In this edition of Chef Chats, we interview the executive chef behind the Michelin-starred Alma by Juan Amador
Taking the reins of a Michelin-starred restaurant is no easy feat, especially when one is on the road to recovery after a serious motor accident. But, Executive Chef Haikal Johari is determined as ever to grow and heal, while bringing Alma by Juan Amador to new heights after its Michelin win. In this edition of Chef Chats, we interview Chef Haikal and find out more about how he overcame adversity, his kitchen philosophy, and his unique process of conceptualising new menu items.
Hi Chef Haikal! For starters, was there a specific person, or experience, that got you interested in cooking?
Like many chefs, I first become obsessed with food at an early age thanks to my mother. My earliest memories were of her incredibly fragrant laksa that she used to cook for us once a month. I remember how excited I’d get when I smelt the slightly sweet aroma coming from the kitchen. When I was growing up, however, my dream was actually to play football; I was even picked to play for Balestier United at the age of 16. Injuries took their toll though, and upon my father’s advice, I decided to enrol in Singapore Hotel and Tourism Education Centre (SHATEC) at the age of 20 – and my culinary career was born!
How did you motivate yourself to continue your culinary career after your motor accident?
The motorcycle accident happened in Thailand, which left me in a wheelchair. It was a very serious injury, but I had the support of my family and the team at the Water Library (the previous restaurant group where I worked, and still consult) and Alma by Juan Amador, especially Juan Amador himself who asked that I take on his signature establishment in Singapore as Executive Chef. Seeing this support, and continued belief in my abilities, was a huge motivational factor and encouraged me to get back to work.
What were the biggest difficulties you faced when getting back into the kitchen?
I believe that cooking is all in the brain, and managing the operations, planning, and teaching can be done from my wheelchair. I also have the support of my long-time colleague and friend who I have known since National Service, Chef Sufian Zaini. I have also learnt to communicate more clearly, as I am unable to physically demonstrate techniques. Alma by Juan Amador serves extremely high-quality European cuisine with an Asian twist, and many of the cooking methods and techniques are delicate and complex, so I have learnt to be more patient and expressive in the way I teach, direct, and communicate.
You talk about how cooking is all in the brain. Can you tell us what goes through yours when in the kitchen?
I would say this a combination of both experience and curiosity. Any chef should always have both traits. Using the knowledge that I have obtained from my many years of training and working with other chefs, I start to think about the different effects of combinations of flavour profiles as well as culinary techniques. If I come across something that I have not experienced or tasted before, then I will go ahead and try it out.
For instance, in Yoghurt Parfait, a dessert we serve at Alma, we have recently given it a ‘corn’ theme, where everything is a version of corn – sweet corn, popcorn, corn-infused custard, etc. Did you know that burnt corn kernel husks, when powdered down into a pitch-black powder, makes not only for an interesting decoration to the overall dish, but it also lends a smoky, woody accent to the otherwise sweet dessert?
This is what I mean by “cooking in the head”. It’s about using everything you have from your experience and understanding of food, and looking for opportunities to push the boundaries.
How would you describe your cooking philosophy?
Alma by Juan Amador serves European cuisine with an Asian twist in a relaxed and informal setting that makes our guests feel comfortable. Despite being a Michelin-starred restaurant, we make sure our cuisine is accessible, in price point, style and atmosphere, so that Singaporeans young and old will be able to drop by for lunch and dinner.
This is my philosophy – making great food more accessible – as I believe that fine dining is still too disconnected from everyday Singaporeans, and is often enjoyed by a small number of people.
In your opinion, what makes a good chef?
Time management is hugely important. Working in a kitchen – especially a fine dining establishment – requires a chef who can juggle multiple activities at once. This demands coordination and the ability to manage your time efficiently. A sense of humour is also vital. Gordon Ramsay may have popularised the Head Chef as someone with a hot-headed personality, but I believe that no matter how stressful things get, you need to be able to laugh!
If you could cook a meal for anyone, who would it be?
Most definitely my wife – she has stuck with me through thick and thin. Apart from my wife, I would love to cook a dinner for the late Lee Kuan Yew, especially serving him my take on my mum’s laksa to get his thoughts on it.
How do you relax on your off days?
I like to play with my kids, help them with their homework and generally spend time with them. I have worked so hard over the past few years that I have neglected them to some extent, so I’ll take any excuse to spend time with them. I also still follow the S League – especially my former team, Balestier Khalsa FC!
So what’s next for you on a professional level?
My main priority is to continue raising the standards for Alma by Juan Amador. We have set ourselves very ambitious goals for 2017. I am also the Executive Chef for the Water Library Group in Thailand – this is a series of restaurants that I helped establish, and they have really become dining destinations, which is no small feat in Thailand! The newest restaurant, SEED Restaurant, specialises in a unique style of food based on French and Japanese cuisine mixed with Thai flavours, and is a very exciting addition to the group.
How about on a personal level?
For me, first and foremost, is to fully recover from the accident and be whole once again. 2016 had been a tough, but amazing journey for me. I really have a new appreciation for, not only the people around me who have given me their unconditional support, but also myself. The inner growth and perspective is something I believe not many have the opportunity to experience, and I definitely will cherish the lessons that I have been privileged to learn.
Do you have any advice for aspiring chefs facing their own personal adversities?
Adversity can come in any shape or form, but aspiring chefs must always believe in their own abilities, and be mentally strong enough to overcome the obstacles in their way and follow their dreams. Support from friends and family are vital, but they need to realise that being handicapped does not mean they cannot become a top chef. It is all in the mind.
Alma by Juan Amador, 22 Scotts Road, Singapore 228221. p. 6735 9937.