INTERVIEW: David Tang of Caffe Fernet — “Moving to Singapore has been a journey of discovery”

Executive Chef David Tang (PHOTO: Caffe Fernet)
Executive Chef David Tang (PHOTO: Caffe Fernet)

Chef David Tang is probably the closest thing I've gotten to interviewing a rising star—at least in the culinary world. Having spent ten years making his way around the Wolfgang Puck circuit of restaurants, he brings with him a wealth of experience that is easily second to none.

His most recent stint was as Chef de Cuisine at Cut by Wolfgang Puck in New York City which he left for a fresh new start in Singapore with Caffe Fernet. I caught up with Chef David Tang over an email interview and further explore the culinary inspiration behind the menu at Caffe Fernet and to find out what excites him the most about the food scene of Singapore.

How would you describe what you do to someone you're meeting for the first time?

I am the executive chef of Caffe Fernet, and together with a small team of young chefs, we are responsible for creating the new-Italian dishes that are served in our restaurant-bar at Customs House. Here, new-Italian cuisine takes on traditional Italian ingredients and dishes and updates them with local and seasonal produce. The result is elegant, refined dishes that look deceptively simple but are flavoursome and satisfying.

In overseeing Caffe Fernet’s day-to-day culinary operations, I have the privilege of working with young minds and helping to shape their skillsets and ideas for the culinary industry’s next generation.

What spurred your relocation from the US to Singapore two years ago and, in hindsight, what has been the greatest lesson you've learned from the move?

In the US, I was too comfortable with my previous role. I spent a decade working with Wolfgang Puck, and I learnt a lot. I had ample opportunities to work at restaurants like Spago in Beverly Hills and Wolfgang Puck in the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. I was also Chef de Cuisine at Cut by Wolfgang Puck in New York City.

But as an Asian American, I also grew up with a lot of Asian food, and I romanticised the idea of travelling and experiencing authentic Southeast Asian cuisine. Singapore was the perfect hub, and so I relocated. It has been a different learning curve, understanding the city’s culture and working not only with local staff but also local producers. It’s been a journey of discovery.

Octopus. (PHOTO: Caffe Fernet)
Octopus. (PHOTO: Caffe Fernet)

What excites you the most about being in the food industry in Singapore?

Singapore is a foodie hub with an unbelievable concentration of high-calibre chefs from many different disciplines. The ability to experience the world’s cuisines without travelling is exciting – and perhaps especially relevant today in a pandemic when most borders remain closed, and travel is still restricted.

What is the most underrated ingredient a chef should have in their arsenal, and why is this ingredient often overlooked?

Fresh herbs lend an exciting pop or an alluring scent that carries your dish to the next level. Growing up in California, the weather allowed herbs to grow in our garden year-round. To some, the use of fresh herbs may not be indigenous to the cuisine depending on the climate and terroir. But in my cooking, I like to use fresh herbs to add a twist a dish or elevate particular flavours.

For example, in our Octopus, we serve it with a salad of marinated cannellini beans, celery and roasted pepper, finished with pepperoncini Rosso vinegar and fragrant basil oil. The basil oil really lifts this dish.

Pompano Piccata. (PHOTO: Caffe Fernet)
Pompano Piccata. (PHOTO: Caffe Fernet)

In your opinion, what is the biggest lesson the F&B industry should take away from the impact of COVID-19?

I think sustainability has come to the forefront of our minds. As supply chains are being disrupted around the world, product availability has also become unpredictable. In the F&B industry, we should look at ways of shortening the food chain. This solution will not only be better for the environment, but we will also get better quality and fresher ingredients.

At Caffe Fernet, we practise a minimal-waste approach as much as possible. For example, we use a lot of citrus zest, such as in the cured citrus butter that is used to finish the Tonnarelli Vongole.

When you look at the dining scene in Singapore today, what is the one thing that gives you hope?

I think we have shown great solidarity in an unprecedented pandemic in this city. We continue to try to support each other where we can, and collaboration events are a great way to bring the community together. For example, Humpback, another Jigger & Pony Group concept, hosts a Sous Chef Sunday event once a month, to showcase sous chefs from other restaurants in Singapore.

Several initiatives have also been started to support those in need. Among them is the Singapore Cocktail Bar Association (SCBA) that was co-founded by Guoyi Gan, a co-founder of the Jigger & Pony Group that counts Caffe Fernet among its concepts.

Through these challenging times, the community has shown cohesion, and this gives me hope for a stronger tomorrow.

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