Features 2 minutes 26 March 2024

Behind the Dish: Restaurant Zén's "French Toast"

The story and inspiration behind one of Restaurant Zén’s most iconic dishes, shared by Toraik Chua, one of the restaurant's most recently appointed executive chefs.

Three-MICHELIN-Starred Restaurant Zén in Singapore has always been revered for crafting unforgettable dining experiences, from its unique multi-storey tasting menu to the meticulous execution of top-tier dishes. Following Tristin Farmer’s departure from Zén in January, concluding a remarkable five-year tenure as its executive chef, the spotlight has shifted to none other than chefs Toraik Chua and Martin Öfner. These new executive chefs have been entrusted with the responsibility of maintaining Zén’s esteemed culinary legacy, while infusing their own unique styles and innovative ideas.

In our conversation with Chua, he discusses how he merges his Malaysian heritage with the Nordic culinary philosophy he acquired through his training, crediting establishments like noma and Frantzén for shaping his current culinary approach. “The Nordic philosophy emphasises fermentation, preservation, and minimising food waste,” he explains. “My experiences at Zén and Frantzén have refined my focus on flavours and à la minute cooking, which has become my culinary style in recent years.”

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As a proud Malaysian, Chua acknowledges the presence of umami flavours in Malaysian cuisine, derived from preservation and fermentation techniques similar to those found in Nordic cooking. “Preserving foods is essential in both Malaysia and Scandinavia,” he notes. “In Malaysia, it’s to endure the Monsoon season’s limitations on fishing, while in Scandinavia, it’s a response to the barren winter landscape.”

Having been with the Frantzén group since 2018 and being part of the opening senior team, Chua emphasises the importance of maintaining Frantzén’s DNA at Restaurant Zén. This DNA is communicated to guests through the narratives in each dish, each one telling a story about Zén’s rich history.

One such dish is their renowned French Toast, described by Chua as “the OG toast — creamy, rich, bright, earthy, and addictive.” In contrast to the humble origins of pain perdu, the traditional French toast dessert made from stale bread, Zén’s French Toast is a luxurious, savoury interpretation with truffle cream and balsamic vinegar. The dish was part of the opening menu at Frantzén back in 2008. It features sourdough bread stuffed with Cévennes onion, topped with Vacche Rosse cheese custard from the Emilia Romagna region, a drizzle of juniper berry balsamic vinegar from Modena, and finished with Périgord black truffle, shaved to the perfect thickness. It also comes with an eating instruction, which is to “engage with fingers, and finish in two bites.”


Over the years, the dish has evolved with more focus on the balance of flavours and experimenting with different variations. When the truffle season ends, alternative variations are introduced, such as the smoked blue mussel with Zén’s reserved caviar, or the double marinated aged beef with grilled unagi, well-loved by the guests as well. In the broader context of Zén’s culinary experience, Chua sees the French Toast as embodying the “luxury” aspect of Zén with a touch of playfulness. “We sourced the best of everything and placed it on the toast. It’s also a fun bite to enjoy as we don’t serve the guest any cutlery. Savouring this along with Dire Straits or Guns N’ Roses playing in the background just sort of hit the spot, if you know what I mean. Luxury doesn’t have to be stiff!”

Despite his engagement with luxury at work, Chua finds solace in home-cooked meals reminiscent of his mother’s soups. “One of her best soups is ‘pork stomach with white peppercorn’. I also enjoy making my own condiments like X.O., garum, and miso. It just goes super handy when you need the extra dollop of umami in your stir-fried dish.” After a long day of service, his go-to dining spot is Dong Fang Mei Shi over at New Bridge Road. “Cumin stir-fried mutton is a must; chilli stir-fried pork intestine and century egg with green chilli are good too!”

Looking forward, both Chua and Öfner remain dedicated to innovation, continuously experimenting with new ingredients and collaborating with Frantzén’s Test Kitchen team in Stockholm. “To have our guests left happy is probably the priority for me,” says Chua. “Nurturing the next generation of chefs is also my next goal. It’s more satisfying to see the team grow and take on bigger responsibility and challenges than winning any awards. Ultimately, we want these chefs to succeed in their career, and the only way is by guiding them, and showing them the right attitude, mindset, and skill set. Once we nail these two, all the other accolades will come when the time is right.”

Zén is located at 41 Bukit Pasoh Road, 089855, Singapore. Book your table here.

All images are courtesy of Zén.


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