Chef Bjorn Shen makes the case for Roman-style pizza and discovers a brand new wave of Japanese curries

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There’s always something cooking with Bjorn Shen. Just back from his travels and having recently promoted Netflix’s new Chef’s Uncut – which spotlights the untold original stories of six notable Southeast Asian chefs – the MasterChef Singapore judge is now in the thick of relocating his two restaurants.

Artichoke, a Middle Eastern-inspired eatery that he started in 2010, and four-year-old Small’s, a reservations-only, four-seater outhouse where he serves groundbreaking, off-kilter creations such as bread sushi and octopus wontons with cacio e pepe dressing, will be operating out of the new lifestyle enclave New Bahru in leafy River Valley starting in May. Shen also recently helped launch a new market-to-table venture in Penang called NEP!

When things get too frenetic, Shen escapes to oceanside hotels and unwinds over long scenic drives. But it is ultimately his appetite to taste the world that remains the most captivating fuel for his unceasing travels. Here, he shares how eating his way through Rome’s pizzerias and Tokyo’s curry restaurants has sparked creative breakthroughs like uni-topped pizza.

As a chef, I travel overseas for many reasons. One is, of course, to gain culinary inspiration. For a fast-paced, food-forward trip, I’d hit up the bigger cities like Copenhagen, Dubai, Sydney or Tokyo. There, I’d eat a lot of different things and absorb lots of inspiration.

I just returned from a trip to Rome with my Small’s colleague, to eat our way through some of the best pizzerias in the world. According to 50 Top Pizza, a ranking guide that’s the equivalent to the Michelin Guide for pizzas, many of the world’s top pizzerias are in Rome. So we decided to go there to benchmark our pizzas against the best. We must have eaten about 30 different pizzas in those six days.

The unicorn pizza from Small’s is a conglomeration of uni cream, fresh uni and dried uni bottarga with organic bi-colour corn on a Roman style pizza base. Photo: Bjorn Shen

Neapolitan pizza is currently very trendy around the world, but in my opinion, the sleeper style is the Roman. It’s crunchier and a bit more marshmallowy on the inside. It doesn’t photograph as nicely as its on-trend sibling, but that’s always been my favourite style.

Closer to home, what’s recently captured my attention is the new wave of Japanese curry – a different animal from the traditional Japanese style of roux curry rice that we’re all familiar with. In Tokyo, curry restaurants have taken South Asian curries – from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal – and interpreted them in creative and visually aesthetic ways. I’m fascinated by how they embody the Japanese approach towards new things, and experiencing this inspired my own curry omakase at Small’s. Here are four places that I’d recommend checking out when you’re in the Japanese capital:

1. Karikari Spice
Karikari Spice is a female-run 12-seater in Shinsen – one train station away from busy Shibuya – that will give you the sweats. This is uncharacteristic in a country where the spice tolerance is not high. You’ll get Japanese rice with two kinds of mince-based curry separated by a line of pickles.

2. ADI 
My favourite of the lot, this Nepalese omakase restaurant by my good friend Kanchan Adhikari marries the fragrance of Nepalese spices with fresh Japanese produce. The savoury courses at ADI culminate in a dal baht presented in Zen-style. They source their seafood from Shizuoka Bay’s celebrity fishmonger Naoki Maeda, who is notably selective about his clientele.

ADI’s dal baht. Photo: Bjorn Shen

3. Ponipirika
Ponipirika
in the Shimokitazawa neighbourhood specialises in Hokkaido-style soup curry with lots of fresh vegetables. You can customise the spice level to suit your taste and there’s also the chance to try deer hamburg, a unique protein option.

4. Kyuyam-tei Shimokita-sou
Kyuyam-tei in Shimokitazawa offers a very interesting way to eat. It serves rice with three types of keema (minced meat), which they vary per day. The flavours are unmistakably Indian, but utilise Japanese ingredients such as bamboo shoot, wood ear mushroom and miso. Towards the end of your meal, they give you a little pitcher of soup-like curry broth, which you stir into what’s left of your dish, making all the flavours come together. Get there early; they don’t take reservations.

At other times, I travel simply to be more productive with the work that I do beyond the kitchen. This could be administrative paperwork, or something more creative, like writing my cookbook. Travelling gets me away from some of my immediate distractions and helps me to focus.

To get productive, Shen recommends a hotel desk with an ocean view. Photo: Shutterstock

The mountains make me feel human and humbled

One time, I checked myself into a hotel overlooking the sea in Gold Coast, Australia. I stayed in my room for those 12 days, ordering room service whenever I needed it. Without being pulled in six different directions – as I usually am back home – I was able to put on my creative hat and revisit some memories in order to flesh out the stories portion of my cookbook.

If I’m travelling for leisure, I always find an opportunity to rent a car and drive out to the countryside, or smaller cities like Takayama or Nagano in Japan – places that are more tranquil. I enjoy the mountains much more than the sea – they make me feel human and humbled, just standing amongst the greatness of nature.

Shen enjoys driving holidays, where the vast expanse of mountains roll by. Photo: Shutterstock

I really enjoy the aesthetic of camping, but I’m a bit too much of a city boy to do the full camping experience. Though I did go on a very nice glamping holiday to Jeju Island at Around Follie.

Eager to try Shen’s food? Artichoke and Small’s are popping up at Homeground Coffee Roasters (15 Teo Hong Road) from 4–30 April, before reopening in May at their new permanent home in New Bahru, an upcoming new lifestyle destination at River Valley.

For our full list of things to try and places to see in Tokyo, check out our Tokyo City Guide. For more information on Singapore Airlines flights to Singapore and Tokyo, visit the official website.

As told to Michelle JN Lim



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