These days, Martin Foo Heng Yih is a busy man. As the group executive chef of one of Singapore’s largest restaurant chains, Foo plays a pivotal role in steering the overall culinary direction of all the brands under Crystal Jade Culinary Concepts Holding internationally. These run the gamut from casual outlets Crystal Jade La Mian Xiao Long Bao and Crystal Jade Kitchen, to Michelin-starred fine-dining restaurant Crystal Jade Golden Palace.
But Foo finds his centre in the heart of the kitchen: in front of the fiery wok. During meal service, the kitchen is filled with the ferocious roar of the powerful gas burners, a pulsing life force for the symphony of activity in the restaurant. “During the peak hours, the woks might be burning for two hours straight,” he says. “The fire makes the entire kitchen come to life. That sound is sign that we’re at work, that business is good and orders coming in. The sound of the fire pushes everyone to work.”
The wok has always had a place of significance in Foo’s life, since his formative years at the Lei Garden Group of restaurants where he spent 18 years mastering the intricacies of Chinese cuisine. “I was 22 when I became an apprentice. We were never allowed to go to the wok station. The best part of the day was when the head chef was done cooking after lunch or dinner service and we would help to wash the woks. That was when we could feel the heat for ourselves,” he recalls.
After several more years at lauded restaurant group Tung Lok and spearheading independent multi-concept restaurant VLV where he garnered numerous accolades, Foo joined Crystal Jade as its group executive chef, becoming part of a well-loved institution in Singapore’s F&B scene.
Established in 1991 with the now-defunct Crystal Jade Restaurant, the group then went on to opening the flagship Crystal Jade Palace at Takashimaya and subsequently opened Crystal Jade Kitchen, serving up Hong Kong-style congee, noodles, soups, roast meats and dim sum, winning the hearts of a whole generation of Singaporeans. “It’s accompanied a lot of people through life,” says the chef, who is also now a resident chef at Crystal Jade Palace.
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“The heart of cooking well is to be watchful, tasting and testing every day. Our responsibility is to treat every guest well and serve them the best dishes.”