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(Wo)Manning The Fort: Chef Sujatha Asokan Of Botanico At The Garage

Young in age and Chindian in heritage, Sujatha Asokan is armed with non-conservative perceptions of food — most notably when it comes to ice creams, where she creates out-of-this-world flavours like shrimp paste and jalapeño.

Sujatha Asokan Botanico

Sujatha Asokan barely turned 27 when she took on the role of head chef after Spaniard Antonio Oviedo left his post at Botanico, a once-casual-fine dining European concept in the heart of Botanic Gardens. The two-year-old restaurant is nestled on the upper floor of a 1920s Art Deco bungalow called The Garage, which used to be an actual garage — where cars were stored and all.

Today, instead of motor oil, the space beckons with plenty of greenery. Ferns, succulents and leaves decorate the refreshed interior — sitting on shelves and swinging from the ceiling. But there’s a fresher take on things behind the scenes as well. The new female lead, who is of Malaysian Chinese and Singaporean Indian descent, has injected much of her heritage and culinary prowess into the menu.

Sujatha Asokan dishes out a more bistro-style, contemporary cuisine. And it’s all done with utmost suaveness. Her signature Seabass Ceviche is a prime example. An elevated take on the local perennial dish, assam laksa, it’s one of the first creations she decided to put on the new menu when she took over the joint. “It’s possibly one of my craziest creations — letting me exercise creative flair but in a controlled, precise way through my training in European culinary techniques,” says Sujatha Asokan, whose working experience spans from Esquina to Pollen (which ironically, is also located within a garden).

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Sujatha Asokan Botanico
Seabass Ceviche

The assam laksa — in its traditional form — remains the Chindian chef’s comfort food. Her modern rendition, however, is carefully reinterpreted through a ceviche of seabass with green chilli, pomegranate and shaved ginger flower, served with tamarind dressed glass noodles, and a surprisingly moreish scoop of shrimp paste ice cream.

According Sujatha Asokan, the first recipe of her now infamous shrimp paste ice cream was a disaster. “When I tasted the first mouthful, I wanted to vomit. It was way too strong and odd. I even used it to prank some fellow colleagues, asking them to guess what it is. Most of them were seriously puzzled and some were even repulsed. I re-worked the recipe several times to make it more balanced.”

Sujatha Asokan Botanico
Jalapeño ice cream

And that isn’t the only weird-but-winning flavoured ice cream available on the new menu. For desserts, choose to have some Jalapeño ice cream — a sweet-spicy-smooth number made of sugar, cream, cream cheese, yoghurt, jalapeños, lime juice and salt.

Sujatha Asokan says, I personally like to experiment with new and unusual flavour pairings, and to create savoury desserts. I think it might be a little coincidence that I’ve a number of unusual ice creams in the menu — but the idea is to showcase and share adventurous and exciting flavours.”

What was your earliest, fondest memory of cooking?
When I was 6 or 7, whenever I visited my maternal aunts, they would often cook together and the dish that caught my attention the most was assam laksa. This was because of its smell  it would fill the kitchen, then the entire house. I would peek into the kitchen and slowly started getting involved in little ways  my aunts were also happy to teach me.

As a Chindian, how difficult was it for you to find and own your identity?
I think there was very little difficulty for me; I spent a lot of time with both my maternal and paternal sides since I was a toddler, and both cultures and heritages have always been part of me  I don’t see them as separate or individual. Being of mixed heritage, and visibly so, I can sincerely say that I feel virtually zero segregation between the races — the multiculturalism in our society feels very inclusive to me.

Sujatha Asokan Botanico

How does it feel to finally run the show at Botanico?
To be honest, the responsibilities of being a head chef are a lot more than I had ever imagined. When I was in a more junior position, I always thought that being at the top would be much easier  more relaxing, less stressful  than what it actually is.

There are so many things to learn. My whole perspective has to be different  I have to think ahead, and for the big picture, and in the long run. In tough times, I’ve got to stay strong because I need to man the fort and lead the team, motivate them to do their best. I’m also always worrying! I worry about the costs, about staff morale, about customers. I also worry about not being good enough as a head chef… I just try to power through.

Why do you think there are so few female-led restaurants in Singapore?
It is perhaps a combination of perception and physiology. When I was in school studying culinary science, we were asked why we joined this course. Many of my female classmates actually answered “To learn how to be a housewife” and they weren’t joking. They shared that they felt it was a useful skill for their adult life.

I think there is also a general perception that female chefs are more suited to prepare cold-dishes or to do pastries as females tend to be more detail-oriented, delicate and careful. They aren’t as suited to run the “hot-side” of the kitchen, especially when there’s a lot of heavy lifting to be done. If you can’t run all aspects of the kitchen, you can’t run the kitchen.

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However, I feel that this stereotype is beginning to dissipate and to be perfectly frank, I’ve never noticed it personally. I’m quite lucky because I haven’t faced much overt discrimination… It might be because I’m a giant! It’s easy for me to run a grill and carry pots and so on.

Moreover, there is also the aspect of motherhood: Very few female peers that I know have chosen to continue in this industry after they have had kids. Their attention, focus and energy had to be split, and I believe they felt they didn’t have the support or the wherewithal to handle the split in focus.

Which chefs do you look up to?
Chef Chris Millar, who is executive chef of the 1-Group where I work now. He was my mentor when I worked in Stellar many years ago, and even when I left Stellar, we continued to remain in touch. Later, when I returned to the company, he was the first to recognise my strengths and give me the space to explore my interests and discover my culinary passion by allowing me to rotate in the different 1-Group establishments.

I also look up to Chef Carlos Montobbio of Esquina. When I was in Esquina, it felt like I went through a lot, but I also learnt a lot, particularly about precision and passion. One thing that stuck with me was a routine that we went through every single morning. whereby Chef Carlos would taste everything every day. It was really inspiring for me. I hadn’t met a chef that would take tasting so seriously. Carlos used to complain that he is putting on too much weight because he is tasting every plate of food. Now that I’m the head chef, I blame my weight gain on all the food – and on Carlos!

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P.S. —

PrestigeOnline ends each personality piece with a P.S. – a postscript that highlights high-passion and how one powers through adversity, as shared by our Prestige society. Here, chef Sujatha Asokan offers three principles to live by as a young female chef.

1. Passion

“No matter how crazy or tough your work can and will be, passion will always spur you on and motivate you to learn more, and to still create dishes that remain true to your heart.”

2. Attitude

“It’s important to have a positive attitude and to learn from your mistakes or from other people’s mistakes because it’s so easy to keep harping on things that cause yourself or others to become demoralised and negative.”

3, Curiosity

“Learn something new so you won’t just stay still and become mediocre. I believe I am learning every day, even from the most junior of staff  we should not only be learning from our superiors. Anyone can teach you something: The other day, our dishwasher taught us how to temporarily repair a machine.”

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