It’s not hard to be a little cowed by Damian D’Silva — not least because he towers over most people. But despite his steely-eyed glare, D’Silva confesses that he’s mellowed over the years. “I’ve become a lot more patient and forgiving,” he chuckles. “In the past, I was very quick to tell a customer off.”
But don’t mistake that mellowness for laxity in the kitchen. Just listen to the way he waxes lyrical about his heart-achingly tender Babi masak assam or his pillow-soft rendition of the classic Nonya kueh ko swee — and when you taste it, you’ll know that the Chefs still got his mojo.
And like the man himself, it’s also fair to say that one shouldn’t judge his new restaurant, Kin, by its cover. Situated in the lobby of the equally swishy Straits Clan, Kin looks like a modern-slash-fusion Asian restaurant on most accounts. There’s the dark woods, moody lighting, and brassy accents that wouldn’t look out of place in a speakeasy. But beneath its urbane core will always be the heritage dishes of D’Silva’s childhood.
“The heart of Kin’s cuisine is always about cooking with soul,” he says. “That takes time and patience to teach, and this is what we want to do at Kin — and that’s anything but modern.”
You’ve worked with many different cuisines and in kitchens around the world, but ultimately, you always came back to the food that you grew up with. Why’s that?
Ten years ago, I realised that if I did not showcase the cuisine that I grew up with, it might die with me. I always recall telling my Granddad, “If you do not teach me, then who will?”, when he asked me why I wanted to cook.
This is the same thought I have when teaching my kitchen staff. I teach because I believe that it will come to good use one day when I’m no longer around. And the more people I teach, the higher the chance of preserving our heritage cuisine.
You mentioned that you want to recreate recipes that have been lost or forgotten at Kin. What are some of these ‘rare’ recipes?
At the risk of sounding unappetising, I want to highlight our ‘Cowdang’ dish. Even though it has almost the same spelling as manure, it reminds me of my Granddad. He cooked it often and never failed to make a joke when it was served.
It’s sad that it took me so long to want to showcase this dish, because I was worried about how the public would react to such a foul-sounding name. However, I got over it: Because if I don’t execute this dish now, it might never be done.
As a chef, how would you say you’ve evolved or changed over the years?
Over the years, I’ve become a lot more patient and forgiving. I believe time changes a person but more importantly, you must understand why you want to change. In the past, I was very quick to tell a customer off. I’ve also acknowledged that we have different taste buds and I try to meet most customers in the middle somewhere, rather than pushing it down their throat.
Also, teaching outside of a commercial kitchen has given me a better understanding of what people like. Most of them don’t really know heritage cuisine, so education is vital, and this is what I’d like to do at Kin – to preserve heritage cuisine and share knowledge of local ingredients.
There’s a lot of talk these days about Singapore losing its culinary heritage. What’s your take?
It will take a lot for any race to lose its heritage. But I believe that people will never forget their roots.
Even though most hawkers today enter the industry with the pure intention of doing business, there are still those who do it for passion. But it’s rare.
Still, I truly believe that there are people who take a lot of time and effort to do things right, and this will guarantee our heritage for the future. In time to come, I would like to see these hawkers being paid fairly for their hard work.
So where do you go to eat when you’re not on duty?
I usually stay at home. If I do feel like having a meal outside, French or Japanese would be my go-to cuisines.
What was your grandfather like? Does he still influence your cooking and attitude today?
Granddad was very authoritative and had no patience for a slow worker. You either worked in the kitchen with all your senses or don’t even think to come in at all. I think that’s crucial when working in the kitchen. If you’re half-hearted, then you’re wasting everyone’s time, including yours. You’re either 100% in or you are not. If you have this attitude, then you’re 90% there. The other 10% lies in cooking with your heart or soul.
What do you think he’d say to you if he saw you today, if he ate in your restaurant and tried your food?
Honestly, I really don’t know what his reaction will be. He only taught me because I proved myself worthy. He would never imagine me working in the kitchen.
Though I think he would approve of my cooking… Only because Mum thinks he would.