What’s your very first memory of food?
Every year when I was little, my Ah Ma (grandmother) used to take me to an open-air Chinese Teochew night opera in Singapore. It was free and you would take your own chair and fan (it was always so hot). We would eat Teochew fishball noodle – exquisite Singaporean street food. The fishballs were always cooked to perfection with just the right amount of sambal chilli, and the mee pok noodle was al dente and drizzled with fragrant garlic oil, spring onion and shallot. It became a tradition, and the memory still makes me hungry.
What’s the first recipe you properly learned to cook?
My mother’s fried rice with XO sauce, which is made from dried seafood and is complex and spicy.
What’s the one recipe that you can’t live without?
Chicken congee. This is the porridge my mum cooked for me when I was little. It’s what children start off with – it’s easy to swallow and fabulous to eat. When I say porridge, it’s an intense chicken broth with ginger and garlic, slow-cooked until the chicken is really tender. This was comfort food that my mother used to give us every day for lunch, and I still love to make it. I serve it with jasmine rice and garnish it with garlic, ginger, dried shallot, coriander and sliced red chilli.
Which food do you absolutely hate?
Durian. I hate it. It’s the king fruit in Asia, but for me it’s not so pleasant. Some people love it on the first bite and others just can’t eat it. The smell is so pungent that some Singaporean hotels ban you from bringing it in.
What’s the one ingredient that you’d take to a desert island with you?
I do love my sesame oil, so that would have to be it. But if I could take another, it
would be matcha.
What’s the meal you’d miss the most while there?
Hainanese chicken rice. The chicken is slow-poached with ginger, garlic and spring onion, served with chilli sauce and garnished with cucumber. It’s super humble food, but when it’s cooked to perfection, it’s top of the world!
You can have a one-off dinner party on your desert island… Who would you invite and why?
I would bring Gino D’Acampo with me. I know I would have a good laugh with him, and we would really enjoy cooking together. It would be fabulous. And Marco Pierre White. He’s charismatic and I like his character: he says what he thinks. He’s one of my top idols and I have a lot of respect for him.
Which cookbook would you take with you to the island?
I don’t really use cookbooks – I cook from my heart. It’s always intriguing for me to work with a classic recipe and turn it from something ordinary into something extraordinary.
What are you looking forward to on the new series of Bake Off: The Professionals?
It’s always about meeting the talent. I call them ‘talent’, because it’s really hard to work in a kitchen, with very long hours, so I like them to celebrate their success. The most important thing for me is to see them bloom, see them flower.
What’s difficult about judging? And what do you enjoy about it?
My heart always sinks when showpieces collapse. I say, “Can I and go and help them?” Making a cake is easy. Making the precise components perfect, with wonderful taste and texture and appearance, is not. When I’m given the most delicious piece of cake, that’s the reward. A celebration.
What still excites you about patisserie?
I think the story behind what you make is so important. I’m now working as executive pastry chef at the hotel Pan Pacific London, which is part of a hotel group based in Singapore, so I can bring a lot of memories from Singapore to showcase what we have in Asia – it’s not just sweet and sour, and fried noodles!
And I get excited making the simplest things. Earlier this year I wanted to make our hot cross buns really special. So I asked myself, how do I make the profile so you taste the fruit first, then the cinnamon, then the butter? It’s all quite technical and I like that challenge. Humble, but made well.
Bake Off: The Professionals is back on screens now – catch up on All4. Follow Cherish on Instagram at @cherish_finden. Portrait: Bernard Zieja.