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Esquina’s Chef Carlos Montobbio: Taking Diners’ Feedback Seriously

In the MICHELIN-Plate Spanish restaurant’s Tasting Room programme, diners get a sneak peek of upcoming dishes and give brutally honest feedback.
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A thick wad of worksheets filled with scribbles is one of the last things that one would expect a chef to keep, but this paperwork is crucial for Carlos Montobbio, head chef of contemporary Spanish restaurant Esquina in Jiak Chuan Road, to chart out his new dishes.

The worksheets are part of his Tasting Room initiative, which takes the concept of customer feedback up to a whole new level. On top of introducing specials on the menu board and chatting with diners, Montobbio gives diners a sneak peek into what he calls his “little black book of experiments” as he develops new dishes.

At the monthly sessions, 12 diners are both food critics as well as guinea pigs. They dig in a dinner ($68) that comprises six to eight dishes and write their no-holds-barred comments in the worksheets. Each dish is graded on a scale of one to five — one being “very undesirable” to five for “off the chain” (slang for “out of control and wild fun”). Diners have to rate the dishes according to their presentation, taste and balance of flavours, as well as give an overall rating for the dish. Diners can also give their two cents worth on how much they will be willing to pay for each dish.

Towards the end of the cosy convivial sessions, Montobbio shows up and listens to the opinions of more vocal diners. Don’t worry about giving less-than-satisfactory comments as the chef promises that he would not get annoyed. Most of the Tasting Room sessions, which can be booked online, sell out fast.
In Esquina's Tasting Room sessions, diners can rate dishes and write their feedback on the presentation, flavours and price point of the dishes. (Credit: Kenneth Goh)
In Esquina's Tasting Room sessions, diners can rate dishes and write their feedback on the presentation, flavours and price point of the dishes. (Credit: Kenneth Goh)
The idea for the Tasting Room was sparked when eagle-eyed diners spotted the chef experimenting with new dishes behind the restaurant’s counter and offered to be his guinea pigs. He also took reference from top Australian restaurant Attica in Melbourne, which runs a similar feedback programme.

Montobbio says: “I love the idea that diners are able to journey alongside my culinary exploration and are open to sampling new ingredients, flavour combinations and techniques.”

“Some of the cooking experiments turn out good or bad. It can be scary at times as I am showing a vulnerable side of myself by presenting an an unpolished dish to diners,” he says with a chuckle.

The feedback helps him to polish up the dishes before they make the cut on the a la carte menu — a process that can take as short as a week. If a dish doesn’t receive at least 85% positive feedback from diners, it doesn’t make it onto the main menu. For example, Beetroot With Stracciatella Cheese, Smoked Walnut & Horseradish was tweaked over four Tasting Room sessions before appearing on the menu.
One of the dishes that were improved over the Tasting Room sessions is the Beetroot With Stracciatella Cheese, Smoked Walnut & Horseradish. (Credit: Kenneth Goh)
One of the dishes that were improved over the Tasting Room sessions is the Beetroot With Stracciatella Cheese, Smoked Walnut & Horseradish. (Credit: Kenneth Goh)
Another Tasting Room dish is the Suquet. The Catalan seafood stew, which comprises skrei (Atlantic cod), Carabinero prawns and octopus, is cooked in an ambrosial broth in a plastic bag. Instead of being served in a bowl, the bag is cut open in front of the diner and an intense seafood aroma then wafts over the table.

Montobbio thinks that the Tasting Room initiative is a more interactive way of getting feedback on his food and understanding his food through diners’ perspectives. He says: “In the kitchen, we tend to approach dishes from a more technical and practical view. This balances out the dish creations and menu planning by harmonising the two perspectives together.”
The Suquet seafood stew made its debut appearance in Esquina's Tasting Room sessions. (Credit: Kenneth Goh)
The Suquet seafood stew made its debut appearance in Esquina's Tasting Room sessions. (Credit: Kenneth Goh)
Among some of the more memorable comments that he has received in these worksheets is one from a diner who begged him not to remove Esquina’s well-known dessert, the BBC, which comprises beer ice cream, banana cake and caramel sauce. He says: “This shows that guests are not only excited to sample the new creations that I am experimenting on, but they also value the signature mainstays.”
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