People 5 minutes 20 September 2021

Meet Cloudstreet’s Mark Tai, Singapore’s First MICHELIN Guide Young Chef Awardee

At 33 years old, Cloudstreet's head chef Mark Tai displays wisdom beyond his years as he talks about mentorship, legacy, and coming home to mum's cooking.

Michelin Star Young Chef Award Michelin Guide Singapore 2021

It is, indeed, a very special year for the MICHELIN Guide Singapore. Apart from celebrating its fifth anniversary, along with the recent announcement of the MICHELIN starred restaurant selection, it is the first time that the MICHELIN Guide Singapore has recognised a Young Chef Award winner. This accolade is given to a chef under 36 years of age, who is working in a MICHELIN-starred restaurant and displays exceptional talent and great potential.

Presented by Blancpain, the winner of this year’s MICHELIN Guide Young Chef Award is Mark Tai, 33, of Cloudstreet, the newly awarded one-MICHELIN-starred restaurant by Rishi Naleendra. Apart from Cloudstreet, Naleendra's Sri Lankan restaurant, Kotuwa, also received a Bib Gourmand distinction this year.

L-R: Chefs Rishi Naleendra and Mark Tai during the MICHELIN Guide Singapore 2021 Star Revelation event
L-R: Chefs Rishi Naleendra and Mark Tai during the MICHELIN Guide Singapore 2021 Star Revelation event

“When I found out I won the MICHELIN Young Chef Award, I was on the second floor of the restaurant with Rishi and my sous chef Shah. We were watching the award ceremony, and when the announcement of the Young Chef Award came, we were discussing who might win it. When my name was called, I was in complete, utter shock. I asked, ‘Wait, are you sure?’. You could see it in my point-blank expression during the event,” he happily recalls. “I was at a loss for words, and I was completely surprised.”

The MICHELIN Guide Young Chef Award is proudly presented by Blancpain, the world's oldest watch brand that shares the same values with the world of haute cuisine. It has been nurturing relationships with haute cuisine as well as MICHELIN-starred restaurant chefs for over 30 years. The MICHELIN Guide Young Chef Award is an accolade given to young chefs who dare to think outside the box, with a creativity that sparks positive change to haute cuisine. This award is not a “simple” piece that Blancpain hands out. It is an award that helps drive the Singapore food industry forward, as well as encourages young chefs to push their creative limits.

Mark Tai, 33, the winner of this year’s MICHELIN Guide Young Chef Award, helms Cloudstreet, the newly awarded one-MICHELIN-starred restaurant by Rishi Naleendra.
Mark Tai, 33, the winner of this year’s MICHELIN Guide Young Chef Award, helms Cloudstreet, the newly awarded one-MICHELIN-starred restaurant by Rishi Naleendra.

Cooking Rituals with Mum

Tai’s interest in cooking was ignited and honed at the tender age of five. “My mum is a self-taught cook, and as a little boy, I was always messing around in her kitchen. She would often make tang yuan (boiled glutinous rice balls), and I would make my own version with Play-Doh,” he recalls. “As I grew up, my mum eventually taught me how to prepare tang yuan and making it together has become a very special ritual we share,” says Tai. “My mum is really one of my biggest inspirations. Growing up in a Cantonese home, she always made sure there was a soup dish on our table, which is why when friends come and visit, I always prepare soup for them, too. It’s nice, nourishing, and very comforting. Just like a mother’s love.”

Tai is immensely grateful that his parents supported him in the pursuit of his passion — a rarity amongst Asian families. His dedication to the culinary arts was further galvanised as he forged his path. After studying at Temasek Polytechnic as a hospitality and tourism student, Tai pursued his education at the Culinary Institute of America, which paved the way for an opportunity to train at three-MICHELIN-starred Eleven Madison Park. “Passion is something that really drives a person, so I’m very lucky to have such a supportive family,” he says.

Upon returning to Singapore after his time in America, Tai proved his talent in head chef positions at several venues, including a hotel, before Naleendra took Tai under his wing for his first restaurant, Cheek by Jowl, and groomed Tai into the leader he is today.

“Working at a hotel was an amazing experience, but it is a totally different ballgame from working at an independent restaurant. Now, I get to meet the people who eat the food I make, have more intimate interactions with them, and I also get more creative freedom in the kitchen,” he shares.

From L-R: Chefs Mark Tai, Rishi Naleendra, and Adley Azmeer Shah of Cloudstreet
From L-R: Chefs Mark Tai, Rishi Naleendra, and Adley Azmeer Shah of Cloudstreet

On the Importance of Time

When Tai is not at Cloudstreet, one can find him at the zoo. “I have two kids, and they both love animals, which is great because I do, too. Having an interest in animals allows one to possess a heightened awareness of what's happening to Mother Nature, which is also very closely linked to food,” he explains.

“My day revolves around my kids, and I make sure I spend enough quality time with them. Being in this [restaurant] industry puts you in a situation where you really have to be wise with your time, so I make sure my mornings are reserved for having breakfast with my family. I’ll drop my kids off at school before heading to work, so I get to spend more time with them.”

As a young head chef, Tai discovered that mutual respect was the key to opening a stable and easy communication flow with his team despite the age gaps.
As a young head chef, Tai discovered that mutual respect was the key to opening a stable and easy communication flow with his team despite the age gaps.

On Grooming the Chefs of the Future

On winning the MICHELIN Guide Young Chef Award, Tai says, “Beyond the accolade and the one star Cloudstreet received in the MICHELIN Guide Singapore 2021, what’s important for me right now is the fact that I have the privilege to become a mentor to others. Sharing the knowledge I have with the younger team members is really fun, and you can see how they grow to become better chefs. That’s really the reward for me.”

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Tai shares that his first job as a head chef was tough. It was his first time managing employees who were much older than him — some were even close to his parents’ ages. He describes that finding that balance between being friends and colleagues was tricky to navigate at first, but he found that mutual respect was the key to opening a stable and easy communication flow with his team.

“I would say my leadership style has evolved a lot. When I was younger, I was much more hot-headed. Like most chefs, I was trained and brought up in a harsh and tough environment. Now that I’ve grown, I know better. Here at Cloudstreet, I heavily rely on my sous chef Shah. I’ve known him for almost ten years, and we have great chemistry as both friends and colleagues. When we’re in the kitchen, he’s the good cop, and I am...the discipline master,” he chuckles.

At Cloudstreet, Tai’s dishes are driven by sophistication, creative expression, and seasonality.
At Cloudstreet, Tai’s dishes are driven by sophistication, creative expression, and seasonality.
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On the Memories Invoked by Food

Tai believes that memory can be sparked by food. He wistfully shares that on his way home from school during his elementary years, a frequent stop would be at a zi char stall near his parents’ home. Here, he would order a bowl of crispy Hong Kong noodles, bathed in a thick sauce and studded with shrimps and squid. “There’s something about the salivating aroma, texture, and flavour of those crispy Hong Kong noodles. I am always instantly transported to my childhood days, walking home after school,” he adds.

At Cloudstreet, Tai hopes his dishes echo a similar nostalgia and unspool a thread of memories. “Take the chayote for example, it’s a vegetable we grew up eating as kids, right? Here at Cloudstreet, we compress it and turn it into a familiar texture, so when people taste it, they’re like, ‘what’s this? I know this flavour and texture from somewhere’, and that’s exactly what I want to happen. I want to give them something to think about that’s tied to a memory.”

When did you first hear about the MICHELIN Guide?
I first heard about the MICHELIN Guide in 2007, when I was interning at Saint Pierre with chef Emmanuel Stroobant. I asked him if I could borrow a cookbook, and he passed me a copy of White Heat by Marco Pierre White. I learned he was one of the youngest chefs to win three Michelin Stars. From then, my interest kept growing, and I became more obsessed with the fine dining scene.

What did you feel upon finding out that you are the first MICHELIN Guide Young Chef Award winner in Singapore?
I was very surprised. I’m really lucky because there are so many other amazing chefs in Singapore right now. I’m really humbled to get this award.

Who was the first person you called to share this moment with?
My wife. I texted her immediately, but she was quite busy so she only responded half an hour later. I also sent a photo to our family group, and they congratulated me and said they were proud of me. That felt really nice.

Three values that helped you in your journey?
Patience, definitely, and perseverance — it’s not easy for a young cook to start on this journey, but there will always be a silver lining. Lastly, an attention to detail. It’s the small things that can either make or break a person; it separates the average from the best.

Any words of advice to other young chefs?
Persevere, work hard, and see the world now, if you can. I tell every young chef that comes to my kitchen to go and see the world. There are so many different restaurants to learn from. When I was an intern and studying at the Culinary Institute of America, I would keep telling myself that I needed to go overseas to gain experience. I even knocked on the doors of the French Laundry to see whether I could get an internship. It opened up my eyes to see what the rest of the world had to offer.

What legacy do you want to leave behind?
My legacy will be about teaching what I’ve learned to younger chefs. I want to guide them in their careers. Whenever any young cooks come to the restaurant, I always tell them they need to have a notebook, a pen, a marker, a scraper, and a pen knife. With these five essentials, it will be easy for them in the kitchen — that sort of thing. These are small details that I want to share with all the cooks and chefs because it's very important to get them to where they want to be because they are the future of the culinary world, right?

All photos are from Cloudstreet.

Cloudstreet is located at 84 Amoy Street, Singapore 069903. Make a restaurant booking here, or follow them on Facebook and on Instagram for updates.

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