Chef Matthew Orlando has one big point to make about sustainable dining and he does it in the best way possible — by serving up mean plates of food you can’t get enough of.
Take for instance the crispy oyster mushrooms slathered with Sarawak pepper emulsion and topped with pickled chillies at the sprawling 40,000 sqft dining concept Air in verdant Dempsey Hill, which opened on Wednesday (January 31).
Inspired by fried chicken, they are moreish, highly umami bursts of flavour that are practically impossible to stop poppin’. The secret to their surprising depth of flavour is a lacto-fermented spice mix made from the kitchen’s veggie ends — proof that there is a lot more that can be done when it comes to the conscious and creative use of ingredients.
“Whatever you are making has to be as good as or better than what you are trying to replace or you are not going to convince people,” says Orlando during a private preview of Air for The Peak.
A textbook example of this is the Re-Incarnated “Chocolate” that mixes the by-products of three common processes — cocoa husks, cascara (the fruit that is discarded in the process of coffee making) and coconut flesh with cocoa butter and sugar to yield a luscious chocolate bar with a deeply roasted flavour that one would be hard pressed to tell apart from actual chocolate.
“Basically, this is the traditional way of making chocolate, just without cocoa beans, of which there is a worldwide shortage,” he explained.
He was most recently the chef-owner of Copenhagen restaurant Amass. During its years of operation from 2013 to 2022, the restaurant sparked a movement in examining how the hospitality and food industry must play a role in mitigating the negative impact that it has on the environment.
This conscious philosophy is imbued through just about every element at Air, one of the most anticipated restaurant openings in Singapore. Its campus comprises a farm-to-table restaurant, research lab, cooking space and garden. Besides Orlando, the other two brains behind this ambitious concept are Will Goldfarb, who runs dessert restaurant Room4Dessert in Bali and Ronald Akili, the Indonesian co-founder of hospitality brand Potato Head.
The menu of contemporary cuisine with strong Southeast Asian and European inflections is spearheaded by Orlando. The generously sized starter snacks and hearty mains form the beating heart of Air and are complemented by sides, desserts and cocktails featuring farm-to-bar herbs and botanicals. The chef duo hope the irresistible food will spark deeper conversations and positive action organically.
“We never want to preach, instead how do we do something that is accessible and have people engage on their own terms,” says Orlando, who is in the process of relocating full-time to Singapore.
“I could sit here and talk all day long about using stems and skins and seeds to make flavour or I could put a spoon of delicious food in your mouth and get your attention. Food is very much a vehicle to communicate about broader topics such as food systems and the bigger ecosystem.”
This is a key reason why he characterises Air as an “open source” kitchen and is willing to share techniques and recipes to those who are interested. For instance, the noodles made of fish bones at Fysh at Edition by Australian chef Josh Niland are based on a recipe that Orlando had developed at his research lab at Amass.
The next iteration of this culinary wizardry can now be found on Air’s menu. The Whole Coral Grouper (good for two) dish includes a tangy fish head rilette, confitted fillet — and lavash made from fish bones, based on a technique Orlando developed.
They hope to further their ethos of sharing information for the greater good in Singapore. The research space housed on the second floor of the restaurant is where Air’s team of chefs will dabble and experiment with various ingredients and food processing techniques from ferments to infusions. There will also be a regular roster of cooking classes and programmes for both the general public as well as professional chefs so as to further foster a sense of community spirit.
“There are so many extraordinary tasting restaurants here already. We are not here to compete with anyone, rather we are here to complement and welcome them to our house and to share our knowledge and love for food,” says Goldfarb, who will be splitting his time between Singapore and Bali.
“Part of the fun of this project is being able to have this platform for all our friends and amazing chefs, including hawkers and home chefs with great, traditional recipes. We want this to be a space for people who care about food.”
He has parlayed his decade of experience in running Room4Dessert in Bali and its generative garden and forest into creating a thriving garden for Air and ensuring that the various operational aspects of the project are running like a well-oiled machine. Among the plant species are lantern chilli, starfruit, wormwood, borage, moringa, and more — and the harvest will be used in the restaurant.
This ambitious and broad ranging project – the 40,000 sq ft two-storey complex seats 45 guests on each floor – could only be done in Singapore, Goldfarb emphasises. “Singapore has the perfect mix and dynamic food culture to do this. People are super into trying new things, there are many opportunities for cultural exchange and there are many generations of people who are keen to engage with food in different ways,” he says.
Orlando adds, “Something I was not ready for until I started spending a lot of time here is that everyone talks about food — they have their favourite dish done at a specific place and they want to take you there. I have been gladly ‘dragged’ to taste so many things that people are so proud of and that does not happen in many Western countries.”
Inspired by this uniquely Singaporean love for food and in order to fill their cavernous space, the chefs are eschewing their usual fine dining tasting menu concepts in favour of a more casual set-up. For instance, besides an all-day a la carte menu, guests may also choose to be seated on the lawn to graze on snacks like oyster mushroom “shwarma” and fermented potato salad if they prefer.
“We talked about how we can have the biggest impact possible which is why we chose to do a more casual restaurant to make it more accessible. The more people you touch, the bigger the impact you have,” says Orlando.
Agreeing, Goldfarb chimes in, “We want people to come three times a day — we want them dropping by for a coffee, for a glass of wine or to walk through the garden. We even want people to come here for no reason at all, like how we just had someone jogging through here today.”