The first dish I saw in Preludio, a new restaurant in Frasers Tower located off the famous Amoy Food Centre, was not actually a dish. It was a plate of raw, white beetroot flown fresh from France's largest food market, the Marché d'intérêt national de Rungis, otherwise known as the Rungis International Market. Waiters excitedly prod you to pick it up, smell it and if you dare, take a bite off it. Minutes later, the beetroot was replaced by the real deal — a blob of white sitting on a matte, black plate.
There was no menu to tell you what it was. The only way was to tuck in and find out. It was a burrata with a stretchy body, seasoned with the right amount of roasted white beetroot, dill, and marinated cucumber. A dose of walnut crumble crackles while a teaspoon of Sturia caviar pops away with every bite. Is this Italian? Is this French?
"I believe the concept of author's cuisine has its place in Singapore," says Fernando Arévalo.
The Colombian-born chef, Fernando Arévalo, explains that his menu is bound by neither cultural nor geographical boundaries. It's a far cry from the cultural culinary rules which are deeply entrenched in the diverse culinary landscape of Singapore. The cohesion and division of Malaysian, Indian, Chinese, Indonesian, Korean, Japanese, and Western cuisines shapes the very identity of Singaporean cuisine.
Having lived in Singapore for six years and familiar with the strict culinary expectations of local diners, Arévalo decided to tear away from the norm and head for the artistic culinary world of author's cuisine — a concept popularised by Spanish chefs in the likes of Ferran Adrià of the former Michelin three-star restaurant, El Bulli.
"Author's cuisine is about being free from regional or cultural boundaries, where we have complete freedom to mix flavours, colours, textures, and styles," he explains. "The truth is, author's cuisine is more for our customers than for us. We didn't want to give incorrect expectations. If we call ourselves a specific type of cuisine, we are going to fail certain expectations."
Arévalo's first encounter with author's cuisine was in a degustation restaurant, Mano Rota, in Barcelona. "I had a very good meal with a chef [who] was clearly trying to express himself without the limitations of Spanish or Mediterranean cuisine," says the 33-year-old.
Other Spanish chefs may have caught on with author's cuisine for the same reason. The Spanish spent centuries establishing a stronghold around its cuisine but may have found themselves trapped in the very walls they built. "I think the chefs there identified easily with it because they wanted to use products from other parts of the world, not only [from] Europe, and wanted to steer away from traditional food and didn't want to call themselves fusion," he continues.
One could liken this to an expressionism movement in the culinary arts, where the artist is limited by nothing other than his pot of paint. In a chef's case, it's the ingredient. "But I am free to interpret them in whatever way that I want," Arévalo quickly adds. "It's not just about being free. It's about being able to communicate the way that I want."
At Preludio, the degustation menu is themed. For now, Arévalo decided to theme it "Monochrome", an allude to fundamentals and the humble beginning of the restaurant.
Arévalo has a vocal personality. He steps out of the kitchen between dishes, whenever he wants, winding around tables in search of a chat. He's quick to share a memorable experience and doesn't shy away from banters with his diners. "Ah, you are having the balsamic vinegar," he would exclaim. "This is from a lady, Cristina, I befriended in Modena. I stayed at her house and visited the attic where she kept the vinegar." Cristina Crotti is the brain behind Il Borgo del Balsamico, an esteemed balsamic vinegar maker.
The restaurant is a playground, both for the chef and his diners. There are chats, voices, and laughter — Arévalo says he loves it when he hears his diners laugh.
Preludio's austere space in Frasers Tower. Here, the dining area is linked to the restaurant's lounge via a narrow aisle.
You'll be hard pressed to find a degustation course as playful as Arévalo's. He had two dishes look exactly alike, so to watch diners raise their hands in confusion and call for waiters to let them know that they've served the wrong dish. "Taste it," the waiters will reply. Finally, when diners tuck in, they burst into ruptures when they realise that it's a completely different and delightful dish.
It helps too, that Arévalo had his resident pastry chef come up with a piñata — a chocolate sphere filled with multi-coloured chocolate confetti, handmade candies, and perhaps an engagement ring — for diners' celebrations.
The captivating culinary experience comes at a cost. Although a four-course lunch starts at S$55, an eight-course dinner comes at S$218. It is important, then, to note that Arévalo is not someone who dishes out morsels of food. He hosts his diners with generous Colombian hospitality. And in my case, my trousers' buttons popped at the end of the evening.
Visit Preludio at 182 Cecil Street, Frasers Tower.
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