Chef-turned-consultant Konstantino Blokbergen honed his skills working with some of the most celebrated names in the fine dining and hotel world. With his new restaurant, Firebake, he has chosen to go back to basics, handcrafting food using the age-old art of wood-fired cooking.
Konstantino Blokbergen remembers the pivotal moment that ignited the concept for his restaurant, Firebake. He was on holiday in Western Australia’s Margaret River when he stumbled upon rustic bakery Yallingup Woodfired Bread. There was a fire crackling in the brick oven, loaves were being moulded by hand and the smell of fresh bread filled the air. It transported him back to his childhood, where summers were spent in Greece, watching his baker grandfather craft bread the same way. “It was all very magical,” he recalls.
Blokbergen, who has carved a career in F&B in Switzerland, Singapore and Bangkok, came back to the Lion City, which he now calls home, all fired up to recreate that elemental experience. At a time of instant gratification, amid the current fancy for molecular gastronomy, in a city on steroids, the 42-year-old Swiss national wants to revive the ancient culinary practice of slow-paced, wood-fired cooking.
“Wood-fired baking is the opposite of consistency, planning, reliability. It’s temperamental; it’s intuitive,” he tells Options. “You break away from a controlled environment. It’s just you and the food.” At the core of his 56-seater restaurant, which sits in heritage-heavy Joo Chiat, stand two wood-fired ovens. Built from scratch using some 5,000 bricks, including volcanic stones on the inside, they stretch from the black-and-white tiled floor virtually to the ceiling. The ovens are heated with offcuts of Jarrah wood from Western Australia, a species that was selected because it is particularly dense. The timber burns slowly, heating up the ovens more efficiently.
Almost everything in the restaurant is either unvarnished or a throwback to the past, reflecting Blokbergen’s fondness for vintage. The sturdy cast-iron stoves are refurbished Husqvarnas from Sweden that were made circa 1880. The tableware is classical European. The wood in the furnishings is reclaimed. Meanwhile, the food and drink are shaped by nature. The flour is organic, the salt unprocessed, and the wine list contains biodynamic labels. The menu veers towards Western comfort food with grilled and smoked meats, salads and soups and is designed to make bread the star of the show.
Alchemy behind sourdough
“Bread is what I want to showcase here,” says Blokbergen. Just as wine is paired with certain types of food, he wants to show diners how his artisanal loaves mesh with different types of food. His bread of choice is sourdough — a dense, hard-crusted variety starkly different from the spongy, sugary breads favoured by bakeries across the Lion City. Sourdough is one of the most challenging breads to make, given the skill and patience needed. It is also one of the healthiest and easiest to digest, even for those with gluten intolerance.
“Gluten has taken a hammering recently”, notes Blokbergen, “but the root of the problem is we do not ferment breads enough.” Sourdough uses just four natural ingredients — wild yeast, salt, water and flour — and the dough is allowed to leaven slowly, allowing the yeast and naturally occurring friendly bacteria to release acids that predigest the flour. As a result, there is less fermentation of bread in the stomach and less bloating.
The acids that are released also slow down the rate at which glucose is released into the blood stream, lowering sourdough’s glycaemic index. This, in turn, reduces the tendency of insulin to spike. On top of that, the long fermentation process teases out flavours, giving sourdough a more distinctive taste.
Microbial fermentation aside, Blokbergen stresses that it is crucial to use ingredients that are as unprocessed as possible. Industrial and supermarket flour and yeast today are laden with artificial additives such as bleach, preservatives, emulsifiers and improvers. These are all designed to bake bread at speed, make them airy and soft, and increase their shelf life. They are also the culprits for the growing intolerance for wheat.
The idea of opening his own restaurant had long been simmering on the backburner for Blokbergen. Born on the Greek island of Corfu, he was four when he moved to Switzerland, where his parents ran an inn and restaurant. That gave him a front-row seat to the hospitality and kitchen trade from a young age. “I wasn’t great at school. I wanted to work,” he says.
While his parents did not pressure him to follow in their footsteps, pointing to the long arduous hours, something in his DNA prodded him into the culinary world. His chef father told him, however, that he was not going to pamper him and let him work for him. “You have to start at the bottom, wash pots and pans,” he told Blokbergen.
So, Blokbergen decided to apprentice with Michelin-starred chef Fredy Girardet, lauded as one of the most outstanding chefs of his time for his refined take on classical French cuisine. “I hope you know it’s going to be very tough,” Blokbergen’s father cautioned him. “It’s like national service.” Girardet’s restaurant near Lausanne was not only a magnet for aspiring Swiss chefs keen to learn the ropes; many famous chefs from neighbouring France also sent their sons to him to cut their teeth.
The first year was indeed very tough, Blokbergen recalls. Like many at the top of their game, Girardet was a demanding boss and not easy to work with. Even after the restaurant wrapped up a stellar night, for example, Girardet would come in the next morning and push the staff to do better. “It was never enough,” says Blok bergen. He also possessed a great deal of charis ma, however, injecting energy into the kitchen the minute he walked in.
During his three-year stint there, Blokbergen helped prepare staff meals and waited tables. Girardet was very particular about what the team ate. “His philosophy was, if you don’t look after your staff and they don’t eat well, how can your customers eat well?” he says. From Girardet, Blokbergen also learnt the importance of sourcing the best, freshest- possible ingredients and how to showcase their natural flavours so that the produce becomes the protagonist in any dish.
At end-1996, Blokbergen hung up his chef’s whites to pursue a diploma in hospitality management in Geneva. Follow ing his graduation three years later, he landed a traineeship in F&B management with The Oriental in Bangkok (now the Mandarin Oriental). “I value heritage and history and had heard a lot about The Oriental,” he says. The fabled hotel dates back to 1876 and has hosted royalty and luminaries, including novelist John le Carre, astronaut Neil Armstrong and the late Princess Diana.
He was also lured to Asia because of the food. Despite growing up on a distinctly European diet, Blokbergen had developed an appetite for the spices, fragrances and flavours of Asian cuisine. “I love rice. Rice was my thing growing up. I was not a pasta person when young,” he says.
Bangkok was a big change from Switzerland. It was September 1999 and Southeast Asia was in the grip of a finan cial crisis. However, Thailand’s tourism and hospitality sector was still in go-go mode and The Oriental proved to be a fertile training ground. With a smorgas bord of 13 dining and drinking outlets, revenue from F&B exceeded that from the hotel rooms, making F&B a vital part of operations.
After 1½ years, Blokbergen moved up the ranks, this time to the role of assistant F&B director at the Kahala in Hawaii, which the Mandarin Oriental Group had taken over from the Hilton. Although it was a much smaller F&B business than The Oriental in Bangkok, Blokbergen had his work cut out for him. The resort had inherited staff from the Hilton, along with a fair amount of disgruntle ment, which the new management had to handle. “It was a really good people experience,” he says, looking back. “What Hawaii really taught me was how to handle team members and manage crises.”
Island life, for him, turned out to be less about Hawaii’s celebrated beaches or the surfing culture and more about learning to deal with an island mindset. “I also had to learn to be patient, not overreact and to think twice.”
After almost two years, Blokbergen felt it was time to move on. His landing point this time turned out to be Singapore. His father had been invited by fellow Swiss chef Otto Weibel for a food promotion in conjunction with the annual World Gourmet Summit. Weibel, a veteran of the Singapore hotel scene, was with the Swissotel The Stamford at the time. Blokbergen flew over to meet his dad as well as Weibel, to whom he handed his résumé.
That netted him a job as F&B manager at Raffles Hotel. He was looking forward to working at the storied, colonial- era hotel with its solid line-up of 18 F&B offerings. However, his move back to Asia coincided with the onslaught of a mystery virus that turned out to be SARS. It wasn’t just the Raffles; restaurants, bars and tourist attractions across the city state took a beating as people shied away from going out.
It proved to be a tremendous learning experience for Blokbergen. “Any customer was a blessing,” he says. “Everyone had to be hands on.” With reve nue drastically down, the hotel cut back on part-timers, which meant that even top management such as the GM and his No 2 had to double as waiters. However, the team at the time was young and dynamic and rose quickly to the challenge, making that chapter of his career a “fun three years”.
It was in Singapore that he met Bing Leow, who worked in marketing and branding, and would later become his wife. After Raffles, Blokbergen was called back to Bangkok by his ex-boss at Mandarin Oriental. He served a two-year contract as F&B director, then returned to Singapore, where he set up Gastro- Sense at end-2007 with Leow, giving advice to com panies in the lifestyle and hospi tality sector.
At the time, the sector was getting a massive shot in the arm with two integrated resorts. In December 2008, Blokbergen found himself hired by Resorts World Sentosa to help lead the pioneering F&B team for its 60-plus outlets. “It was a roller-coaster ride,” he says. F&B was behind schedule, timelines were short and the scale was unparalleled. Comprising 2,700 members, the F&B team at RWS was the largest of any hospitality entity in Singapore. As such, the job was overwhelmingly about mass recruitment, delegating, crisis management and handling last-minute surprises.
His coup de grace at RWS was helping to bring the Joel Robuchon brand to Singapore. Robuchon, the most decorated Michelin star chef on the planet and “chef of the century”, according to Gault Millau, was a family friend. Blokbergen reached out to him, along with his boss Roger Lienhard, who had worked with Robuchon in Tokyo. The Frenchman ended up opening three restaurants at RWS.
Having been through the fire, rising from fine-dining kitchen hand to working in heritage hotels and steering a colossal casino- resort F&B operation, Blokbergen is now channelling his experience into his dream enterprise. “We are building something different here,” he says of Firebake. Indeed, this is no modernist kitchen. There are no centrifuges or probes or water baths. No foams or sous vide. Just bricks and fire and honest ingredients and heirloom tools. And, an earnest commitment to an age-old culinary craft.
Sunita Sue Leng, formerly an associate editor at The Edge Singapore, usually finds inspira tion after a glass of wine
This article appeared in Issue 779 (May 15) of The Edge Singapore.