An exhilarating festival – Peranakan Weekend, scheduled on November the 3rd and 4th is poised to offer a culinary and cultural odyssey through the annals of time. With a six-hands dinner featuring drink pairings by Aberfeldy, Remy Cointreau, and Bombay Sapphire, as well as an afternoon tea session accompanied by a delectable array of kuih-muihs, the event unveils forgotten recipes and presents modern interpretations of traditional Peranakan staples.
Collaborations in the culinary world can be both exciting and challenging. The heart of this celebration lies in making history with three Peranakan powerhouses. Chef Julia Ung, Debbie Teoh and Lionel Chee get together to lead guests on a captivating culinary journey.
Following his completion of the Hospitality School Les Roches Diploma in Hospitality in Switzerland, Chef Lionel dedicated a decade of his career to the hotel industry upon returning. In 1995, Lionel heeded his calling to preserve his Peranakan heritage by establishing Casa Bom Vento Restaurant, a halal Eurasian restaurant that swiftly became synonymous with exceptional Peranakan and Eurasian cuisine.
Chef Lionel Chee of Casa Bom Vento Restaurant, shares his insights on Peranakan cuisine, his business philosophy, and his culinary journey, all characterised by a cooking style rooted in heart, flavour, and a labour of love, in an interview with The Peak.
Opening Casa Bom Vento Restaurant marked a significant shift in your career. What inspired you to create a halal Eurasian restaurant?
Casa Bom Vento Restaurant was the only halal Eurasian and Peranakan restaurant in Singapore. Until today there isn’t one available. The opening of the restaurant was my parent’s idea. As Peranakans, we love food so we decided to make it halal as we were doing catering at that time.
I vividly recall working extremely long hours, often up to 18 hours a day. I had to make significant sacrifices, including being separated from my family, and even resorting to pawning some of my possessions to make ends meet. It’s important to note that this period wasn’t simply a matter of pointing fingers; I had to manage the demanding task of catering to companies while also seeking out sales opportunities. At the outset, our team consisted of only my mother, myself, and one staff member. However, as our journey progressed, we reached a peak in our career with a team of 15 dedicated staff.
Casa Bom Vento’s catering arm served prestigious clients, including past presidents and ministers. What was your approach to catering for such high-profile events?
All can be answered with just two words: No mistakes – it’s accountable, measurable and achievable. Our motto then was: Come as a customer leave as a friend. The other thing was that we were able to create lots of different types of foods and menus to suit the different types of people. We sort of outpaced even the biggest companies. This was where some of that Swiss knowledge came in handy.
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You’ve had the privilege of serving renowned chefs like Alain Ducasse, Angelo Sosa, and Johan Lafer. What were some of your most memorable experiences ?
I have absolutely full respect for these legends. They are down-to-earth, inquisitive and funny at times. As chefs of different disciplines and cultures, their ideas and their views gave a fresh insight into many different styles of food preparation.
Peranakan cuisine is known for its rich history and cultural significance. How do you balance preserving traditional dishes with offering modern interpretations?
There are two types of fusion food or whatever gentrifying words you use for it: Cultural fusion or Ingredient fusion. I remember once I read a fine dining restaurant in KL had converted Nasi Lemak into a cracker. It’s still called Nasi Lemak. While Peranakan food takes different ingredients from different countries and creates them into a dish, that’s a cultural fusion. To me, we should never ever change a national dish into something that we don’t even recognise. It’s a disrespect to that race, culture and country. You can tweak the recipe, but you shouldn’t change it until you don’t even know the original.
For those who may not be familiar with Peranakan cuisine, what are some of the must-try dishes they should look forward to experiencing at this event?
Well, the mainstay of Peranakan dishes are like Ayam Buah Keluak (god knows who actually invented it!), the Itek Sioh (which is usually eaten during the festive seasons) and the Sek Beef, are all classics.
Presently, Lionel serves as a People’s Association Trainer and holds the role of World Food Travel Associate Ambassador. He also acts as a consultant for launching Singapore’s inaugural overseas accredited food tour guide course. When presented with the choice of one ingredient to cook with for the entirety of his life, Chef Lionel Chee, without any hesitation, selects belachan, which is instrumental in creating the unique taste that defines Peranakan cuisine.