How this young Singaporean chef is making culinary waves in Taiwan
A combined love for food and wanderlust is how Ernest Toh ended up being the Executive Chef of NKU, a fine dining restaurant in Taipei specialising in Nordic-style cooking techniques.
A Singapore boy cooking Nordic cuisine in a Taiwan restaurant … sounds like a scintillating plot twist to a Netflix reality food show, but really, it’s the true story of Ernest Toh, one of Singapore’s hottest exports in the culinary scene today. At only 25, he’s the Executive Chef of NKU, an up-and-coming restaurant in Taipei that specialises in Nordic haute cuisine.
Located in the city’s chic Da’an District, NKU – an acronym for Nordic Keep Unique – sources all its ingredients locally and ethically, and applies traditional food preparation methods such as smoking, drying, pickling and curing in-house. “We have a very big brick oven where we grill and smoke our meats with local lychee wood,” explained Toh.
Although the cooking methods are essentially Nordic, Toh makes it a point to “sneak in” Singapore flavours to his dishes, which have received positive reviews from foreign and local epicures. He recommends trying the Australian Pasture-fed Wagyu, fermented with Chinese mustard and a hint of green chilli and grilled over lychee wood.
The other winning dish is the Asian Potato, which is actually Chinese yam steam-roasted then pan-fried, and sprinkled with nuts, white bait and curry powder. The marriage of different cuisines and cultures is why NKU made it to Taiwan’s 2019 Michelin Guide Book.
Toh’s love for food developed when he was studying Nutrition at Singapore Polytechnic. Likely inspired by reality cooking shows, he decided to test out his culinary skills in a local cooking competition. Although he didn’t win, he was talent spotted by celebrity chef Emmanuel Stroobant, and was offered an apprenticeship at his Michelin-starred restaurant, St Pierre.
The story of how Toh ended up in Taiwan is interesting. “After I completed National Service, I used all my savings to go to Europe. I wrote some emails to restaurants asking if I could work for free to do an internship.
A few replied and I planned my journey from there. I backpacked and went to different places to eat and learn about the food culture,” he shared.
After travelling to 14 countries, Toh arrived in Denmark and found work at Relae and Amass, two new Nordic restaurants in the city. “They do a lot of homework and they are very meticulous in how these little steps will affect the environment. I enjoyed the principle behind what they do, and of course, the food was great! That was a very important learning point in my cooking life,” he said.
Toh is also drawn to Nordic gastronomy for its food preservation methods. “During the winter, they would rely on basic preservation methods to keep their food fresh, because that’s how their ancestors would do it back then when there was no technology.”
It was a holiday in Taiwan that really changed Toh’s life. During a visit to see his friend who worked at NKU, he was invited to “play around the kitchen and design some dishes”. To his surprise, the restaurant owners loved what Toh made, and offered him an opportunity to head the kitchen. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I wanted to leave home for a bit and step out of my comfort zone. I thought being away from Singapore would help me be more independent and that Taiwan would just be a phase,” he admitted.
Even he is surprised at how things panned out so quickly for him and is humbled by all the opportunities that have led him to where he is today. “I’m not too sure what kind of impact I’ve brought to the food scene in Taiwan, but hopefully, it’s a good one!”