5 October 2018: From prep to plating: Yale-NUS alumus gains hands-on kitchen lessons

By Kevin Low 

Yale-NUS College has always encouraged students to take the unconventional path, and alumnus Kaushik Swaminathan took this philosophy seriously. For three months in his final year, Kaushik, a Global Affairs major, trained as a chef at a restaurant called Nouri, working three nights a week honing his culinary skills and preparing ingredients like wagyu beef and wild rice stem for patrons.

Kaushik said that his foray into the culinary arts started on his semester abroad in 2017, when he was working with a friend on “tomato fund”, an investment fund in New York that connected entrepreneurs and investors who were building solutions for the global food system. It was there that Kaushik realised that he wanted to really develop his knowledge about food. “I was working so closely with food-related businesses, but I realised I knew next to nothing about the supply chain that transported food from the farm to my plate.”

Determined to gain hands-on experience, Kaushik returned to Singapore for his final semester set on apprenticing at a restaurant. He remembered an establishment he and his friends had visited a few months prior, where he had been blown away by the food, the atmosphere, and the philosophy behind the whole gastronomic experience: Nouri, an open-concept kitchen located at Amoy Street.

Kaushik Swaminathan (left), with his friend and mentor Chef Ivan Brehm from Nouri. Photo provided by Kaushik Swaminathan.

“I went to Nouri at three in the afternoon and asked to speak to Ivan Brehm, the chef,” said Kaushik. “I was informed that Chef Ivan was not in then, and only would be back a few hours later. Intent on meeting him, I sat down on the curb outside the restaurant, reading a book I happened to bring with me.”

Kaushik believes that the book ultimately allowed him to clinch the job: “I was reading Ficciones by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, and when I was telling Chef Ivan that I had no prior professional cooking experience, he cast a glance at my book and said, ‘Any fan of Borges is welcome in my kitchen.’ Three days later, there I was with my apron and new set of knives, following the orders of our sous chef in preparation for a busy Saturday night service.”

From March to the end of May, Kaushik worked 12-hour shifts at Nouri, scheduling around his classes and other commitments. He was often assigned to the garde manger, the section of the kitchen where cold dishes like salads are prepared, or assigned to help the saucier process ingredients for the soups and sauces. On busy nights, he would help at the meat station, slicing beef, chicken and fish in full view of the customers. “It was an open-kitchen concept, so I was out in front of our diners from day one,” Kaushik recalled. “It was terrifying.”

Kaushik’s spent his three months at Nouri improving his knife skills – chopping, slicing, dicing and julienning – and also his plating, how the food is presented on the plate before being served to the diner. He is grateful to the other chefs in the kitchen for their mentorship and, in his words, “the profound patience they afforded to a complete novice”. “The kitchen in a fine dining restaurant is a high-stress environment,” Kaushik said, “but my colleagues couldn’t have been more supportive.”

Kaushik has since left Nouri, and now works at Open Sesame, an accelerator for food-related start-ups. But Kaushik still has ties to the restaurant: he is helping Chef Ivan write a book on the restaurant’s culinary philosophy. “It’s called ‘crossroads cooking’,” Kaushik said. “It comes from the understanding that all great cuisines are a result of different cultures interacting and influencing each other over time.” Kaushik, who originally entered college with the goal of becoming a journalist, revels in the project. “I think it allows me to keep researching and keep interrogating food, which is such a fundamental and yet often overlooked aspect of our everyday lives,” he said.

One of Kaushik’s most memorable experiences was at the end of June, when Nouri won its Michelin star, one of the highest culinary honours a restaurant can achieve. By that time, Kaushik had already graduated and left his apprenticeship, but Chef Ivan invited him to come celebrate with the rest of the team. “I’m honoured and proud,” said Kaushik. “I haven’t met a group of people that work harder and with more discipline than the team at Nouri.”