At This Fine Dining Pop-Up, You’ll Eat A 7-Course Meal Based On Your Personal Values
You know what’s worse than having nothing to talk about over dinner? Having to endure the awkward silence over multiple courses.
But at a new fine dining collaboration between Chef Derrick Kwa, 31, and local social and lifestyle hub, Crane, the conversation topics are built into the menu. Aptly named Conversations, the seven-course fine dining pop-up is designed around personal values.
Here’s how it works: After being seated, diners will be presented with 12 values, of which they will choose seven. These include things like adventure, justice, wealth, and love. Each value has two or three core ingredients based on Derrick’s experiences with the values or the symbolism behind those ingredients. For instance, diners who choose “growth” will receive something that includes chilli crab since chilli crab was Derrick’s birthday meal growing up.
“Once the order is placed, in the kitchen, I'll work out how best to order the values chosen, and which specific dishes they'll get for the chosen values, to make sure the meal flows as smoothly as possible from starters to desserts,” Derrick explains. “With each course, I'll follow the servers out to the table, and explain the dishes - what value that course corresponds to, how that dish relates to the value.”
If a diner and their partner choose three of the same values, and four different ones, then they’ll get three courses with the same dish and four that are different.
“I want the focus of this meal to not just be about the food, but about the company you’re with. Sharing what you believe in with someone is extremely intimate and I hope to create a space for you and your dinner company to do that,” says Derrick. “I wanted to create a dining experience that’s completely built around that goal—to help diners foster and deepen their connection.”
Conversations is actually the second pop-up in this series, so to speak. The first edition, Connections – which was held in October 2020, offered a menu built around the 36 questions to build intimacy. Ahead of Conversations’ opening in mid-July, we started a conversation with Derrick to find out more about his journey into the culinary scene.
What inspired your idea to create a fine dining pop-up centered on values?
The idea behind this whole series started with me thinking about what a dinner is truly for. Before falling in love with food, I worked in marketing (I still freelance as a marketer). And as a marketer, a large part of the process is going deeper into what a thing is truly for. For example, Apple doesn't really sell computers, it sells creativity, design, etcetera. When you buy a bottle of wine, often it's about status, not just about the taste.
So in that vein, I asked myself what is a meal truly for? And there are a few possible reasons, but the one that resonates the most to me is sharing a memory with someone you love - be it a friend, family or partner. So I wanted to build meals around that, where the meal itself is built around encouraging those connections and conversations.
Tell us about the process of conceptualising this edition of Conversations - what were some of the highs and lows? It must have taken forever.
It took a long time. I first had the concept in early 2021. But it took a long time to figure out the kitchen logistics. I couldn't just have 12 dishes for the 12 values, because what if a diner chose seven that didn't include any desserts? The meal then wouldn't make sense. Having to figure out the combinations, and how to make the concept work without having to create and prep hundreds of dishes, took the longest.
Once I figured out that workflow, conceptualising the dishes was...still challenging, but a fun challenge. I didn't want to just include values that spoke to me; the whole point of this was to have enough of a range that people could choose from. So for some values which don't really speak to me as personally, it became slightly more difficult to conceptualise the dishes. Other values came pretty easily because I had more of a personal connection to them.
The biggest highs, I think, came from 1) testing the dishes, and seeing it come together, and 2) hearing the response and excitement from others when I talked about the concept. It really validated what I felt, that the concept in itself was pretty unique, and that it would be an interesting dining experience.
After doing the questions the previous round, I wanted to do something where diners have a bit more choice, and provide a more unique dining experience. The idea of personal values is one that spoke really strongly to me - it's something that really dives into who we are as individuals, and ultimately that's the piece that we connect with each other on the most, I believe.
As a digital-marketer-turned-chef, what led you to pursue the culinary arts as a career, and what was that transition like for you?
I never really grew up around food, my mom didn't enjoy cooking, and was more of a "food is just sustenance" type of person. I started cooking when I was 21. I was traveling, doing a stint as a digital nomad of sorts (went through 10 countries in the 2 years), and I had to learn how to cook out of necessity. The first cookbook I bought was called "A man, A can and a microwave".
As I started doing more of it though, I fell in love with it. I love creating in general. So eventually I just sent an email to my favourite restaurant in Singapore (I was back here at the time). It was The Kitchen at Bacchanalia (then helmed by Ivan Brehm). I just told them how I loved the food, mentioned a couple of the dishes that I remembered, and asked if they would be open to letting me come in and work for them. Ivan replied, we met, and he basically said he couldn't pay me but if I wanted to learn he'd be happy to have me there and teach me. So that's how I got started.
I did a couple of months there, then a year later did another similar internship, and just slowly dipped my foot in the water, to see if this was something I could really do as a career. When I felt like it was, I did a culinary diploma in Canada - and I suppose the rest is history, as they say.
It's been an interesting transition, I still do freelance marketing work, and the biggest struggle is figuring out the financial aspects. Chefs in general, I feel, tend to be pretty underpaid - even more so in Singapore (in comparison to cost of living). So being back here has made that balance a challenge. At the same time, though, I believe my marketing background helps - not just in being able to promote my projects, but in how I see things and the questions I bring to the table.
You left school when you were 16. Can you tell us more about how you got to where you are?
I was actually from the Gifted Program, and was in the very first batch of students at NUS High school. On top of that, my mom is a (now-retired) professor at NTU. So you can imagine that leaving school was a pretty big move to make, and people around me often didn't know what to make of it.
That said, looking back I think it was one of the best things I've ever done. I left because I felt like I was just going through the motions of school, and didn't really have a reason for why I was doing it. I wanted to explore on my own and try different things - I felt like I could gain more with 2 years out in the world, gaining experience, than I would in school.
So that's what I did. I started blogging, I organized the social media breakfast Singapore, attended events, worked on my own projects. A lot of it came down to 1) being open to whatever opportunities came up, and 2) not being afraid of reaching out to make things happen. Even with this pop-up, the partnership with Crane came from me just sending them a cold email. A lot of the restaurants I've worked at, I got the opportunities from the same - just reaching out and asking.
So if you're asking how I got to where I am, I think that's the main key. Just kind of not letting fear stop you, and going for and reaching out for the things you want.
Conversations will run from 6pm on the following dates: 15, 16, 22, 23, 24 July 2022 at $140 per pax
Location: Crane@The Herencia, 46 Kim Yam Rd, #01-06, Singapore 23935
Find out more and book your seats here