Women Now

Meet Petrina Loh: fermentation queen and woman behind Restaurant of the Year

If you haven't been to Morsels, here's what you're missing out on
 

Watch Petrina take us on a tour around Morsels 
Video: Shannon Ang, Music: Joakim Karud - Dreams

 

 

We’re willing to bet that you’ve never seen (and by extension, tasted) some of the weird and wonderful dishes that are served at Morsels. Known for its exciting take on fusion cuisine, the five-year-old Morsels is ahead of the pack when it comes to experimental, yet unpretentious food that you want to tuck into. If you don’t want to take our word for it, maybe the facts will: Morsels was awarded Restaurant of the Year at this year’s World Gourmet Summit, and chef-owner Petrina Loh received the Chef’s Choice award (Western Cuisine).

We spent an afternoon with Petrina Loh to pick her brain, sample some food, and get a little insight as to how Morsels made it onto every foodie’s must-visit list.

 

1. Creativity comes from knowing your stuff (all of your stuff)

Morsels, a 40-seater restaurant, is tucked in a corner of Dempsey Hill.

Image: Morsels

 

Venus clams, fig broth and homemade kimchi. Sesame oil, burrata and fried mee sua. Surprising, yes, but they are matches made in gastronomic heaven. Dreaming up unusual combinations is one part instinctive, another part trained, Petrina believes. “To put unusual ingredients together, you need to understand produce and flavours,” she says. “That comes from being exposed and trying a lot of different things.”

She references her childhood for her diverse love of food. Growing up with a father who was a huge foodie, he brought her to markets and taught her to try everything before deciding if she didn’t like it. Her eight years living in the States also gave her insight into other ingredients that weren’t as common in Asia: “I forced myself to know as many ingredients as possible and remember what they taste like, because that’s how I learn.”

 

2. Just because it’s small, doesn’t mean it’s not generous

Gin-Cured Mekajiki Belly 

Image: Morsels

 

If we’re at a dim sum lunch, we’re accustomed to having just one of every dish. Even if a shrimp dumpling tastes amazing, diners tend to be content with eating just one because we know there’s a bounty of food to come. It’s the kind of generosity that Petrina wanted to employ at Morsels, where small plates feature heavily on the menu. You can choose to go a la carte, or opt for an omakase menu of multiple small plates.

“I enjoy big spreads where meals are shared – that’s what my dad used to do. He would cook everything in the fridge and it would drive my mum crazy,” she recounts. “I’m the same – I always over order because to me, variety is enjoyable. I want people to feel the same way when they come to Morsels.”

 

3. Fusion isn’t finicky – it can be comfort food

Steamed Venus clams, fig broth, homemade kimchi 

Image: Morsels

 

When you go into an Italian restaurant, you expect pasta, pizza, the works. It’s not that easy to pin down the type of food that you get at Morsels. But it is this unexpected factor that the restaurant is known for. “I don’t want to be bound by one type of cuisine,” explains Petrina. “When I go to restaurants, I like places that excite my palate and do something different. I like twists.”

But there’s logic behind the apparent madness. It’s not about putting things together just for the fusion’s sake. Petrina likes “combining familiar aspects of different types of food” to give diners that comfort food feel. Take her wantons – she’s added kimchi (from her love of Korean food), and fish (reminiscent of her favourite bak chor mee stall) so that when you eat them, they call to mind what we enjoy best about different cuisines.

 

4. Produce is king

The open concept kitchen allows for Petrina and the team to see what's going on in the restaurant.

Image: Morsels

 

“When I design a dish, its produce driven,” Petrina says.  It’s a love that runs so deep that she forages for herbs and has a garden by the restaurant to grow her greens (from bay leaves to rosemary). "Sustainability is a big thing in the restaurant - I always need to know the source of our food," she explains. "As a chef, I want to know how things are grown, and foraging is a part of that." This celebration of produce is at the heart of the restaurant’s ethos: to serve tasty food with good produce, cooked from scratch with no MSG.

The dishes need to tick seven boxes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami, different temperatures, different textures. From there, she thinks of how to use ingredients to add flavour in each component. It’s also a reason why the menu changes frequently (two big menu changes a year and small changes every two or three months). If something’s not seasonal or at its best, then it’s not going to appear on your plate.

 

5. Fermentation is actually a celebration of food

Squash toast with tomato kimchi jam

Image: Morsels

 

When we think of amazing produce, we tend to think the best way to highlight it is to serve it fresh. But that’s only one way of showcasing a great ingredient. “Being a small restaurant, I can’t just order one kilo of something. I need to order more and think of what to do with it,” Petrina explains.  Fermentation was a delicious alternative. “It’s a great way to enjoy the best produce for a long period of time.”

And it’s not just kimchi that she’s dreaming up. This solution resulted in items like fermented watermelon salsa appearing on the menu. And after a month long trip to Korea to learn from the best, she even has gochujang fermenting in pots outside in the garden (by the way, we had a taste. Let’s just say the woman knows what she’s doing). 

 

6. Behind every dish is a team that’s working hard to please your taste buds

Image: Morsels

 

While Petrina is the face of Morsels, she is quick to credit the hard work of her team in the kitchen. “When we won Restaurant of the Year, it was very encouraging for the guys who have been slogging it out,” she says. “Of course my ideas are great, but I need a great team to execute them. Not everyone can understand how long it takes to make certain things and how much R&D goes into it.” The validation at the World Gourmet Summit was a team accolade.

And it’s not just Petrina who has an extensive palate – she expects her team to have the same. If you want to work at Morsels, you need to pass a spice and herb identification test. Get less than half right, and you’ll be shown the door. Petrina’s pantry is stocked with lesser known spices (ever heard of fenugreek? Neither have we), and she wants her staff to be familiar with as many ingredients as possible and learn how to use them properly.

 

7. As a woman, you have to work harder

Image: Morsels

 

Petrina, who also handles everything from marketing to photo taking and even the printing of menus, goes to bed between 3-5am and is up again at 8am. Morsels, she says, is her second home because she spends so much time there.

Regardless of gender, being a chef and owner of any restaurant is both physically and emotionally taxing. But she concedes that the going gets tougher for women. It’s part of the reason why the culinary scene tends to be more male dominated (at least in Asia). “It’s very physically demanding. A guy might take three hours to do one thing, and you might take six,” she recounts. “I’ve ended up staying 12 hours before – but you just need to show that you’re interested if this is what you want to do. Your gender shouldn’t hinder you if you feel passionate about it.”

And while you don’t need to be as shouty as Gordon Ramsay, but you need to be heard. “Sometimes women have opinions, but they don’t say them. It’s part of our Asian culture,” she maintains. “But you must have a voice.” It’s that, and her tenacity, that has helped her survive.  

 

Morsels is located at 25 Dempsey Road, #01-04.