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Meet Mr Onion: Why this Singapore chef wants you to give vegetables a chance

The former chef of Michelin-starred Corner House who used to hate onions now "brings them to bed every night". And at his new Restaurant Euphoria, Jason Tan's redefining how diners perceive veggies.

Meet Mr Onion: Why this Singapore chef wants you to give vegetables a chance

Jason Tan's onion-o-phila has culminated in a brand new dream restaurant on Tras Street. (Photo: Alvin Teo)

It was Carol Ann Duffy who famously wrote, in her poem Valentine: “Not a red rose or a satin heart. I give you an onion. It is a moon wrapped in brown paper."

Then, of course, there was Pablo Neruda, who exalted the allium in Ode To The Onion: “Onion, luminous flask, your beauty formed petal by petal … I have praised everything that exists, but to me, onion, you are more beautiful than a bird of dazzling feathers."

03:21 Min
The former chef of Michelin-starred Corner House who used to hate onions now 'brings them to bed every night'. And at his new place, Jason Tan is redefining how diners perceive veggies – that’s his superpower.

That could be considered a somewhat extreme sentiment, but it’s got nothing on chef Jason Tan, who, eschewing the wordplay of poets, has simply built an entire restaurant in celebration of his favourite vegetable: The humble onion.

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Named Restaurant Euphoria, Tan’s new, independent project is the manifestation of a 15-year dream. Even as a line cook straight out of culinary school, he was aware, when he first encountered the life-changing Cevennes onion, that something momentous was taking place.

“I knew many years back that one day, if I were to be a chef of my own cuisine, I would want to make a dish out of onions, and for it to be the hero of the restaurant,” he said.

(Photo: Alvin Teo)

Of course, he achieved that at Corner House, of which he was chef-patron and co-owner before leaving to strike it out on his own.

His signature dish of Cevennes onion done four ways, comprising a sous-vide egg in an onion cup, a Parmesan-topped onion tart, a crisp onion chip and a pour of savoury onion tea, surely helped the Michelin-starred restaurant win and retain its many accolades.

My Favourite Vegetable by Chef Jason Tan (Photo: Alvin Teo)

But with Restaurant Euphoria, “Mr Onion”, as he playfully calls himself, has dreamed up a space that pays tribute to that vegetable, together with his “Mrs Onion” – his designer fiancee Arissa Wang.

Featuring walls of flowing concrete screed, green foliage, and elements designed to subtly resemble layers of an onion, such as banquette seats, a bar counter and a six-metre light installation, the conservation shophouse on Tras Street is a veritable shrine to the onion – an onion temple, if you will. 

The interior of the restaurant resembles a lush indoor garden, setting the stage for Tan's Gastro-Botanica 2.0. (Photo: Restaurant Euphoria)

His signature dish, now known as My Favourite Vegetable, holds court here, of course, but it’s joined by a new star dish: The Oignon Jamboree, a delicately beautiful arrangement of pickled pearl onions around an onion parfait heart flavoured with smoked eel; with onion puree, onion broth and spring onion oil, and served with a crown of Kaviari Oscietra Prestige Caviar that’s found in only three restaurants in the world.

Oignon Jamboree: 5 Allium (onion parfait, onion puree, pickled onions, onion broth, spring onion oil), Oscietra Prestige Caviar, Legumes Essence. The onion parfait is made by simmering the juice of Cevennes onions with baked smoked eel. Whipped cream is then folded into the extracted liquid, which is finished with Riesling. (Photo: Alvin Teo)

Take a peek into the kitchen and you’ll also see a framed caricature of Tan in an Iron Man costume, holding an onion in his hand.

This crusader for onions and, indeed, all vegetables – he’s famed for his “gastro-botanica cuisine” – has a worthy origins story.

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Up until he was a young man, Tan would not eat any onions at all. Whether they were raw or cooked, “I would take them out if I saw them in my food,” he said.

In fact, “I disliked vegetables all my life – until I was 24, when I finished National Service and joined my first professional kitchen”. 

(Photo: Alvin Teo)

At Les Amis, the SHATEC graduate was slicing Cevennes onions when he noticed that they weren’t like the onions he had always known. For one thing, they weren’t making him cry.

Since they were sliced very thinly, “I thought, ‘A little bit won’t hurt.’” So he popped a sliver into his mouth.

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In that instant, “I was amazed. I was shocked. The onion tasted very delicate and sweet. I immediately fell in love,” he recalled.

That led to a discovery of “the world of all other vegetables – Jerusalem artichokes, fresh hazelnuts, kale, baby carrots, beetroot”.

(Photo: Alvin Teo)

And so, at Restaurant Euphoria, with the chance to sharpen the unique trajectory of his cuisine, Tan hit upon a radical approach to cooking – and quite by accident.

“We discovered that most of the sauces were vegetable based,” he said, leading to the development of what he calls Gastro-Botanica 2.0: Four entirely plant-based base sauces, made only with pure vegetable extractions and reductions, yet replete with sweetness and flavour suited to all varieties of dishes.

Gastro-Botanica Essences – La Symphonie de Legumes (Photo: Restaurant Euphoria)

He's dubbed his mother sauces Gastro-Botanica Essences – La Symphonie de Legumes: Legumes Essence (clear), Legumes Emulsion (emulsion), Legumes Vin Blanc (white) and Legumes Demi-Glace (brown).

These base sauces can be built upon with the addition of herbs, spices, seeds, olive oil, white wine, red wine, fruit zest, salt and butter.

Every day, 30kg of over 30 different types of vegetables pass through the kitchen, yielding just 2 litres of essence – a process that takes up to two days.

Torched Maine lobster tail, with carrot ribbons confit in a beurre noisette with olive oil and spices including cumin, coriander seeds and star anise, and topped with candied orange zest. The sauce is a variation of the Legumes Vin Blanc, with the addition of Iranian saffron and airy whipped cream. (Photo: Alvin Teo)

“Vegetables acquire different tastes with different treatments,” Tan explained. “For example, in our Legumes Vin Blanc, we lightly sweat the vegetables instead of roasting them”, resulting in a clean flavour. In the Legumes Demi-Glace, “we deep roast all the vegetables so it gives you flavour with char, more depth and a different type of sweetness”.

These ideas are a distillation of Tan’s contemporary French culinary training, and his formative years working with Chef Julien Bompard at Le Saint Julien and the three-Michelin-starred Robuchon a Galera (later renamed Robuchon au Dome) at Hotel Lisboa in Macau.

"Mochishire", Restaurant Euphoria's bread course, is a joyful cross between Brazilian Pao de Queijo and Yorkshire pudding. These warm, bite-sized puffs of gruyere air are crisp outside and chewy inside. They are served with a caramelised onion dip made with Cevennes onions, olive oil and egg yolk, finished with red wine vinegar and topped with shallot powder – a dish inspired by French onion soup. (Photo: Restaurant Euphoria)

As Jason Tan by day and Onion Man by night – and also at lunch services on Thursdays and Fridays this month – he thinks he’s “changing the world a little bit, a small part, for people who dislike vegetables”.

“Many people associate vegetables with being very boring and not delicious. I aspire all the time to make vegetables tasty. I think that's actually much more difficult than cooking with proteins,” he asserted.

(Photo: Alvin Teo)

Having devoted his life to being the onion’s disciple as well as master, Tan can't imagine his love affair with his favourite vegetable ever fading.

“I don't dream of onions but I smell like onions every day, so I technically bring onions to bed every night,” he quipped.

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And no matter how many fancy meals he serves or how many accolades he wins, “I'm more than happy to have just a sandwich with mayonnaise and chopped raw onions. It’s perfect for me”.

Restaurant Euphoria is at 76 Tras Street.

Source: CNA/my