They say you can take the girl out of Singapore, but Restaurant Klösterle’s chef Ethel Hoon, is a testament that you can’t take Singapore out of the girl. From Cornell to the Cordon Bleu, and celebrated stints in Michelin-decorated institutions, discover how she keeps the Lion City spirit alive with her husband, chef Jakob Zeller, in the Austrian Alps.
*This is an extract of an article that first appeared in Wine & Dine’s 2020 ‘Food & Wellness’ issue
IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WAS FOOD.
I have always been obsessed with food from a young age and I think it comes from the fact that it played a key role in my family. Family gatherings always revolved around food. And we always fussed about what and where to eat. Growing up, my dad—the sole bread winner of the family—would not always make it home for dinners, so we’d set aside Friday evenings for family dinner. And Sundays were spent at my grandmother’s for lunch, which she prepared. Food was always a medium that I associated with bringing people together and how relationships are nurtured. My late mother witnessed my love for food from a young age and would always take me along during grocery shopping. I would go to weekend wet markets with her; where she taught me how to pick the best mangoes, watermelons and even fish!
THE EPIC JOURNEY WEST.
I always thought that I wanted to pursue French cuisine which was why I decided to attend Le Cordon Bleu after I did Hotel Administration at Cornell University. In my mind, I had always believed French cuisine to be the epitome of fine dining. After I graduated, I did a stint at a classic restaurant in Paris called Taillevent and it was the first time working in a traditional French brigade system—seeing how a large kitchen operated at such a high level. I loved the pace and the energy and the quality of ingredients they were working with. I came home when my visa expired and managed to get a job as a commis at Les Amis under chef Sebastian Lepinoy.
He was a key figure in my early cooking career, constantly pushing me to do more and learn more in and out of the kitchen. He always pushed me to cook and organise myself under pressure.
After a year of being in Singapore, I had saved up some money and wanted to spend some time staging in kitchens overseas to experience new things and new perspectives. As exciting as the dining scene is in Singapore, there is this disconnect from where our produce comes from and that’s just the nature of how Singapore is situated and how small it is. I applied for a two-month internship at Fäviken in Sweden. It was eye-opening when it came to the variety of the produce and their quality. We were sourcing directly from producers and I learnt how the kitchen was organised, and the level of detail given to each part of the entire dining experience. I then went on to do a three-month stage at Nihonryori RyuGin—both in Tokyo and Hong Kong—because Japanese cuisine was something else I was fascinated with. It was some of the toughest working environments I’ve experienced. The Japanese work mentality and hierarchy is something that is unique to them. It was also a period where I was exposed to many new techniques and different ways of working with produce and the idea of micro-seasonality.
By the time I was about to leave Nihonryori Ryugin in Tokyo, a job opportunity opened up at Fäviken and I was offered a place. I immediately jumped at the chance! I worked my way through the different stations—snacks (and pastry), garnish and meat during my three years in Sweden. During the summer of 2017, I was offered the opportunity to spend two months running a Chinese pop-up in the town close to Fäviken by chef Magnus Nilsson. I had never considered cooking Chinese food at a professional level and had very little knowledge and no experience with it other than eating! But I am very grateful for the push. During the R&D period and over the course of the two months, I found a new level of curiosity and respect for a cuisine that is so dear to my heart. I find it ironic that it took someone else’s interest to push me to discover my own heritage in a way, but that initial push got me off the starting block and now we use different Chinese cooking techniques and reference the said cuisine quite a bit at Restaurant Klösterle. And now, my husband Jakob (Zeller) and I run Hoon’s Chinese as a pop-up in different cities around Europe whenever we can!
Then after we left Fäviken at the end of 2017, we moved to Berlin and worked at a relatively new bakery called Albatross. A wonderful place run by some really great, big-hearted people, producing delicious sourdough breads and pastries.
Katia and Gerold Schneider are owners of a beautiful hotel in Lech, Austria. They had come to eat at Fäviken when Jakob and I were working and that’s how we first met. Katia had kept in contact and we came to visit Lech and the hotel early 2019. Gradually, a conversation got started about us working with them in some form or capacity. And when the chef of Restaurant Klösterle decided to leave, we were offered the opportunity to fully run the place. So it was a combination of coincidence and good timing.
GETTING TO KNOW KLÖSTERLE.
The restaurant is called Klösterle because it belongs to the commune of Klösterle—a village Western Austria. It is a historical house belonging originally to the Walsers—a nomadic group that had expertise settling in the high altitudes and dates back to the 1500s. The land where the restaurant is located is where farmers bring their cows up to in summer to graze. So the house used to be where the farmers would stay and where they would also process the milk—turning it into cheese and other dairy products.
*Read the full article in Wine & Dine’s 2020 ‘Food & Wellness’ issue. Available at newsstands and Magzter