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All about ‘dudestronomy’

Singapore-based chef Bjorn Shen uses skills and a sense of humour to transform 'dude food' into fine-dining

Chef Bjorn Shen at Mumbai’s Khar Social. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Chef Bjorn Shen at Mumbai’s Khar Social. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Dude food has been doing the rounds over the last five years or so, providing an indulgent antithesis to hipster trends like Veganuary and other on-trend restaurants advocating paleo and ketogenic foods. Also called “big boy" food, these are foods that focus on meat, high carbs and there is no shying away from the fats or fries. Asian chefs are the newest entrants on the dude food bandwagon who are expanding its scope beyond super-sized burgers and high up on this list is Singapore-based chef Bjorn Shen. Known for his unusual approach to food, he is transforming what is conventionally considered “junk" into a fine-dining experience.

Although he shut his speciality dude food restaurant Bird Bird in November, the food party still continues at his flagship restaurant, the Middle-Eastern fine-dining spot Artichoke, where guests can partake in Shen’s signature brand of cooking that he calls “dudestronomy". Lounge caught up with the chef on his recent visit to Mumbai where he collaborated on a special menu with Gresham Fernandes, culinary director at Impresario, which owns restaurants like Smoke House Deli and Social. Edited excerpts from an interview:

You are regarded as a “rebel chef" and your restaurant specializes in “deviant Middle-Eastern food". What do these labels mean?

I am someone who likes to mess with things and I suppose that is why people call me rebellious. I have been called many things from the bad boy of food to culinary gangster and I often don’t know how to react to these names. When I cook Middle-Eastern food, my first step is to learn the tradition well. I believe that you can only mess around with tradition if you first learn how to respect it. I learnt authentic Middle-Eastern cooking back when I was at university in Australia from my Persian and Arab friends and their mothers and grandmothers. When I opened my own Middle-Eastern restaurant in Singapore, I used this knowledge and put a funky and modern café spin on traditional dishes. We are very clear that our food is not authentic Middle-Eastern cuisine but one that is inspired by the region’s flavours.

What draws you to dude food?

I am very inspired by what I call “fat boy" or dude food. Dudestronomy is the highly scientific word that I have given to my style of cooking (laughs). The idea behind it is to take something that is very humble, lowbrow or even outright junk and elevate that using good ingredients, creativity and skill. If you apply these three things to chunky comfort food, you can get something pretty awesome. For example, we have a dish called the Beet Mac, which is our take on the McDonald’s Big Mac, which features beetroot falafels, a Big Mac sauce, fermented pickles, roasted lettuce and so on. I am very familiar with fast food dishes like a Burger King Whopper or a KFC Zinger and I reconfigure them to a fancy restaurant dish with the same components but treated in a very different manner. And while the dish itself might look colourful and deconstructed, when you eat it there is an immediate twang of familiarity. So the food at Artichoke is a mix of serious food and fun food. About 20% of the menu is in a humorous vein and apart from fast food, we are also inspired by movies. In fact, the movie that made me want to open Artichoke was You Don’t Mess With The Zohan which is filled with hummus references and if we want to put a strange dish related to hummus on our menu, we call it a dish inspired by the Zohan.

What is your take on sustainable, local and seasonal cooking?

So that was a direction we had taken one year in 2015 where we championed local foods but we stopped doing it since. We discovered that it was near impossible to do this in a place like Singapore which imports nearly 95% of its stuff. If we were only to use local ingredients, we would never eat bread, rice, noodles because there is no wheat or paddy grown here. Chicken, pork, lamb and beef would also be off the menu as would most vegetables and we would only eat frog and crocodile and lettuce and mushroom as they are the only things that are abundant locally. There is also no notion of seasonal food in Singapore—if something is not in season in the northern hemisphere, it will be available in the southern hemisphere and we have access to it all. Of course, it comes at a cost as everything comes from overseas. Honestly, we try our best to be sustainable but we also stay realistic. If it comes down to making a choice like buying cauliflower from Holland or a cauliflower from Malaysia, I will obviously choose the latter because it’s less food miles. However, I will also not compromise on the kind of wines that we serve in my restaurant which come from all over.

What is your favourite ingredient?

This might come as a surprise but my favourite ingredient is Doritos tortilla chips. You can do so many things with Doritos. If I could be a lifelong ambassador of the brand, I would, as I have used it in so many ways—from American-style grits with Doritos to a fried fish with a Doritos crumb and a crushed Doritos tabbouleh.

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