You could say it was written in the stars that Mark Tai, Cloudstreet’s head chef, would win the Michelin Guide Singapore 2021’s inaugural Young Chef Award.
“I’ve wanted to cook ever since I was young, when I helped my mother with our family’s meals,” says Tai, 33, who studied hospitality and tourism at Temasek Polytechnic. Afterwards, the opportunity to join the famed Culinary Institute of America, Singapore, beckoned and this in turn led to a life-changing internship at Eleven Madison Park, one of New York’s finest restaurants.
Eleven Madison Park, headed by famed chef Daniel Humm, is where Tai witnessed cooking at its highest level. There, the youngster got to participate in a pop-up with Alinea restaurant and owner Grant Achatz, renowned for his envelope-pushing contributions to molecular gastronomy.
“I was starstruck,” recalls Tai, who also worked as a stagiaire at San Francisco’s Restaurant Quince (with Michael Tusk) before heading back to Singapore, where he worked at genre-defining restaurants such as Esquina and 28 Hong Kong Street. The latter was where he first caught the eye of chef Rishi Naleendra, of Cheek by Jowl fame, and now has just received his first Michelin star for Cloudstreet.
“Mark met me at Cheek after one month of our opening. He’d seen Cheek’s food and heard of what I was doing there,” says Naleendra. “Straight away, I knew he understood me and my style of food. It was never about using luxury ingredients like uni, caviar and truffles. Instead, it was about being creative and he had it in him.”
At Cloudstreet, which Tai describes as a “contemporary restaurant with a global sensibility”, every dish is a collaborative exercise between him, sous chef Adley Azmeer Shah (who’s worked with Tai since his Esquina days) and Naleendra. This, plus a spirit of free-wheeling creativity, adds Tai.
It may all sound effortless but behind Tai’s easy-going mien is a hard worker who’s clearly absorbed leadership best practices from his mentors such as Humm, Tusk, Naleendra and Andrew Walsh, formerly Esquina’s executive chef and who also just got a Michelin star for his restaurant, Cure.
“I was struck by how intense, organised and professional Andrew is,” says Tai. “He was always the first one to come in and set up the kitchen. He and chef Rishi really pushed me and molded me to be the chef I am now.”
Naleendra says Tai is “one of the most disciplined people I know and is amazing at building a team and bringing people together”, a perception shared by the Michelin Guide’s judging committee.
“Chef Mark Tai’s expertise and leadership goes beyond the kitchen and shines in its operational and dining aspects, too. At Cloudstreet, his skill is showcased in the complex dishes that boast his talent in a most delicious way, as well as good leadership skills with the team,” says Gwendal Poullennec, international director of the Michelin Guides.
“When I was a young cook growing up, there were a lot of vocal, very aggressive chefs,” says Tai, who adds that the “mindset is totally different now” among kitchen staff, especially now due to the pandemic’s onslaught.
“Everything is all about work-life balance right now, better mental wellness. You shouldn’t be like a drill sergeant; you’ve got to be more like a teacher or a big brother to them because guiding and teaching them helps them feel like they belong and [want to] stay longer. We want to create a cohesive environment at Cloudstreet — we are like a family.”
That was one of the things Tai missed most during a brief, exploratory detour into hotel life, when he worked for about a year at Yotel as head chef.
“Yes, the F&B industry is very tough and it’s not for everyone — the hours alone are mentally and physically draining. But I missed the hustle and bustle, the adrenaline and the connection with guests.
“In a restaurant, you are on the front line, interacting with guests, seeing their expressions and doing up dishes with the team — that’s what’s fun and rewarding to me.”