Kirk Westaway has a well-deserved Michelin star at JAAN.

The Gariguette Strawberry dessert at JAAN would be at home on the plates of any French fine dining restaurant. A pale cylinder of tuile rests on a cloud of foamy sorbet; light red Gariguette and pale pink pineapple strawberries are clustered around; and strawberry and mint soup is poured tableside. After a mouthful, however, you know you are in the kitchen of a British chef. The dessert masterfully blends the flavours of an English summer tea party: strawberries and cream, jam roly-poly and the Victoria sandwich.

Welcome to JAAN under Kirk Westaway. Since the departure of Julien Royer, who has opened Odette at the National Gallery, Westaway has taken the menu at JAAN and made it his own. And if the new chef de cuisine needed any affirmation that his direction has been the right one, he has it. JAAN won a coveted Michelin star in the inaugural Singapore Michelin Guide 2016. “The menu is driven by the ingredients, which are sourced from around the world, and the dishes display evidence of both skill and focus,” the guide says.

While the guide has its critics, it is certainly right about JAAN’s focus on quality ingredients. Westaway grew up in Exmouth, a seaside town on the southwest coast of England. The family’s detached house had three gardens full of tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, strawberries and potatoes. There were cherry, apple, pear and acorn trees. And even a few Bantam chickens. “There wasn’t a constant harvest every day. Mostly you would eat for two days and probably halve the stock,” he says. “But my mom would try and put things from our garden onto the table all the time.”

This early appreciation for good produce was further nurtured by Royer. The two first met at London restaurant The Greenhouse, where Royer was the sous chef and Westaway the chef de partie. In 2011, Royer came to Singapore to take on the role of chef de cuisine at Brasserie les Saveurs at the St Regis hotel. Westaway moved to Brazil and worked as chef de partie at D.O.M. in São Paulo. Within the year, however, Royer had moved to JAAN as its chef de cuisine. That was when Royer asked Westaway to join him here as sous chef.

“Working with Julien is truthfully the pinnacle of what made me [the chef I am] today,” says Westaway. “I always knew, from my organic garden, about using the best products. But working with Julien pushed it into my head really severely. We can only use the best carrots, the best onions, the best meat and fish. Even though everyone knows this, sometimes I think people cut corners. With Julien, it’s ‘No way’. There’s no alternative. It’s the best of the best or we don’t use it. And that was something that taught me a lot.”

Working his way up
Like many other chefs, Westaway started his culinary career as a dish washer. At 13, he took a summer job at a pub right up the road from his home. “One day the guy on the salads section was sick. The chef chucked me in the corner and said: ‘Do the salads today.’ So I did that. And the guy never came back so I stayed on that section, and worked all the way around the kitchen in different places throughout summer.” That led to after-school jobs and another summer or two at the pub.

The head chef must have seen something in the teenager, because he helped Westaway secure a position at a local hotel. “His brother worked in the hotel. So he sent me there. He wanted me to progress. And I worked there after school,” Westaway says. Upon finishing school, he was also encouraged to enrol in a three year college course.

After college, Westaway worked at several different establishments. But it was at the two-Michelin-starred Greenhouse where he really honed his techniques. “Where I was in Exmouth really built the foundation for finding out what you need to do to be a chef: what you need to sacrifice, how much time it takes and how much hard work it is. And then [working in] London really smacks you in the face — just how hard the real world is.” Westaway recalls working 18 hours a day, seven days a week sometimes. “Greenhouse really refined what I was cooking. It was a really great experience to go from the rough and rugged kind of cook I had learnt to be, to using tweezers and elegant clean flavours.”

Today, Westaway’s experiences are making their way into his food. While developing the Gariguette Strawberry dessert, for instance, he was surprised to find himself going back to techniques he had learnt or used some 10 years ago. “Like the little strawberry soup I tipped on, that was actually an idea for a strawberry jelly or something like that in the pub,” he says. “I changed the recipe quite a lot. But [it was] the idea of having the bright red soup… I’m using this idea that I used years ago. At the time, you never think you will use it ever again.”

In search of perfection
Westaway took several weeks to perfect his strawberry masterpiece. The first version was too soft, so he added tuile. Subsequent versions were better but always too sweet. “The sorbet was far too sweet, the jam was far too sweet. All these elements worked, but individually. You put them all together, it was a catastrophe,” he says. And it was a challenge to get the sugar levels down. “These recipes, they count on sugar. You eliminate too much from the parfait and it goes rock hard. So you’ve got to be careful with what you take off.”

Producing each new version also took time. After going through each line in the three-page recipe and making tweaks, Westaway would make each of the 10 elements in it from scratch. “I’ve got a big team, but I try and do it myself first. To make that with all the other stuff I’m doing is a bit challenging. I can only do it at night, or at 2am or 3am.”

One of the biggest challenges was a tiny round sandwich of sponge and parfait. “We’ve got to make a big sponge, aerate it and then dry it. And we freeze it so it sets a bit firmer. Otherwise, when you put the parfait mix in, it gets all absorbed and you get soggy bread,” he says. “And then we have to make the parfait mix. You whip up egg yolks, add some sugar at 121 degrees, add whipped cream and whipped egg whites, and fold it all together. And when it’s slightly set you put it on to the frozen cake, then you put the second frozen cake on top, and then it sits overnight in the freezer. And then next morning, we can take it out and cut out the rings. And then re-freeze it. It takes a lot of time just for that little parfait.”

Many times, Westaway says, his sandwich was either too sweet or too soft. “I’d take it out and cut it, and by the time I put it on the plate it had already fallen out,” he says. “We had to use it for staff desserts. It was so painful because it was three days of work.”

When he first took over at JAAN, he was getting just three hours of sleep at night. “Everyone who comes in knows there is a new chef. So instantly you’ve got to change the whole menu,” he says. “And I couldn’t just serve beef and potatoes. Everyone is expecting incredible dishes. I had 30 dishes on the menu. To change everything was a challenge. I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep, and I lost a lot of weight. I just worked.”

These days, Westaway is getting slightly more sleep — five to six hours a day usually. And he has time on weekends to devote to his favourite pastime: baking bread. “The whole smell fills your kitchen, I love it. Bread is a passion,” he says. In fact, for his next project, he is looking forward to baking his own bread and serving it at JAAN. If it is anything like his Gariguette Strawberry, diners are in for a treat.

JAAN
Level 70, Equinox Complex, Swissotel
The Stamford, 2 Stamford Road
Tel: 6837 3322 Email: [email protected] Opening hours
Lunch: Noon to 2.30pm (Monday to Saturday, closed on public holidays)
Dinner: 7pm to 10pm (Monday to Saturday, closed on public holidays)

This article appeared in the Options of Issue 750 (Oct 17) of The Edge Singapore.