Andrew Walsh, executive chef of Jason Atherton's Esquina, Singapore

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 17th July 2013

In association with

  Andrew Walsh is head chef at Esquina, Jason Atherton’s tapas bar in Singapore. From his youth in County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland, Andrew has travelled widely and worked in some great kitchens in the process: from the iconic Thornton’s Restaurant in Dublin to the Michelin-starred PUBLIC in New York. He travelled and worked throughout Australia for a year before coming to London to work first for Richard Corrigan then Tom Aikens and finally Jason Atherton, first at Pollen Street and now at Esquina in Singapore. The Staff Canteen caught up with him to talk about how travelling and food have influenced his life. Your career has been very well-travelled; was that a conscious decision or something that just happened as opportunities came up? I definitely wanted to travel and move around. I really believe that when chefs are younger they should move around and learn in different kitchens and different countries to get some experience; it’s not just the food, it’s about the life experience as well. When I was in New York I used to stage on my days off at Marcus Samuelsson’s Aquavit.  Staging is such a good opportunity to learn new things. Even now I’m thinking of going off to Japan next year for a month and work for free so I can learn a bit about Japanese cuisine. Was it the travelling bug that made you come to Singapore to head up Esquina? No it was Jason’s idea. We were downstairs at Pollen Street with our coffees and note pads ready to plan the menu for the next week and Jason suddenly said: “My business partner has found a really cool location in Singapore to open a tapas bar with a real New York / London twist to it. Andrew I think you’d be really good for it.” I was sat there waiting to take down sea bass for next week’s dish with paella and suddenly I was being asked to go to Singapore! At first I said I was happy staying at Pollen Street but Jason gave me a few days to think about it, and after a while I thought, sometimes you have to take these opportunities when you get offered them because if you don’t take them the first time you don’t know if they’re going to come round again. Not only were you going to work somewhere new for the first time, but also it was your first head chef role; that must have been quite a bit of pressure? The feedback we got when we first opened was amazing and that led us to being packed out, which gave me a lot of confidence but it also led to the challenge that we were really stuck with manpower. Jason was going home and I was left here with just two chefs and I couldn’t do lunch but you just have to think to yourself, you’re on your own and you’ve got to deal with it. Now that we’ve built up a good reputation, we get CVs coming through the door all the time. Esquina is a tapas bar; is it serving traditional tapas or more of a fusion style? It was originally meant to be very homely Spanish food but I said to Jason that I really wanted to be able to express myself and my view on it was that, yes we’re doing tapas but we’re also surrounded by Asia. We’re cooking for expats with a European palette and locals with an Asian palette so I would say it’s modern European food with an Asian influence here and there. Jason’s great in that he really knows how to give chefs their space to do what they want to do and stay in the background and be a mentor and that’s why he’s had so many senior chefs stay with him such a long time. Is there an exciting culinary scene happening in Singapore at the moment? It’s very exciting at the minute. Lots of big name chefs are coming over. You’ve got Daniel Boulud who’s opened his Bistro Moderne here, then there’s Wolfgang Puck; there’s Mario Batali from the US doing his great pizza and pasta. There’s also Andre Chang from Taiwan who has Restaurant Andre which is number 38 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. These are all great restaurants that I treat myself to once in a while but apart from that the local street food here is so good. We don’t really have that in the UK where we either eat at a restaurant or cook at home. Here they just don’t cook at home because it’s so crowded and the homes are so small, so everyone eats at these so-called hawker stalls that sell chicken rice or laksa or pad thai or even sushi. There are influences from Taiwan, Malaysia, India, Japan, China; there’s such a variety. For example today I nipped out for lunch and had a Chinese crispy pork belly with flavoured rice; other stuff like oyster omelette and rice porridge are very popular as well. The rule to finding the good stalls is basically just join the queues; the ones with the big queues are the good ones! You also have the Keong  Saik Snack bar here, another of Jason’s places; how do you divide your time between Esquina and there? I look after Esquina, the Keong Saik snack bar, which is a kind of English bistro, and the attached bar, The Library, which is a kind of speakeasy selling bespoke cocktails. I’ll start at Esquina at eight in the morning where I’ll do the mise en place, prep all the meat and fish and get all the sauces ready for lunch then I’ll go down to the bistro and I’ll taste everything down there and check all the fridges and make sure they’re all set up for lunch. I’ll cook at Esquina for lunch then in the afternoon I’ll help in the bistro with mise en place. I’ll cook at Esquina again at night then I’ll head back down to the bistro to see how service was then I’ll check on The Library. It’s pretty much an eight am to one am job! Has this experience given you the taste for opening your own place? I’m very comfortable with Jason and very happy with what we’re doing at the minute but eventually I want to do something myself. I’ve discussed it with Jason and he may be involved in some capacity because he’s a friend and a mentor and a great restaurateur who’s on top of his game, but if not I’ll open somewhere by myself. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. The main thing I have to look into is whether I’d do it back in London or here in Singapore. But at the minute I’ve got enough on my plate; it’s very hard to find the time to even contemplate doing something different! Here are two of Andrew's recipes: Marinated beetroot salad, honeycomb burrata, pinenut crumble Scallop ceviche, burnt cucumber, avocado and wasabi puree, radish and yuzu ponzu    

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 17th July 2013

Andrew Walsh, executive chef of Jason Atherton's Esquina, Singapore