The Real Diet of Chef Pepe Moncayo
It’s 3:30 p.m. in the afternoon and the restaurant’s a quiet whimper of activity. The placid mood in the dining area is expressive of a much-needed mid-day breather. Kitchen warriors are seen warming the high stools, eyes glued to their phones whilst slurping on piping hot bowls of noodles. The regal and business-like etiquette of the restaurant replaced with a certain nonchalance—Executive Chef Pepe Moncayo himself eschewing kitchen work in favour of administrative duties.
The city suits Pepe Moncayo. Sitting on the couches of the newer restaurant extension, he speaks fondly about his purpose-driven trip up to Switzerland in pursuit of a Michelin-starred meal and extols the precision and execution of service in certain local establishments. The sparkle in his eyes when he speaks about his wife’s cooking, dialling down to an old man’s eccentricity when defending the distinction of his preferred chicken rice over another more popular brand. Singapore and its suitably comfortable pace of living had meandered its way into Chef Pepe’s blood, his resoluteness to “age gracefully” into family life, a clear sign of the times.
What fascinates me the most about Moncayo is his underlying hedonistic mannerisms that are covered up by his subdued exchanges and the perfectly coiffed hair. He is a man that pursues epicurean pleasures, and it clearly shows in his food at BAM!—the restaurant will soon convert its a la carte offerings to a full-fledged omakase with sake pairing menu—targeted at pleasing the aficionados.
HNW: Tell us more about your concept of Modern Shudo in BAM! We heard that you were inspired after a visit to a brewery. Which one is that?
PEPE MONCAYO: Part of how this concept for BAM! began in 2015. I decided then to visit Japan as I’ve always had a fascination with Japanese culture. And what I saw, blew my mind. While visiting the Katsuyama Brewery, I was introduced to the concept of sake and food pairing. The unorthodox combination of sake and Italian pizza made and baked, onsite led me to believe that sake can and should be better appreciated with International cuisine.
Has Sake always been your spirit of choice?
[emits a slight chortle] I don’t drink much after work now. I’m very old already. When I was younger, yes, we would head out for supper and have lots of drinks after our shift—in fact, it was compulsory! But now, I’ve got a family and a wife, so when I’m done with work, I go home. I’m a very good boy.
Take us through a typical day for you, food wise.
It’s funny you ask, because many people come up to me saying, “Hey Pepe, can you recommend me a restaurant?” They assume that because I’m a chef that I have ample recommendations when it comes to dining out—when in reality, I don’t visit restaurants a lot. I eat humbly, in fact, I’ve just sent one of my guys out to buy chicken rice from my favourite stall in Maxwell market. There’s Tian Tian which has a really long queue all the time, that’s not the one I prefer. You have to try Ah-Tai Chicken Rice, located just two stalls down. It is amazing and even if there is no queue, I really enjoy that one.
What’s for breakfast?
I don’t have breakfast. NEVER. The moment I wake up, it’s an immediate change of gear into work mode. My day starts at 9:30 a.m. and ends at midnight. With such a heavy workload, I think that taking the time to toast bread and make coffee is out of the question.
What about lunch?
We taste everything. Nothing goes out of the kitchen without me tasting it first. Sometimes we would sit down and have a decent meal at 4 p.m., but usually I’ll be too full from sampling the food. Just yesterday, my guys prepared a whole flight of new dishes for me to try and I was bloated the entire day!
We’re guessing you don’t have supper as well?
I used to eat supper and drink after work—but now, I don’t. If I’m hungry, I might slip in a piece of fruit or salad for dinner. Nothing too ostentatious.
If you were to be indulging in a cheat meal, what would it be?
Well, If I’m looking at splurging on a meal, I would usually go Japanese. Some of my favourites include Hashida, Aoki, and Shinji. I would usually make the effort to drag the wife out and treat her to a good meal. Yesterday we were at Tippling Club. The whole experience was very good. I feel that Ryan Clift is the most creative chef here; his attention to detail is superb. I had a negroni to go with my dinner and the slice of jelly (negroni jelly encased in orange peel) was excellent, an ode to the wizardry of his skills. Sometimes I like a good, honest Italian meal. The best way to judge the standards of an Italian chef is through the simplest Pasta Vongole. Da Luca, a humble trattoria in Novena does a good one.
If you have relatives visiting Singapore, where would you take them? Is there a particular dish they would have to try?
Since I’ve married a Singaporean Malay lady, local food is a definite must-have for me. Lau Pa Sat has a really good chicken rice or Ayam penyat, the same store does a really good rendition of Mee Soto, Mee Rebus and Soup Buntut (Oxtail Soup). I would also love for them to try my wife’s cooking. Although she is not an experienced cook and only prepares a feast once in a blue moon, when she does, it is reminiscent of my mother’s cooking. It touches the heart and stomach. Cooking is an act of love and kindness, hence when she cooks for me and my children, it’s unbeatable and endearing.
What’s your best food memory?
Fortunately, I’ve had too many. The first one that comes to mind is Istanbul. My wife and I were there on our honeymoon, and maybe because of the circumstance, you become very receptive and everything is “beautiful”, but the culture and the variety of produce blew my mind.
Another, that I remember very vividly, would be when I flew from Singapore to Barcelona then to Geneva just to dine at the restaurant de l’Hotel de Ville. I was a big fan of Chef Philippe Rochat whom I managed to take a photo with during my meal. The service was impeccable, like a choregraphed dance. Unfortunately, a couple of months later he passed away.
Speaking of super service standards. Are there any restaurants in Singapore that are similar in terms of service?
CUT by Wolfgang Puck is one of the best in my opinion. The staff pay attention to detail and they are very consistent with their delivery. It’s different for Japanese dining where there is not much service to provide. It’s usually the case where the chef who cooks for you, also serves you. Service and hospitality are two separate elements. In Japanese restaurants, the technique of service is very straightforward and that doesn’t allow for hospitality to shine.
Where is your dream destination to travel to for food?
Spain and Japan would be my choice. The variety of fresh produce is unbeatable and over there, you’ll be blessed with many fantastic and top-notch foodie experiences. We are incredibly blessed in Singapore to be able to receive a good supply of ingredients from Japan. We receive fresh items 5 times a week and 2 days in a week for produce from France and Italy. It’s amazing how Singapore’s supply chain has developed so much and you pretty much can get anything you want, if you can afford it. I believe in sourcing for the best ingredients and then allowing them to guide your hand in the creation of the dish.