Singapore-based sushi chef is second in global contest
S'pore-based chef Damien Tan is runner-up in first Global Sushi Challenge
Celebrated Singapore-based sushi chef Damien Tan finished second at the inaugural Global Sushi Challenge (GSC) 2015 in Tokyo last month.
But the road to the Malaysian's success took 12 years of hard work.
Mr Tan, 32, had always known he wanted to follow in his chef-father's footsteps. At 19, the Penang native embarked on his culinary journey as a pastry student after finishing secondary school.
"Halfway through pastry school, I decided to drop out because I felt it wasn't for me. It just wasn't interesting," the sous chef of Japanese restaurant Hide Yamamoto at Marina Bay Sands told The New Paper.
"I then asked myself what I really liked. I thought about how much I loved Japanese food.
"I can eat Japanese food every day. It's so healthy with minimal seasoning and on my days off, I always go have some," he said.
Mr Tan worked as a kitchen helper in a Japanese restaurant when he was 20: "At the beginning, I just helped with preparations in the kitchen (like) washing dishes and cleaning."
Sensing his interest, the chefs there allowed him to play with the leftover rice and fish that could not be used any more.
"I kept practising," he said. "With something like sushi, you can't learn just by watching others make it."
Slowly, he picked up the tricks of the trade.
In 2005, after about two years of working at two Japanese restaurants across the Causeway, Mr Tan moved to Singapore in pursuit of higher sushi-making standards.
He started work at The Fullerton Hotel and has been at Hide Yamamoto for the past four and a half years, with two other restaurants in between.
His boss, Mr Hide Yamamoto, was the one who pushed him to take part in the Global Sushi Challenge 2015 Singapore Nationals in July as "it was the right time for (Damien) to gain exposure".
It was the first-ever competition Mr Tan joined.
Mr Yamamoto added: "Even though the competition centred on Japanese cuisine, the best chefs need not come only from Japan. He delivered his creations well... I am proud of his achievements."
Said Mr Tan, who met his Japanese chef wife in Singapore: "(At the national level), the pressure wasn't as intense because all I had to do was represent myself and my restaurant. I was confident I would place among the top three."
But the global competition was quite stressful as he was representing Singapore.
"I started practising right after my win in July. (Besides) finding the best ingredients to complement different types of sushi, I tried different marinades and sauces," he said.
"The challenge was transporting all the ingredients and sauces to Japan... how to keep the sauces cold during the seven-hour flight.
"Because there was a creative sushi category, I wanted to bring my own special sauces like homemade mayonnaise, citrus soya sauce, lemon vinaigrette," he added.
Organised by the Norwegian Seafood Council and the World Sushi Skills Institute of Japan, GSC saw 14 chefs representing countries across Asia, Europe and North America, being judged on their knowledge, skills and hygiene practices in classical and creative sushi-making.
Finalists competed over two rounds. They were evaluated on basic sushi-making skills and creativity.
"During the first category, we needed to prepare 14 pieces and two rolls in 10 minutes. I was quite nervous and I couldn't do it perfectly. I couldn't even think. My hands were shaking as I tried to finish," Mr Tan recalled.
For the second part of the contest, the chefs had to create an original sushi in 60 minutes.
The chef, who has 12 years of experience, presented 20 different piecesbut chose just one - fresh Norwegian salmon marinated in yuzu sauce with pickled tomato and onion - for the taste test.
Japanese chef Jun Jibiki took top spot, while third place went to chef Takatoshi Toshi from the US.
Mr Tan was the only non-Japanese chef among the top three.
"I felt happy. What I worked hard for (over) so many months has paid off. It's my biggest achievement so far. When I called my mother to tell her I won, she cried," he said.
"The best thing that came from this win is gaining a lot of confidence in myself. Maybe next year, I will try other competitions like the World Sushi Cup," he added.
Mr Tan also hopes to gain the same kind of recognition as award-winning owner-chef Ronnie Chia of fine-dining Japanese restaurant Tatsuya, whom he admires.
Since the victory, he has received job offers from a handful of local Japanese restaurants. Many new customers are also flocking to the restaurant to try his award-winning sushi.
Said Mr Tan: "I hope to open my own restaurant in Singapore before I turn 40."
It's my biggest achievement so far. When I called my mother to tell her I won, she cried.
- Mr Damien Tan