I re-introduced chicken rice
Many may not know this, but it was not a Singapore chef who pioneered the popular Mandarin chicken rice, the signature dish at Mandarin Orchard's Chatterbox cafe.
Instead, it was German-born chef Peter Gehrmann who, in 1971, came up with the idea of re-introducing chicken rice, using premium ingredients.
My Paper met the Hawaii-based chef, now 75, on Friday to talk about the origins of the Mandarin chicken rice.
Can you tell us how the Mandarin chicken-rice dish came about?
We spied on hawkers who sold chicken rice and then we took it to Chatterbox. I simply dressed the dish up.
In Hamburg, we've got this minced-meat bun and somebody took it, made it flat and put it between bread buns to make the McDonald's burger. He took an old recipe, just like how I took an old recipe, and just dressed it up.
In the old days, I had a crew of about 100 chefs, and my basic crew in Chatterbox comprised of 20 chefs. We all got together and did some trial-and-error work - improve, add a little bit, subtract a little bit - and we eventually came up with a standard recipe which is still used today.
What inspired you to re-present the traditional chicken-rice dish?
I was not actually inspired to re-present traditional chicken rice. It was actually a kick in the butt (laughs).
The then owner of Mandarin Orchard had asked me to introduce a Singapore dish to the Western coffee shop.
I already made (a traditional dish like) ginger chicken in Hong Kong - I used to live there for five years and worked with the Hilton Hotel.
When I came to Singapore, I was introduced to chicken rice, but it was presented to me as a pile of rice with chicken on top and the sauces were drizzled messily. So, I chose to re-introduce it, but I had to clean it up to make it more presentable.
What changes did you make to traditional chicken rice?
The first thing is always the quality of the raw ingredients and the product itself.
If you have (an ingredient of) negative quality, you obviously cannot make an excellent product.
So, the first thing we had to do was to ensure that we had a contract farmer who supplied us with fresh chicken daily and each chicken had to be exactly the same weight.
What is your favourite part of the chicken-rice dish and why?
I think it's the rice. I like seasoned rice, like Italian pilaf or briyani from India.
The chicken is very nice as well - we have so many different dips and every bite has a different flavour, so that's what makes it so interesting.
When you launched the Mandarin chicken-rice dish in Chatterbox, did you expect it to be so well-received?
To be honest, I had a very strong feeling about our coconut dessert. We used to make ice cream with raisins to complement the coconut. We sold it by the hundred. That was what I thought was going to be the No. 1 dish - and, indeed, it became one of the cafe's bestsellers - followed by chicken rice.
But I very soon discovered that people liked chicken rice - the Europeans, the Americans and the Singaporean Chinese all liked it.
Because, after all, you could base (the dish) on chicken soup and, everywhere you go, people drink chicken soup. It's just a different way of presenting the dish.
How would you describe the chicken-rice dish?
I would always say that if you like chicken soup, I have the perfect way of making it.
In Europe, when people boil chicken, it is boiled for maybe an hour to ensure that the bones are cooked. But, in the case of Hainanese chicken rice, the chicken is boiled for 35 minutes, then put it into iced water. That means the bones are still pink and uncooked, but the meat is already nice and tender.
I would also say that the rice is not so much like the water-cooked rice in China, but more like (seasoned) pilaf rice in Italy, so it has a strong flavour of ginger and garlic, as opposed to the blandness of steamed rice.
Chatterbox is located at level 5 of Mandarin Orchard.