A Cut Above
As Cut was awarded a Michelin star in the inaugural Singapore guide, launched yesterday, Chopstix looks back on meeting chef Joshua Brown:
Californian chef Joshua Brown had never visited Singapore before moving here with his family to open CUT restaurant at Marina Bay Sands. But the protege of Hollywood’s favourite chef, Wolfgang Puck, took to researching his new home city with a passion. “I hit the ground running,” he says. “There was all this fantastic food available 24 hours a day. I think I must have gained 20 pounds in the first month I got here.”
He arrived two months before the restaurant opened and any free time was spent exploring the city’s varied eating outlets: “What I would call street food. Most of my eating excursions were to hawker centres, we don’t have anything like that in LA.”
When Chef Brown arrived in 2010 to head up the first Asian outpost of Wolfgang Puck’s LA based steakhouse, the Marina Bay Sands celebrity restaurant concept was in its infancy. “Daniel Boulud was here and everyone else was in the process of opening,” Brown recalls. “It was exciting, the project was massive, who wouldn’t want to be part of that?”
Brown started working with the famous Wolfgang Puck pretty early on his career – a major opportunity for any aspiring chef. But before that break he hadn’t enjoyed an easy or direct route to success. “I’ve had a very weird culinary path,” he says with a smile. “I’ve worked in construction – I’ve pumped concrete. I went to culinary school but after I graduated I was waiting for the right opportunity. I had friends who were working at chain restaurants and I didn’t want to do that.”
Following a stint at a local restaurant in his native California, he began working at Puck’s legendary film star hang out Spago in Beverly Hills in 2001. He began as a line cook and worked his way up to kitchen manager where he was in charge of ordering produce. Six years later he became part of the launch team of CUT Beverly Hills. It while he was sous chef there that he was promoted to head chef of the new CUT Singapore.
“Wolfgang’s company is all about that – coming up within the ranks,” says Brown. “Wolf’s very passionate about what he does but there’s loyalty on both sides. You feel like you’re part of something bigger. It’s amazing the amount of restaurants he has but he can walk into any one of them and know everyone’s name.”
As with himself, Brown says most of the team stay for the longhaul: “I have a very low turnover of staff. A restaurant team is a tight crew. It’s not like working in an office in your own cubicle, your all interacting and you have to have each other’s back.”
Like CUT in the US and London, the restaurant is an upscale twist on an American steakhouse. At Marina Bay Sands, the walls are lined with strikingly realistic photographs of Hollywood film and music including Brad Pitt and Katy Perry, a nod to Puck’s roots in LA. Brown says it’s not an attempt to recreate the Hollywood glitz in Singapore though: “Wolfgang has a great relationship with art galleries. These used to be on the walls at CUT Beverly Hills and we thought they would go well here.”
Given his background, you can forgive Brown for being unfazed by celebrity. “I got very used to it working for Wolfgang in LA. I was part of the kitchen team at the Kodak theatre when Wolfgang was catering the Oscars so I got very used to it. And lot of famous people would come in and out through the kitchen at the restaurants [presumably to avoid the paparazzi] so a I saw a lot of them. I thought Mohammad Ali was cool. He used to interact with us. Did he enjoy his food? I hope so!”
What Brown really gets passionate talking about is ingredients. As at all CUTs, much emphasis is put on the quality of the meat. “We started buying meat from Australia for the LA restaurant about a year and a half before we opened CUT in Singapore just to find out which was the best producer for our needs,” he explains. This turned out to be the acclaimed Rangers Valley beef. He also sources meat for CUT Singapore from the American mid West states of Illinois and Idaho and Wagyu beef from Honshu, Japan.
“I learnt a lot doing the purchasing for Spago. I source the best produce I can get my hands on. I’m not saying it has to be American, it’s the best we can get wherever we are based. Most of my suppliers I’ve had relationships for years – I’m sticking with what I know.”
The side dishes at CUT are as impressive as the steaks. At every restaurant you’ll find classics like the butter lettuce salad, French fries and creamed spinach “Served with a fried egg on top like Wolfgang’s mother used to make him,” says Brown. “I’d never seen that before but it works really well.”
Although he tries to buy seasonal he points out that being based in Singapore, what this means in practice is buying what’s in season in a particular country. “We try to buy whatever we can locally in Singapore such as spinach and fish but we buy mostly from Australia, Europe and the US.”
This summer fava beans, English peas and Heirloom potatoes will be back on the menu. “I bring in tomatoes unrefridgerated,” he emphasises. “The fridge breaks down the structure and dries them out so they have the texture of cardboard. It changes the sweetness too.”
But some tastes have been altered to suit the Singaporean market. “When we first opened we found that customers were much more sensitive to salt,” Brown admits. “We used to finish off the steaks with a pinch of fleur de sel [an exclusive hand harvested sea salt] on top but people said it was too salty – the first couple of days were really rough. Now we serve the fleur de sel on the side along with the mustards.”
While I’m talking to Chef Brown I can’t help but notice the impressive bar filled with eye catching glass wear, cocktail shakers, muddlers and syrups. Unusually, the chefs all have a hand in creating the cocktails. “The infusions and elixers are all made by the kitchen staff. If we can make it, we make it. We sit around and try new drinks – that’s a lot of fun.”
A good bar is not always a given in a restaurant but Brown thinks its essential. “For a restaurant to be successful you need great service, great food and a great bar. You can have one without the other, you have to have the whole package.”
As I get up to leave, I’d expected Chef Brown to take a well deserved break between lunch and dinner service but he says he’s back off to the kitchen to devise a non meat menu for this evening. “I have a vegetarian coming in for dinner. You wouldn’t believe how many vegetarians come in – I thought there were a lot in LA…” Such is the draw of CUT that even the non carnivores don’t want to miss out.
[This piece originally ran in August 2014]