Executive chef Kirk Westaway of two-MICHELIN-starred JAAN by Kirk Westaway loves his vegetables. Growing up five minutes away from a beach in Devon, a sea-side county in southwest England, Westaway was always surrounded by fresh, organic produce that was freshly plucked by his mother from their family's garden. Looking back, Westaway describes his childhood as "lucky" as he was able to have ready access and experience eating organic vegetables, as well as high-quality dairy products, at such a young age.
With a continued interest and passion for produce, Westaway carved his way into the culinary world, finding himself working in the kitchens of esteemed restaurants such as two-MICHELIN-starred D.O.M. in São Paulo, Brazil, and Greenhouse in London, U.K., which held two-MICHELIN-stars before it closed in 2020. However, it was at Greenhouse where Westaway met Julien Royer of three-MICHELIN-starred Odette. Royer, back in 2011, was head chef of JAAN, which was a modern French restaurant at that time, and he gave Westaway the opportunity to work with him as his sous chef.
Now exhibiting a “Reinventing British” culinary philosophy, Westaway’s cooking breathes new life into the way produce is experienced on the palate. In 2016, JAAN by Kirk Westaway was awarded 1 MICHELIN Star, and despite the challenges brought by the past couple of years, the restaurant has moved up the ranks to receive its second MICHELIN Star in 2021, a validation of its "excellent cooking that’s worth a detour", according to MICHELIN inspectors.
A Wonderful Dream Come True
Given the ever-changing government restrictions due to the pandemic, Singapore's dining scene has been deeply affected. From dining out being prohibited, to slowly allowing diners back in groups in five, and then reducing the diner headcount to two, the repercussions of COVID-19 to the industry have been harsh, to say the least. “Though I had the impression that everyone everywhere secretly expected that we would get the second MICHELIN Star this year, I didn't have that expectation myself,” shares Westaway. “I didn't expect it to come because it has been a challenging, challenging 18 months for everybody. We’ve all faced difficulties."
"However, we have a very strong team, and I’m lucky to say they’ve stuck by us for a very long time," says Westaway. "We’ve really grown together and managed to really increase the attention to detail, both in the restaurant side and the kitchen's. We have been aiming for the second MICHELIN Star for a while, and to finally achieve it is a wonderful dream come true.”
Westaway shares that he felt a lot of relief upon being awarded the restaurant’s second MICHELIN Star: “It’s been a real journey. There’s a huge number of people that are involved in this milestone, all with the same dream and the same target of achieving the second [MICHELIN] Star.”
Westaway recalls that after relief, extreme joy and pleasure washed over him. “To be recognised by the MICHELIN Guide for the commitment and the work that we put into the restaurant for so long is really fantastic; a truly wonderful feeling.”
Given the current restrictions in Singapore, Westaway shares that the celebrations will have to wait as they are a team of over 30 people. “We cheered with a glass of champagne, and then it was back to service. The celebrations will come, but we're trying to find a true way to do that and to really make the celebration worthwhile,” he says. In the meantime, Westaway sincerely hopes he could show appreciation to his team and to everyone else involved through encouraging words and giving them gift hampers. In Westaway’s words: “From front-of-house to the back-of-house, I believe everyone who has walked through JAAN’s doors has aided to raise the standards for where we are today. Even if they’re not with us right now, whether they’re working in other restaurants in Singapore or around the world, everyone has a piece of the pie."
The first person he called upon receiving the news was his wife, Westaway recalls. “You know, the hours are long for a chef. And my wife has always been a massive, massive support," he says. "She's very intelligent, very caring, and very accepting of my chosen career path. The restaurant winning was as special to me as it was for her. It was a big moment.”
To Continue “Reinventing British”
In Westaway’s eyes, choosing to “reinvent” British cuisine outside of the U.K. was a bold move. “It is a bit of a challenge. It didn't sit very well with many people at the beginning, but, I believe, it's definitely turned a few heads now. We're just going to keep on getting better and stronger, as well as promote British ingredients and my personal interpretation of British food."
“The future is clear. We will continue to drive hard and carry on with the direction of modern British. I'm quite excited about it. I've enjoyed it so far, and it's really just the beginning of what we can do.”
For Westaway, more than anything, the opportunity to create an unheard of concept that challenges cultural norms — in this case, that of British food's — and to be recognised for making a culinary impact of its kind is a "genuinely fantastic feeling".
Childhood memories translated into food
When asked about his native Devon, he says: “Some people treat Devon as a corridor, but there’s more to it than that. It’s definitely worth stopping off.” Westaway waxes poetic about the abundance of nature in the area, citing a park in the town of Dartmouth where wild deer and wild horses run free. “The thing about Devon is that it’s full of dairy farms and rolling green hills. There’s lots of nature, rivers, and lakes. It's a very beautiful part of the world.”
Westaway’s childhood revolved heavily around organic produce, growing up in a family setting where food played a huge role. Westaway shares that his mother would harvest vegetables from their home garden and was an excellent cook. Today, one of his sisters even runs her own organic farm that spans a few acres.
It was thus from his family that he learned so much about respecting the ingredients that went into their meals. “When me and my sisters would fight in the kitchen as kids, my mum would always tell us to get out,” Westaway recalls with a smile. “She would say that's bad energy for the food. Food has to be nice and happy."
“I believe we're all inspired by our major mentors, which are our parents.”
Westaway's favourite summertime memories are of growing up with his sisters, picking berries and climbing trees, and while he says that it is difficult to pinpoint one dish of his mother’s that he was particularly fond of, his experiences surrounded by family and fresh produce are what inspired the English Garden, one of Westaway’s signatures at JAAN when he launched his "Reinventing British" menu. “Especially now that we’ve been away from home for so long, it’s a nice memory to think about, and that story transpired into the English Garden.”
Unlocking the Hidden Potential of Vegetables
Growing up with his sisters and mother who are all vegetarian, Westaway shares that as a curious child who would err on the side of mischief, he would usually sneak in a bite of meat at school or with his father. Over the years though, Westaway has adopted a vegetarian lifestyle himself, choosing a big bowl of vegetables as his main course over meats any given day. “We rarely have meat in my home fridge. Just a lot of cheese,” he says.
Vegetarian cooking “is all about having an understanding of how vegetables should be cooked and what is the best way to maximise their flavour quality. If you're able to understand that, then vegetarian food should be easy,” Westaway explains.
"Take the humble cabbage, for example. You can have it as a main course by halving the cabbage, roasting it for 20 minutes in the oven with some butter, onions, and a little vegetable stock. It's an amazing main course that people should try,” he shares.
“That dish is something I love, and we serve it in the restaurant for our autumn and winter menu; it's really special. If you can find a way to unlock those hidden flavours, vegetarian items and vegetables in general can become really incredible." Westaway encourages diners to look forward to JAAN by Kirk Westaway's upcoming autumn menu, which comprises of dishes filled with richer sauces and bolder, comforting flavours. "It's like a warm hug in the belly,” he says with a smile.
How was receiving the second MICHELIN Star different from when JAAN by Kirk Westaway received its first MICHELIN Star?
The first time we got the MICHELIN Star, it was a huge milestone for everyone. It was our first time. Now, to get the second MICHELIN Star, it's an incredible achievement. It’s something I've been personally working towards. When the news of our second MICHELIN Star was announced, the restaurant was fully booked. The team did a quick huddle, said our congratulations to each other, and then it was right back to work. We were in the kitchen and then we jumped back into action, but there was a different, more positive vibe. There was a great feeling in the restaurant, and our guests congratulated us. The response has been outstanding and to get the second star has been a huge milestone.
What gives you the creative inspiration to cook with vegetables?
I have a routine of tasting and trying. I really hate to become stagnant in anything I do, and I get bored of dishes very quickly. A dish that I might have loved yesterday, I’ll be bored of tomorrow. As a chef, it's important to tweak, adjust, upgrade, and make things better. One thing I do is always sampling new ingredients, new ideas, and new cooking methods. I always ask myself, ‘What's the best way to unlock that flavour and keep it consistent?’ The number one goal is obviously taste and quality, but the consistency in a restaurant is a must. I also like to read books. I own quite a large collection of cookbooks. The ideas inspire me to have a look at what people are doing all around the world, and what different techniques and styles they apply.
What is the one cookbook that you would recommend for vegetable dishes?
Rogan: The Cookbook by Simon Rogan. I'm a huge fan of Rogan, he’s the chef/owner of two-MICHELIN-starred L'Enclume in the U.K., one-MICHELIN-starred Roganic in Hong Kong, and many more. He’s a good friend of mine and also an incredible chef. He has a farm where he grows most of the vegetables in a very organic environment. The vegetables he grows make their way into L'Enclume where he makes modern-day and very delicious vegetable dishes. It’s a great book filled with great ideas on lots of vegetables. He works very, very well with them.
What do you think is the most underrated vegetable?
I would say it’s more of the classification of the vegetable, rather than an individual type of vegetable. If you're going to expect an amazing dish, you have to put amazing ingredients into it, and I am a very strong believer in this. “Organic” is not always the key. There are lots of different ways to grow great vegetables and produce. As long as it is of premium quality, that's the main thing to look at. It's not always essential, but if you have the means, spend as much as you can on getting the best ingredients. The message I want to put out there is that it’s important for you to enjoy cooking at home, and you will enjoy it so much more if you can get some decent ingredients.
What do you think is the biggest misconception people have when it comes to British food?
It's hard. British food has had a bit of a negative opinion for the last two hundred years. People believe it's heavy, it's dense, and it's not very tasty. I'm very proud to prove many people wrong about their opinions, but also, they have a point. Back in the day, English food wasn’t always amazing, but right now, chefs are doing incredible food in the U.K. The food scene in the U.K. is turning out to be a highly competitive one, as it is becoming one of the best in the world.
When I was younger, about 15 to 16 years old and working at a restaurant in Devon, we sourced all the ingredients within a 10 mile-radius. All the vegetables came from local farms, as well as all the dairy products. The cheese came from a farm up the road, which is actually the same one that I use here in Singapore. All the fish would also come from the river just down the road. We'd actually go and collect mussels from that river as well and use them in the restaurant.
What do you want diners to remember after having a meal at JAAN by Kirk Westaway?
I want them to be very ashamed of themselves for thinking that English food was bad. No, I’m just kidding! It’s more than just feeding yourself. It's a real experience, and I want people to leave with that memory. It's a bit like coming to the theatre. You go there, you enjoy the food and wine, and you receive a full experience — something that you have as a reminder for years to come. Turning those special moments into memories for them to enjoy and to think about in the future is what we do.
All photos are from Jaan by Kirk Westaway.
Jaan by Kirk Westaway is located at 2 Stamford Road, Singapore 178882. Make a restaurant booking here, or follow the restaurant on Facebook and on Instagram for updates.