Buckle up for a gastronomic adventure at Pilot Kitchen in Havelock

By Sarah Chua October 6, 2023
Buckle up for a gastronomic adventure at Pilot Kitchen in Havelock
Meet the chefs behind Pilot Kitchen. From left: Phang Wei Jun, Sean Koh, Bryan Wai and Sebastian Kok. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

When we first came across the name Pilot Kitchen, our team had assumed that the restaurant would be aviation-themed or that its crew were made up of former pilots.

Turns out it was neither, though you’ll see the aviation motif crop up occasionally on Pilot Kitchen’s marketing materials or at its premises at Havelock 2, a mixed development in the heart of town.

Instead, its name refers to the restaurant’s focus on experimentation. The restaurant is essentially a testbed — much like a pilot episode for a television show — for its chefs to play with new ideas, challenge tradition and break new culinary grounds. 

Pilot kitchen havelock
Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

Tucked surreptitiously away in the basement of a quiet building next to the bustling Clarke Quay, four young chefs man the fort at Pilot Kitchen — Bryan Wai, Sebastian Kok, Sean Koh, and Phang Wei Jun. 

When we say young, we really mean young — Phang is 20 and awaiting National Service enlistment while the other three are 25.

Talking to them, however, you’ll feel like they’ve done this for years, though the restaurant will hit its first year mark only in December. 

Their boyish playfulness also emerges from time to time during the interview and even during their prep for dinner service — moments that they’ve endearingly termed: “Chinatown underground”.

“Because we’re in Chinatown, and we’re underground,” Kok quips without missing a beat.

Kok was a hawker before he joined the Pilot Kitchen crew. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/ HungryGoWhere

Its obscure location gives it a somewhat #IYKYK vibe, but the guys behind Pilot Kitchen are anything but tight-lipped. 

On the contrary: Stepping into Pilot Kitchen feels like you’re entering their inclusive hangout, where you’re invited to sample their thoughts, ideas and personalities on a plate, candid and unfiltered. 

Did we mention the restaurant doesn’t even have a door?

pilot kitchen havelock
Looking for Pilot Kitchen at Havelock 2? Just look for its whimsical doodles on its front panels. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/ HungryGoWhere

Wai had dined at Scaled in early 2021 and struck up a conversation with Wong, during which he expressed an interest in trialling a private-dining concept. 

Wai prepping for dinner service. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

According to Wong, hearing about Wai’s ideas back then “reminded me about why I started (Scaled) myself in the first place” and felt he was in a position where he could guide them, while learning and growing alongside them. 

With Wong’s experiences and resources in tow, Wai then roped Koh — a fellow gym bro — in to explore this idea. 

Koh came onboard as the second chef with Pilot Kitchen. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

The duo held private tasting sessions in the thick of the pandemic, which helped them determine that what they had in mind then — a course-by-course menu structure — was a bit too rigid. 

They wanted something more casual, intimate and fun and that’s how the idea of Pilot Kitchen was born. 

“Kai wanted us to be able to create food that was expressively ours,” Koh says. 

Mutual friend Kok later joined the team as a result of a cold call on Wai’s Instagram, while Phang is cousins with Joel Phoon, 25, a former chef with the team. 

pilot kitchen havelock
Random antics are dime a dozen at Pilot Kitchen, such as this moment between Sebastian Kok (left) and Phang Wei Jun. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

Throughout the whole interview, the guys are quick to quash any mentions of hierarchy in the kitchen, or who’s head chef. 

“We’re a small kitchen so everyone shares very similar responsibilities,” states Wai. 

Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

When asked to describe the vibe in the kitchen, Kok was quick to chime in: “Fun. Behind the scenes, (it can be) a bit chaotic. A lot of stupid things happen.”

Surely there would have been some hesitation about coming together to work in the kitchen with friends?

“For sure,” Wai confides. “But at the end of the day we all have special relationships with each other. (Working together in the kitchen) can be heated, but because you understand the person, it’s easier to work around it.”

Bryan Wai (left) and Sebastian Kok (right). Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

Familiar favourites with an innovative twist 

Perhaps it’s because of their friendship and dynamic in the kitchen that the dishes on Pilot Kitchen’s menu have an eclectic combination of elements that somehow work.

“We take ingredients that are familiar, put them on a plate and turn them into something that’s a little new,” Koh explains.

Take for example, its homemade milk bun (S$8). At the time of our visit, we were served fluffy, wholesome milk buns with a housemade butter and whipped with Teochew porridge staples — yes, you read that right — such as cai po (preserved radish) and gan lan cai (olive vegetable). 

pilot kitchen havelock
Pilot Kitchen’s milk buns are deceptively simple but its housemade spread packs a punch. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

It’s since been changed up to a Japanese curry base with hints of miso — just as umami and goes great with the delicate sweetness of the buns. 

And then there’s hasselback and crack (S$14), potatoes sliced hasselback-style, seasoned with a Moroccan spice blend of ras el hanout and doused with a generous amount of Big Mac-inspired sauce — several words you wouldn’t have imagined in a together in a sentence, much less a dish. 

pilot kitchen havelock
Hasselback and crack. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

But for us, the star was clearly the beef short ribs (S$68), a non-typical cut to use for steak, served with Indian gunpowder spice, a side of tzatziki (Greek cucumber-yoghurt dip) and Spanish-style padron peppers — again a smorgasbord of multiple cultures in the most unexpected permutation. 

Beef short ribs. Photo: Pilot Kitchen

And it’s not just the savoury ones that get the inventive treatment — its dessert menu comprises a butter cake (S$12) made with a savoury camembert ice cream and a garnish of fried shallots.

Pilot Kitchen’s butter cake. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

There’s almost no way of knowing what to expect from the crew’s exploration of flavours unless you make a visit yourself.

Food aside, the casual demeanour of the quartet, Wong (who you’ll see at the restaurant from time to time) and its front of house staff also make for a very relaxing evening — so much so that you’d almost feel like you’re at a friend’s. 

pilot kitchen havelock
From left: Bryan Wai, Sebastian Kok, Sean Koh and Phang Wei Jun. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

Every chef doubles up as a front-of-house crew member when needed and conversations with customers are the norm rather than the exception.

Kok describes it best: “We’re all very chill. The vibes here are immaculate.”

pilot kitchen havelock
Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

And just like a good friend, the crew never shies away from bad or honest feedback.

Not that there was any, judging from its just-as-immaculate five-star rating on Google, at the time of publication. 

So it seems like the guys have gotten their food and service down pat, but what’s next?

Wai tells us that they see Pilot as a platform for young chefs to “be pilots of their own culinary journeys”, and a space for them to learn, grow and “build their own brands”. 

One can only hope that this exploration brings this hidden gem (and their inventive dishes) to greater heights, with plenty more #ChinatownUnderground moments peppered in between. 

For more insights into the minds of up-and-coming chefs, check out our interview with Lin Jiawen of Arc En Ciel Patisserie and the dynamic couple behind Nakin Thai

Do explore the new GrabFood Dine-in service for awesome deals.

You can also book a ride to Pilot Kitchen at Havelock 2 for dinner.

Pilot Kitchen

Havelock 2, B1-04, 2 Havelock Road
Nearest MRT station: Clarke Quay
Open: Wednesday to Sunday (5.30pm to 10.30pm)

Havelock 2, B1-04, 2 Havelock Road
Nearest MRT station: Clarke Quay
Open: Wednesday to Sunday (5.30pm to 10.30pm)


Sarah Chua-HungryGoWhere

Sarah Chua

Author

Sarah is constantly seeking out new coffee spots and cocktail bars around the world, and should probably drink more water while at it.

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