Sitting down with the iconic bleached-blonde Chef in Black is certainly not the typical experience one might expect from engaging with a classical French chef. Dressed in his signature attire of black tee and blue jeans, Emmanuel Stroobant, 41, of TV programme Chef in Black, exudes charisma and his infamous bad-boy attitude. Born in the hometown of Liege in the French-speaking part of Belgium, Emmanuel worked his way up into management from a dishwasher position at age 18. Declaring the adrenaline of the kitchen atmosphere to be his preferred choice, he embodies the energy and vitality of his media image. Today, Chef Stroobant runs and consults at more than seven fine and casual dining establishments including Saint Pierre, Brussels Sprouts, Picotin and San Marco, and is expecting to roll out a new project this month.
You’ve come a long way from native Belgium. How did you end up in Southeast Asia? Did you experience culture shock when you first arrived?
After acquiring a degree in hotel management and having worked in the industry in Belgium for some time, I spent some time travelling in the US and subsequently worked for five years in Australia. I received a proposition to work in Carmen’s in Kuala Lumpur in 1987, and subsequently came to Singapore in 1999. I’d say the culture shock was less daunting in Singapore than it was in Malaysia, as I had to pick up a bit of Malay there. So I was already prepared when coming to Singapore- in fact, I associate this city more with New York City than with Asia!
You’ve rolled out your own TV programme Chef in Black. What were some of the most memorable experiences encountered during the filming?
It has to be the Longhouse in Kuching. We had to travel for hours to the jungle and down the river to get there, and when we reached, I discovered it didn’t have any electricity or clean water. It was like the middle ages! I was totally unprepared for that experience, but it was definitely memorable. There wasn’t even a kitchen for me to cook in. I’ve also tried some interesting foods. In Vietnam, I had dog meat – not proud of that – and some live prawns in Thailand which jumped around in your mouth while chewing! Definitely a very interesting experience.
In Chef in Black, you travelled to different parts of Southeast Asia to sample the local cuisines. How has the food in this part of the world influenced your cooking?
In Saint Pierre, I would have to say not at all. I keep the French cuisine pure and classical-focused here. We do use Japanese ingredients however, as they’re known for their freshness. In my other establishments, we’ve experimented with some Asian foods such as Thai or Chinese mussels, tom yam, curry-based dishes and so on. At home, it’s a completely different story though. My wife, Edina, loves her Asian food.
You are often termed the “sexy chef in black.” How far do good looks help you in being a celebrity chef?
Well, I suppose on TV it certainly helps. I do have my weaknesses however — my diction and accent make it difficult to appeal to a broad-based audience.
You’re said to work 18 hours a day. When you do find free time to do what you enjoy doing?
I’m not working in the traditional sense of chopping carrots in the kitchen. Rather, I can be working from home or out visiting my suppliers. I’m always very involved in my business. In my free time, I do yoga, ride my bike, read books-books on management, novels, anything that catches my attention at the moment. I also enjoy drinking, although that’s only somewhat work-related.
You are a firm believer of the benefits of eating organic food. Does it really taste different? What do you think of the variety and availability of the organic produce in Singapore?
Yes, organic produce definitely affects the quality and taste of the food. We did a test some time back on the difference in taste between organic pork and normal pork, and the difference was significant. But in Singapore, certified organic meat and produce is for some reason very hard to find and costly. It’s also season-dependent, so the availability is inconsistent. For instance, in winter, Australian pork tastes better and in summer, the pigs are leaner and less well-fed. We do firsthand import and marketing whenever we can here at Saint Pierre, picking and choosing from the organic food truck. Of course, it’s unrealistic to be doing the marketing every single day, but compared to having a vendor pick and choose your peaches and not knowing which is ripe or not, it’s far better.
You’ve been awarded various titles and awards over the years for your culinary innovations. How do you keep your creations fresh and exciting while retaining quality?
I’ve been very lucky-I travel a lot, so I get to experience and experiment with new and different kinds of good food. I’m often inspired by my travels, but my creativity does come in phases. Sometimes I can go on for ages, but sometimes there is nothing. I keep a notebook on me constantly to jot down ideas and sketches. I’m also always cooking up new ideas in my office.
Your signature look is the all-black outfit and bleached blonde hair. How did this look come about? Is black your look of choice or do you favour other colours more?
It came about in 1998 when France won the World Cup. I was in a bar with two crazy DJs and we made a bet to dye our hair the French colours-they did red and blue, and I did white. Edina quite liked it so it has stayed for 10 years. According to her, she’s always wanted a blonde husband (laughs). As for the colour black, it’s convenient to wear in and out of the kitchen where things get messy. It’s easy, simple and classic. I do wear other colours as well (gestures to his blue jeans)!
What do you enjoy cooking at home for your wife and friends?
Edina and I have very different tastes-I love to kick back with sashimi and chardonnay, but she prefers local food like laksa and popiah. For house dinners with friends, we usually throw together what’s in the fridge. So it can sometimes be three chefs throwing some simple fare together and relaxing with some drinks.
What’s your favourite hawker food in Singapore?
I love beef noodles. Edina’s brother owns a beef noodle shop back in Seremban, Malaysia and there’s a franchise here in Singapore.
You run Saint Pierre with your wife Edina Hong. What’s the secret to managing a successful working and personal relationship with your wife?
Respect. We each have our separate departments-she takes care of the marketing and accounts, while I do the cooking and manage the technical sides of the restaurant, such as the sound systems and cooking equipment. We have incidents of boundary conflict but nothing too serious, and we never bring home the problems from work. We don’t see each other very much at work in the first place, as we have separate offices and she is generally more involved in Saint Pierre than I am-I usually just come in to work the shifts.