Kitchen Stories: The Colombian chef who only cooks in black and white
At Preludio, only monochromatic dishes are served, but chef-owner Fernando Arevalo doesn't want you to think his "author's cuisine" is pretentious.
It’s commonly acknowledged that few things in life are as black-and-white as they seem; that without the black, the white would not be white, and vice versa; and that often, it’s the grey areas that brim with possibility.
It’s just as commonly acknowledged that when it comes to what’s on a plate, “colourful” and “delicious” are synonyms.
So, when you hear of a new restaurant called Preludio that is doing black-and-white food as its first “chapter” in a journey of “author’s cuisine”, your first reaction might be to furrow your brow.
Preludio’s chef-owner Fernando Arevalo would be the first to admit that, prima facie, the concept, titled “Monochrome”, does lend itself to being interpreted as “pretentious”. He walks a fine line, he quipped, between “getting people interested and wanting to come, and not thinking, ‘This guy is an a******.’”
READ > Best Thing We Ate This Week: Earthy, smoky eel and autumnal root veggies under a delicate cracker at Preludio
But although the dishes and even the drinks list adhere to the theme, the moment you experience the clever sleight of hand that is part of the dinner degustation menu – if you haven’t already dined there or heard about it, we won’t give you any spoilers – your defenses come down as “you realise that I’m just messing with you,” said the chef with a twinkle.
As it turns out, the 33-year-old Colombian is as laid-back and playful as he is introspective and philosophical.
Born in Bogota, he paid his dues bartending and washing dishes before training under the auspices of Daniel Boulud and Bill Telepan in New York City and Mario Batali in Hong Kong. For the past six years, he has made Singapore his home, heading the kitchens of Bistecca Tuscan Steakhouse and Artemis Grill.
Striking out on his own with Preludio is a risk he calls “ridiculous”. “The first time I started talking about this, not even I believed I could do it,” he said.
Judging from the rave reviews, though, what started out as a crazy idea has solidified firmly into black and white.
THE BLACK-AND-WHITE FLAG OF REBELLION
With Preludio’s “chapters” changing every year or so, “It sounds like I’m trying to do this really crazy thing that is in my head only. But the truth is that I’m just trying to solve the problems that every restaurant has… (in) the most logical and interesting way,” Arevalo said.
“I realised that I needed change in order to continuously be better. Change in my life – for example, moving to Asia, changing jobs – was always an opportunity to do something different,” he explained. “When you put yourself in a position you’ve never been in before, you grow. So, I thought, ‘I have to create a restaurant that changes so that I can be better. It has to challenge me so that I can look for things I’ve never seen before. I don’t want to ever be comfortable.”
Fortuitously, the concept also keeps staff invested, interested and loyal, while providing marketing solutions, he said.
But at its heart, the idea of serving black and white food and drinks – the wine list is divided into grapes grown in black or light soil, for instance – was born out of the spirit of rebellion.
“During all those years I was a chef directed by someone else, I had freedom over the product but at the end, I was not the owner,” he said. Each time he was told to use a garnish just for its colour, he balked internally. “Garnishes should talk about the dish or contribute in flavour or essence, and not just because, ‘Ah, some red would be good. Put a red flower on it.’ It doesn’t speak to the palate and makes no sense.”
Preludio is a break for freedom for the rest of his team as well, including pastry chef Elena Perez de Carrasco and sommelier Chip Steel. “When they didn’t have creative freedom, someone told Elena she had to do a creme brulee and she didn’t want to because she wanted to express herself, and creme brulees suck in her eyes; and Chip was forced to do expensive Italian wines only,” he said.
Ironically, “That oppression, and the release of that oppression, is what makes them so good now.”
It’s a yin-yang idea that not only illustrates the Monochrome theme, but is also mirrored by perceptions of Arevalo’s home country.
“My country, in the eyes of everyone, is dangerous and scary. But when they go there, because of this perception, they are blown away,” he said. The important thing to note is that “if they hadn’t had this perception, the impact wouldn’t have been as big.”
Similarly, “I wanted people to come to the restaurant thinking that they were going to have a black and white meal, and leave saying, ‘This was the most colourful meal of my life’. We don’t limit our ingredients. We’re just creative about how we use them and the way we cook with them. The food is so true and so honest because I feel that’s the way that food should be. But the idea of Monochrome puts it in a perspective that is the opposite – like, ‘This is going to be very sterile and tasteless.’ So, it creates a lot of impact.”
And while a restriction of colour would seem to constrain his repertoire, it has actually done the opposite: It is a limitation that has turned into liberation.
“This idea of Monochrome has put me in pursuit of what people would think is limiting, but what it has done is to add another layer to the creative work. That layer has forced me to look for things I’ve never looked for before,” he said. “It’s like I’m adding a story to the dish; things that I never would have looked for.”
This doesn’t just apply to ingredients and flavours, but also, in a broader manner, to ways of thinking.
For example, in an attempt to make a dish of white gnocchi, he experimented with white pumpkin; however, the pumpkin held far too much water and it looked as if he were going to fail – “until I decided to burn the gnocchi, and make it black instead of white,” he said. The gnocchi he serves now is made of butternut squash with a little charcoal added to the dough and charred in the oven.
“One spoonful at a time, we tell you a story that you might not even grasp fully because it’s so deep. But it should be simple enough that if you don’t even think about it, then you don’t even realise that the food was black and white. Every art form has to have logic behind it, or else it doesn’t make sense. But at the same time, if you’re not into it, it should still just be delicious food that is enjoyable,” he said. “It’s not just, ‘You know, I’m an artist.’ I’m not. This is the way that I see the world... I always say, ‘If you want to say the most complex things, use the simplest words.’”
“I WANT TO HAVE THE BEST RESTAURANT IN THE WORLD”
The way he sees the world also includes the idea that if one is going to devote one’s life to something, one might as well aim to be the best at it.
When starting the restaurant, “I thought, ‘I want to have the best restaurant in the world’,” he said.
“When I say that, it sounds arrogant. But the way I see things is this: If 100 guys open a restaurant today, 98 of them will tell you, ‘I just want a casual place, nothing too pretentious, where I can come in shorts and relax and have my friends over.’ Then there are two guys who will say, ‘I want to be the best.’ Would you rather compete with two or 98? I would rather compete with two.”
And Singapore, he said, is an ideal place for a restaurant that aims to be the best.
“I think that this being my flagship restaurant – let’s call it that – it needs a place like Singapore because of its audience,” he said. “I don’t think this concept would work in some other countries because they’re not as open to spending money on something like this, to buy products of this quality. I bless the fact that I’m here because people appreciate food a lot.”
Singapore is present in his food, too, such as in a dish of Iberico pork presa that includes vinegared tomatoes inspired by his favourite late-night Thai supper haunt, where he would order a dish of pork that came with an appetite-stimulating vinegar; or a dish featuring a broth that carries flavours inspired by sambal and chicken rice chilli.
What’s more, “There are very few countries in the world where you can do what I’m doing in this restaurant; where I can get a fish that is 12 hours old from Concarneau, at the price that I get it,” he said. “The fact that Singapore is one of the biggest trade hubs is an advantage.”
Many chefs want to do things like dry-age their own beef, but while he feels it’s important to know how things are done, “there are some things that you have to use the experts to do,” he said. “You want to have the best cheese in the world? Don’t do it yourself. There’s a guy in Puglia who lives next to the best cows in the world with the best milk in the world, and his mother and his grandmother and his great grandmother all know how to do cheese, and he knows how to do cheese better than anyone else. Buy it from him. And then talk about him.”
An exquisite agnolotti dish, for example, showcases a 25-year-old balsamic vinegar he personally sourced in Modena, Italy, produced by a family for four generations. “No one tells that story. I pass it on,” he said. “I don’t tell the cooks how expensive a product is – I tell them how hard it is to make. You should see their reactions and the respect they have for the product.” Sourcing in different parts of the world, he said, “has become my favourite part of the job. Come with me. It’s the most beautiful thing.”
Having lived and worked all over the world, he said, “The country you are in is almost irrelevant if you feel that the work you are doing is making you grow. People ask me, ‘Which is better – New York, Hong Kong, Bogota or Singapore?’ They all have pros and cons and I could just complain about all of them, or I can be positive about all of them. Singapore has been great to me. It has given me so many opportunities and I’ve grown so much here.”
So, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t aim for the top. “Singapore wants to be the best at something. Every time there’s a talent, whether it’s a swimmer or someone else – it’s huge. I feel that’s something that plays out in my favour because everything we create here is linked to some story that happens here. Singapore wants so badly to have something different and Preludio is an opportunity to support something different.”
Whether or not it actually becomes the world’s best restaurant, he said, is also irrelevant. “I learned this from my mother – that success has nothing to do with reaching your goals. Success is about fighting for them every day. So, I want to be the best restaurant in the world, and I try to do that every day. But if I had to close tomorrow, I would still be successful, because I tried. It’s not about reaching the goal – it’s about dying trying.”
Preludio is at 182 Cecil Street, Frasers Tower #03-01. Lunch starts from S$55++ for four courses; dinner starts from S$168++ for six courses.