Chefs in Singapore have no shortage of opportunities. Restaurant kitchens of every ilk across the island are constantly in search of talent. Yet these Singaporeans chose to establish their culinary careers abroad.
One moved for love but went on to start her fine-dining restaurant in Sweden. Another left to intern in San Francisco and stayed for the career opportunities. And another ventured away to find the recognition he deserves.
Despite living their best lives in their adopted homes, the trio agree on a single home truth: Singapore will always be home in their hearts. In the second installment of this three-part series, we spotlight Singaporean chefs who have made their mark overseas.
Chef-owner of Saga in Sweden (opening in October 2023)
Chef Pearly Teo moved to the Swedish city of Gothenburg in 2013 for love. While the relationship didn’t last, she has remained in the country for almost a decade now for love of a different kind: cooking. Cooking has, after all, been the singular constant that has seen her through the most difficult times in her adopted home.
“It was hard in the beginning,” says the 36-year-old. “Because I couldn’t speak Swedish, I wasn’t able to find a job. That’s why I started a café with an American friend who also could not speak Swedish.”
What did a cell biology graduate know about running a café? Not much, except that she loved being in the kitchen. “Before I left Singapore, I worked for my former junior college teacher who ran a casual restaurant. She hired me to do marketing and communications but noticed that I was interested in cooking and gave me a chance to work in the kitchen. That’s when I fell in love with that crazy environment,” she recalls.
Nine years later, Teo is in the throes of opening her own restaurant in Gothenburg called Saga. “It will serve Singaporean and Southeast Asian flavours using Swedish produce,” she explains. This plucky Singaporean has certainly come a long way from running a café when her business partner left to return home. In the time since, she’s landed gigs at the now-defunct Gastrologik in Stockholm, which in its heyday boasted two Michelin stars, and at Nordic Japanese restaurant VRÅ.
Like other Singaporeans abroad, what she misses most about Singapore is the food. Hence, Saga, which is slated to open this October, is a chance and a challenge for her to express her vision of the Singaporean dining experience on a different stage.
Growing tropical produce is a challenge in Sweden’s cold climate, so Teo is building flavour components that will serve as accents to the Swedish produce instead.
Think soy sauce made from yellow peas and Swedish wheat and oyster sauce and garum made from local oysters to impart distinct umami notes to orh luak-inspired dishes. Saga’s menu is still in the works, but she says it might include dishes like a white fish crudo dressed with assam and beef rendang served over coconut rice.
Asked if she has plans to return to Singapore, Teo says, “I don’t know if I’m going to stay here forever, but I’m enjoying my life here. I’m sure life would be very different if I’d stayed in Singapore, but I’ve developed a good network here, and I’m thankful that I have the chance to start my own restaurant.”