EXCLUSIVE: Preserving Traditions with Chef Shermay Lee

We catch up with Singaporean chef Shermay Lee after the overwhelming success of her collaboration with Singapore Airlines and discover how she keeps the memory of her late grandmother alive.

A guest enjoying his meal in Singapore Airlines’ Restaurant A380@Changi (Image courtesy of Singapore Airlines)

The world’s best airline is no stranger to accolades, but during these uncertain times, this was a success unlike any other for our national carrier. Offering an otherwise rarefied peek into luxury beyond compare, Singapore Airlines (SIA) brought their signature service in the skies 40,000 feet closer to the ground and gave us a reason to board a plane during a travel ban.

For two weekends, SIA’s landmark initiative reminded attendees of a great way to fly. Their sold out Restaurant A380@Changi allowed guests to enjoy all the creature comforts of the world’s biggest airplane—grounded on the tarmac (read: terribly unfortunate)—and dine in utter splendour without ever having to experience turbulence, or even jetlag.

Chef Shermay Lee’s ‘Nonya Grandma’s Nasi Lemak’ (Image courtesy of Singapore Airlines)

With an impressive authentic Peranakan menu—a first—designed by renowned Singaporean chef Shermay Lee, across all four A380 cabin classes: Suites, Business, Premium Economy and Economy; patrons were treated with the food the former investment banker grew up eating. From ayam tempra (braised chicken) to bawan kepiting (crab and pork-ball soup), and every iconic and mouth-watering Peranakan dish in between, Restraunt A380@Changi was a dining event in a league of its own.

Chef Shermay Lee in the kitchen (Image courtesy of Singapore Airlines)

And in a Wine & Dine exclusive, we reconnect with Lee after the highs of her collaboration to learn more about her relationship with food and family, and find out that not all nasi lemak-s are created equal.

1. How did your relationship with Singapore Airlines come to be?

The Singapore Airlines management and F&B teams must have known that I specialise in Peranakan and Singapore heritage cuisine, and that I adopt a more traditional and home-style approach to the cuisine. So when they approached me, I had been in the industry for 12 years, first as a cookbook author then running Shermay’s Cooking School.

For SG50, Singapore’s 50th birthday coincided with Singapore Airlines’ 70th anniversary, and they had decided to feature and highlight a Singaporean menu by a Singaporean chef; one that specialises in Peranakan cuisine—which was missing in their inflight menus. And so they reached out to me. I think I am the only, or among less than a handful of Singaporean chefs in my generation, who specialises in proper traditional Peranakan cuisine. 

2. How did you develop the dishes for Restaurant A380@Changi? What informed your choices?

We had a pretty short lead time from the moment I agreed to work on it to the date the menu made its debut, so the most sensible approach was to refer to all my recipes and dishes from SG50 which had been tested and finalised by the team of Singapore Airlines chefs and in the SATS kitchens. There was some allowance to add new recipes and dishes, but the development time was short, and I didn’t want to risk delaying the Airlines’ plans. 

And I knew it would be a multi-dish menu, so there’s a variety of texture and taste—and more value for money, which meant a one-bowl dish like, prawn noodles would be excluded.  

I decided on nasi lemak for First and Business, itek siow (braised duck) and chap chai (stir fried vegetables) for Premium Economy and ayam tempra (braised chicken) with sambal brinjal for Economy. 

3. The main course for the evening is your ‘Nonya Grandma’s Nasi Lemak’; how pivotal is your grandmother when it comes to your cuisine?

Oh, she’s the heart and centre. In large, because she wrote and published the iconic—and dare I say—seminal piece of culinary literature, Mrs Lee’s Cookbook, in 1974. I am just very fortunate, and fated that my mother edited the book, and so when my grandma passed, my mother inherited the rights. My mother has since passed the rights to me so that I can continue her legacy by reworking and revising her cookbook for today’s home-cook.

The soul and spirit of all that I do is to preserve my grandma’s memory and recipes, but also refine it using better ingredients, with different modes of creative expression with the photos. It is inevitable that I will enhance or dilute it by adding my interpretation, it can never be a complete replica of how she cooked. I can only hope it is a faithful recreation, emphasising the best parts of each recipe. And I try to be very mindful of that.

4. How important is your heritage?

Oh, it’s crucial! I guess because it has to do with personal identity. Food creates taste memories. Taste memories are what stays with us most in our lives, especially nostalgia. It is easily accessed by human emotions. When we want to recreate a happy memory, associated with an occasion or a person, it is often linked to particular food, especially home cooked dishes made with care and love. 

My grandma was much beloved by my father and his siblings, my cousins and by me, so my journey with food is definitely tied to with my very fond feelings about her.

5. What is your first memory of food?

I distinctly remember being in my grandma’s kitchen, she would put me in a corner and gave me extra dough to play with. I wasn’t actually cooking, but I must have thought I was. Just being in the kitchen and playing, or as we say in Malay, main masak (play-cooking) embedded in me very positive feelings and memories of being in the kitchen. It made me comfortable in that space, I had a sense of belonging, it was and is still my happy place.

6. What is your most memorable meal?

I have to say my grandma’s and grandaunt’s Peranakan recipes. I kid you not! My family still has family dinners every Sunday, which is the occasion to do the more elaborate and laborious meals. This coming Sunday is Low Kai Yik (chicken wing stew) from Mrs Leong’s Cookbook, and my grandma’s yet-to-be published handwritten recipe—I’ve referenced and conflated the two recipes into one. 

Next Sunday is the very same nasi lemak which was served on Restaurant A380@Changi, using an old, beaten up, enamel steam pot which I inherited from my mother—who inherited it from my grandma. It is a bit of a myth and mystery, everyone believes that rice cooked from this pot just tastes better!

7. Where is home to you?

Singapore. I lived overseas for ten years: four years for undergrad in the East Coast of the United States; one year in London for Le Cordon Bleu and many months of travel and five years in Hong Kong as an investment banker. And the time I spent being away from Singapore only gave me a stronger sense of home, because I missed home, family, friends and the food! The saying is true, home really is where the heart is. I think the heart decides where and what home feels like.

8. You mentioned you were an investment banker. Can you please describe your culinary journey?

In March 2003, I quit investment banking to go into F&B, and soon decided to rework my grandma’s cookbook. I remember being awake the night I decided to leave the realm of finance behind, because I was so excited and certain of the change. I think I was fated to go into cooking and that marked the start of my journey, the books are relevant to this day. The nasi lemak recipe featured on Restaurant A380@Changi are in Vol. 1).

By October 2003, The New Mrs Lee’s Cookbook Vol. 1 was launched, followed by The New Mrs Lee’s Cookbook Vol. 2 the next year. I asked myself what I would do between books, so I decided to pursue my other dream which was to open a boutique cooking school. It is small and designed for home cooks. I ran it, and taught Peranakan cuisine, for 11 years, eventually closing it in 2015 to branch into two things: food consulting for Singapore Airlines and the Fullerton Bay Hotel when they approached me to work on their SG50 menus, and food manufacturing—to produce my own range of products, instead of teaching the recipes.

9. Who / what are you inspired by?

Oh, definitely my grandma. She only received the equivalent of a Primary Three education, but was incredibly hard working, determined and industrious. She grew up quite privileged in an upper middle class landowning Peranakan family, then had a hard life when Singapore was ravaged by the war. Despite this, she scrimped and saved to send three of her sons by steamship to the United Kingdom to study and became professionals, and this was when the Stirling was much stronger than the Singapore Dollar. It would be a feat for any mother, in this day and age. My grandma used her cooking skills as a source of income, and so did her Nonya sisters. And in a way, so am I. 

10. Did you always want to be a chef?

No, I always thought I would become a lawyer or another white-collared professional, like most Asian kids. I went through a few phases, wanting to be an art gallery owner, an art historian, a political science researcher. Thinking back, I’m so clearly in the career path I should be in. It is a calling for me, not a job. This will be my life’s work.

11. If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?

Wow, I don’t know. I can’t imagine.

12. Which local Singaporean dish do you think is the most underrated?

Maybe not dish, but ingredient. Wing beans (or kacang botol). It can be eaten raw, sliced thinly and served with some dressing, or sliced in thick pieces and stir-fried in sambal. It is cheap, has a unique shape and nice texture. I feature it as often as I can in my projects by including them on the menu.

13. What is the most important part of a meal you reckon?

Actually, warm hospitality. If you are a great cook, and put in care and love in preparing the meal, the guests can taste it. If you are not a great cook, your guests will overlook most failings, and should be gracious about it because they know you really tried. A fabulously decorated table and beautiful tableware also helps, it frames every dish.

14. What is your favourite ingredient to use?

Oh! Belacan, fermented shrimp paste. Actual good belacan, created in small batch production by artisanal food-crafters in Penang. You can’t find them in local supermarkets. I usually go to the Geylang Serai Wet Market where they have a better range.

15. Finally, what was the last meal you had?

A plate of fruit. My family is obsessed with fruits, in particular pomelo, papaya, pear, rose apple (or jambu), and any good seasonal fruit. We eat fruits every day, and at every meal. My father swears that the fruit enzymes are good for the digestive system, plus there’s all the vitamins and minerals. I find it is a nice way to end a rich or heavy elaborate Peranakan meal—a little slice or piece of homemade kueh with chilled and sliced local tropical fruit.

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Adriel Chiun

Digital Editor

Long-winded and short-tempered, Adriel has never met a grilled cheese he did not like – unless it scalds his tongue and the roof of his mouth, then the world is as good as edam.

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