After a shift, what is your favorite guilty pleasure to eat? “I have some places to get grub around where I live. Dollar slices of pizza, pad thai, Subway or a bodega sando. But recently, I’ve been trying not to eat much after work to trim the fat. That being said, my GM bought me these Thai Coconut M&M’s recently—they’re quite fun and quirky.”
Is there one dish you won’t cook? “This might be an offbeat answer to your question, but my grandmother used to brew this ultra-black herbal drink/soup for me while I was growing up in Singapore, and it’s probably the weirdest concoction I’ve ever tasted in my life. I’ve never known what was in that potent liquid, and I can only remember her coaxing me and forcing the glass to my face, constantly telling me, ‘it’s good for you, it’s good for you, drink it!’”
All-time favorite spice. “White pepper is a re-discovery for me as a chef, but it’s used in some of my favorite dishes back in Singapore. You use an obscene amount of white pepper to cook a pork rib soup called Bak Kut Teh, and it’s the white version that has no soy sauce. It’s very light, super refreshing and spicy—it’s great to get when you want to clear nasal congestion.”
What is your favorite music to listen to while you cook? “My American friends jab jokes at me for listening to an entire spectrum of ‘outdated music,’ which I love and embrace. It goes from Frank Sinatra to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Fuel to Savage Garden to Craig David, it’s all over the place. I think I got into a vicious cycle of listening to the same stuff forever.”
Did you grow up cooking as a child? “I did not grow up being overly curious about food. My grandmother would chase me out of the kitchen when I tried to poke around her business. However, I did grow up loving food, and eating out is a huge part of the culture in Singapore, and the diversity of food available is one of her beauties.”
What cookbook is your go-to resource for inspiration? “There are many sources for inspiration in today’s social media climate. It’s so much easier to see what others are doing on Instagram nowadays, especially with geo-tags and hashtags factored in. It’s not too hard to get sucked into a rabbit hole of oblivion. I remember there was a time when I did not have the luxury of space and money to buy books, and I would go to the Barnes & Noble in Union Square in NYC to browse new cookbooks, and it was a great way to briefly check out five different books in a short period of time.”
After all these years working in restaurants, do you still enjoy going out to eat? “I believe most chefs get into the restaurant business stemming from some very primitive and visceral feelings within themselves, and part of it for me is the enjoyment of eating and sharing that same enjoyment with others. That might sound very corny but it’s true for myself. As a younger cook, I used to be so obsessed with the details of the dishes and service and would have fun picking it apart and making sense of it all. Nowadays, I’ve learned how to live in the moment, enjoy the company of others and just let loose and ebb with the flow of the night.”
Is there one chef you’d like to cook with? “This is tough since there are countless chefs out there that I look up to. But it has to be between Seiji Yamamoto of Nihonryori RyuGin in Tokyo and Corey Lee of Benu in San Francisco. I’ve had a meal in both places and was utterly floored with the level of precision, execution and commitment to cuisine.”
Name the all-time best cooking show. “I think this is not a very popular show in the U.S., or I’ve been asking the wrong people because very few of my chef friends know what I am talking about. I grew up in Singapore watching Yan Can Cook with Martin Yan. He’s always able to captivate a live audience with his ways. I’ll always remember the phrase, ‘If Yan can Cook, so can You!’”
What is the one tool that you always make sure to pack when you’re traveling for business? “Other than the obvious tools, I am trying to get better with planning and delegation, so either a notebook or a clipboard to hold loose sheets of paper that I can scribble notes on, and printouts of information.”
Max Ng is executive chef of Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York’s East Village. He’s a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America.
Interview has been condensed and edited.