasted to a crisp reminiscent of chicharon, and puréed sweet potato topped with the popcorn-looking sorghum.
For dessert, Wong whipped up Kurma, Pine Nuts, Coconut. Kurma is a curry-type sauce that, in this case, was topped with pine nuts, popped rice, and a scoop of coconut ice cream, following in Wong’s theme of adding layers of crunch to smoother textures. No quality meal is complete for me without chocolate, and for the final dish on the tasting menu, Boutwood delivered with Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate, a no-frills dessert made up of dark and white chocolate that gave me my own “Ratatouille” moment, which ended with Helm’s house blend coffee.
It was already a treat to watch two top chefs like Wong and Boutwood work up close and sample the products of the pairs’ synergy, but it was the small moments of banter and thoughtfulness that made the dinner what it was: less of a rigid program and more a casual sit down with chef friends whose primary concern is for you to have a good time.
The Seroja x Helm dinner was the first of the series in partnership with the Asian Culinary Exchange, which will also feature collaborations with contemporary Seoul cuisine restaurant NAE:UM and omakase pizzeria Small’s in June, neo-Singaporean restaurant Labyrinth, and more. And in August, STB is hosting Singa-Pob, bar and cocktail takeovers in Poblacion, Makati, featuring drinks from the best of the country’s cocktail scene, including Employees Only, Republic, Sago House, The Elephant Room, Tippling Club, and more.
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