Q&A with Mark Singson: “Cooking is an art, and it’s an outlet for me”

Interview by Gregory Furgala

Mark Singson went from being a familiar face in Vancouver’s kitchens to being a familiar face in Canada after finishing second on season six of Top Chef Canada where he was called both a magician and a mad scientist. The skills that earned him that acclaim were developed in some of Vancouver’s best restaurants, including Fairmont Pacific Rim, the Oakwood Canadian Bistro and the now-closed Boneta. After an overseas stint in Melbourne, Singson helped open AnnaLena, which EnRoute named one of Canada’s best new restaurants in 2015. Now with Top Chef behind him, Singson lives the life of an itinerant private chef, cooking intimate dinners and hosting pop-ups through FAM Inc., his catering company.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

CRFN: When did you first start cooking? What drew you to it?

Mark Singson: When I was around 15 years old I worked at my mom’s restaurant, Wilma’s Specialty House. I honestly just loved to eat so I wanted to learn how to make as much as possible. I cleaned and washed the dishes, cut and processed vegetables, and, of course tasted and ate the food, which was my favourite part.

I was really young at that time, and later on, when I started cooking elsewhere, I was more inspired by western flavours and dishes. But now my dishes are inspired from those moments. I really want to bring Filipino food to the forefront.

CRFN: What made you decide to cook professionally?

MS: I loved the organized chaos, I liked that all of the variables that can go wrong can be fixed, or how decisions have to be made not just in the moment, but also at least one step ahead before a problem arises. It’s like an art form. Instead of sinking, you and your team are going for a cheeky swim in an organized fashion. I get a little rush, almost a little high — I’m sure there are a lot of cooks that can relate to that. The feeling I felt during [my first] service was something I wanted to feel for the rest of my life.

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CRFN: Do you have a personal philosophy when it comes to cooking?

MS: Yes and no, I believe in just cooking from the heart, which means my dishes can change from one day to the next. It’s all about just being out of my comfort zone while having the confidence of knowing that I’m putting myself on each plate.

Mistakes are equally as crucial for my growth. They push you to understand the why and how, and not just about food. I think a chef has to cover more than food, like their staff, how to keep up morale — when you burn yourself, those moments make you. It teaches you to adapt when situations get sour. You can learn how to make something properly, but how do you fix it when it goes downhill?

CRFN: Why did you leave your job at AnnaLena to start your own catering business?

MS: No matter what I did, I was never going to be able to maximize my creativity under someone else’s name. I’m honoured to have opened it up and been a part of its success, but it was time for me focus on myself and my own flavours.

Just coming back from overseas, I felt super confident with all this new inspiration, and I wanted to utilize that. I felt like I was stuck [at AnnaLena] even though I was growing. I needed to be able to cook the food I wanted to cook, and with my name on it. Cooking is an art, and it’s an outlet for me.

CRFN: Now that you’re in catering, what’s changed?

MS: My type of catering is more like a private chef. I’m able to live the life of going to the market and cooking everything on the same day. I get to cook in more personalized locations while being more in touch with my food, and my clients.

Food and service is customized for every client. With first-time clients, I do an on-site inspection and pick their brains about their likes and dislikes. After that, I design a menu based of their answers and the space. Sometimes, clients request specific menu items — sometimes from the show — and I hire bartenders or a sommelier depending on what they’re looking for. It’s the same structure, but different. In a regular kitchen you have a routine and basically the same staff every day which is a great thing. With pop ups and private dining, it’s different every time. I design a specific menu and create a whole restaurant vibe for the night!

CRFN: When did you decide to audition for Top Chef Canada? What was it like to compete?

MS: Top Chef Canada reached out to me and I thought to myself, why not? I had nothing to lose, and it was so much fun — exactly what I had expected, competition-wise! Every day felt like a rush, and made me somewhat nostalgic to that first rush I felt at my mom’s restaurant as a teenager.

I was extremely nervous, but I wasn’t worried about the cooking. The first episode, I remember shaking, just loving the adrenaline rush with the cameras and all. But as soon as I started to cook, I adapted and zoned out. I was more intimidated by the judges than the other contestants — even though they’re all extremely talented — since they’ve accomplished so much and I look up to them.

My mom was extremely proud; I owe everything to her. I wouldn’t be given that opportunity if she never made any of the sacrifices she did to get us here. I remember the sounds and smells of her cooking while I watched the Food Network in my younger days. I always wanted to go on Iron Chef and Top Chef. I’m forever grateful to her.

CRFN: What’re you favourite places to get a meal?

MS: L’Abattoir, Zakushi, Marutama Ramen and Guu Garden — it really depends on the mood, and where I want to wine and dine or snack. L’Abbatoir, for me, has great service, food, cocktails and wine. You couldn’t get all that in an izakaya, for example. You couldn’t get a negroni with food on sticks.

CRFN: The world’s ending in 24 hours — what do you eat?

MS: Fried chicken and anything made by my mom. She does her adobo with chicken hearts, gizzards and pork belly. She braises the chicken in the sauce, takes it out, reduces the sauce, then shallow fries the chicken bits. I also love the bopis that she makes. It’s basically a Filipino dish of pork or beef lungs and heart sautéed in tomatoes, chilies and onions. Her baking is on point as well. Cookies, cake — I can go on. There are just too many options.

CRFN: How will things in hospitality change over the next year? What about the next five?

MS: Hopefully for the better. It’s a dying industry. Every year we’re having issues finding staff and I’d love to see that turn around. Knowing that, it means we know something has to change. The job needs more work-life balance and proper training. We need to teach cooks more than just cooking; we need to teach them habits and discipline that they can take with them anywhere, not just the kitchen. Patience is another, I’m still working on that.

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