Filipina Karla Mendoza is one of the few, if not the ONLY, female executive chef in Singapore Her success comes from a strict work ethic, a passionate commitment to her chosen industry and “a love for long hours, repetition, physical, emotional and mental pain, and working hardest when everyone else is on holiday”
She looked tired, but not harassed. At 10 p.m. she still managed to walk over to our table and flash a genuine, charming smile. “How’s everything?” she asked, her eyes behind glasses obviously inspecting our orders.
Azuthai’s Malu Gamboa, my date for the evening (how lucky am I?), exclaimed, “Mmmmm!!! So good!!! We love the burrata pizza.” After sharing that indeed the burrata had become a favorite of restaurant patrons, the chef excused herself to go back to the kitchen and continue working.
Over our second pizza, we had another chance to chat. Whence we learned that this chef sometimes has 18-hour work days (or was it 20?), does not go out for drinks after work (“it’s a personal policy”) even after much cajoling from Malu, and had to open the restaurant in a record-breaking time of less than two months.
The superwoman is Karla Mendoza, executive chef of Pizzeria Mozza at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. She is the ONLY female chef in the entire Marina Bay Sands. And she is one of the few, if not the ONLY, female executive chef in Singapore. She is a Filipina.
Like most Pinay chefs, she learned to cook from her grandmother. “The love for cooking I discovered at around age 9, watching my maternal grandmother cook a Sunday lunch for everyone,” recalled Mendoza. “’Everyone’ was about 40 people — my mom’s siblings and their spouses and all my cousins. (My grandmother) went to market everyday in a jeepney along with the helper so that they could plan the day’s meals. I would go with her every time I spent the night or weekend with her.”
Like other lola-cooks of that generation, Mendoza’s grandmother, Pilar Marco, ouido’ed everything (played it by ear): “She would whip up dishes like no one could, nothing from a cookbook, all from feel or inspiration. And all from what she could find at the market that given day. Of course, during the holidays she would out-do herself by making the most elaborate feasts. And I would help her.”
Although she graduated from the Ateneo with a degree not culinary, Mendoza’s destiny soon found her. Right after graduation, she moved to the United States and committed herself to the kitchen. It probably helps that she found quite the inspiring boss and mentor in Mario Batali. “He is very energetic, full of ideas, and is larger than life. He is so very inspiring and simple in his requirements for all of us who are his executive chefs. Make good food, have fun while you are doing it. But he also knows what he wants and is not afraid to let us know that. I love working for him-would not have it any other way at this moment.”
But it was another female that led Mendoza to Singapore. A lady named Nancy Silverton.
Silverton is no ordinary Nancy. She is quite the cooking legend in her own right in the United States, a chef and cookbook author who has won no less than a James Beard Foundation award for Best Pastry Chef of the Year (1990). She was Mendoza’s boss in Los Angeles at a restaurant named Campanile. When Silverton sold her shares in Campanile and partnered with Mario Batali to open two restaurants on the corner of Highland and Melrose, Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza, Mendoza went with her. Soon Pizzeria Mozza became famous for its artisan-style pizzas. When Batali decided to open in Singapore, Mendoza was tasked to open Pizzeria Mozza with and for him.
It wasn’t easy. “When we opened, I was 20 pounds heavier and my hair was a lot more black. Now I’m grey,” Mendoza confessed. But the hard work has paid off. The reviews have been raving and it is now a challenge just to get a reservation. No less than Restaurant Magazine, which ranks the world’s 50 best restaurants, describes this latest Batali venture this way: “On the opposite side of the restaurant is a more casual setup of Pizzeria Mozza. Here the menu is based on Batali’s culinary adventures in New York, Bologna, and the entire Italian boot. Widely imaginative and in touch with traditional roots, it features artisanal salumi and handmade pasta along with seafood and meat dishes conceived by Mario… This energetic and lively section of the restaurant will see chefs at work as they prepare fresh pizzas from two wood-burning pizza ovens.” (http://www.theworlds50best.com/regional-spotlights/singapore/osteria-mozza-and-pizzeria-mozza)
But the challenges continue day to day. “In the States, if I needed vegetables, I would call the purveyor and it would be at the restaurant by the end of the day. Here, I have to order certain things a week in advance. It is very difficult to get all the things I need for one dish all at the same time. It takes a lot of coordination… Hiring was a challenge, and it still is… The work ethic is very different here in Asia than in the US and that takes a lot of getting used to. There are still lots of sleepless nights, but that really comes with every restaurant of this caliber, I guess,” Mendoza shared.
Nevertheless, the payoff is great and comes on a daily basis with the reaction of the restaurant’s customers: “At the Pizzeria, since we have an open kitchen, you get to see the instant satisfaction (or hatred) the guests have for their food. The guests are always eager to ask for cooking tips since I am right there in front of them.”
And the icing on the cake? Sometimes culinary royalty give you their nod of approval. “The most memorable story so far is my shock when Thomas Keller walked in to the restaurant without a reservation. I recognized him, my eyes went big, and I started to palpitate. He ordered off the menu, asked to talk to me, and I think I almost passed out!”
Her success comes from a strict work ethic and passionate commitment to her chosen industry. “Always cook with your heart. I learned that from Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali. If it is just a paycheck for you, you are in the wrong business (there is no paycheck here). It has to be done out of passion and the love for long hours, repetition, physical, emotional, mental pain, and working hardest when everyone else is on holiday,” Mendoza said in informal advice to aspiring chefs.
This is truly one Pinay who does this country proud!
The Singapore Scene
If you can’t get a reservation at Pizzeria Mozza to taste the cooking of chef Karla Mendoza (and have already made your rounds for Hainanese chicken and chili crab), there are a ton of other places to check out. Singapore has been building itself, very aggressively and quite successfully, as the culinary epicenter of Asia. A few favorites:
Yakun Kaya Toast. This establishment started out as a small coffee shop as early as the 1940s. Over the years, it has not lost its touch. Imitated but not overcome, the little coffee house remains a favorite because of its signature coffee and the buttered toast that you appreciate with coconut jam and soft boiled egg mixed with soy sauce. I love a good ol’ American breakfast but the kaya toast is a beautiful thing to wake up to as well!
L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon
Joel Robuchon’s eponymous restaurant makes its way to Singapore. Now you can enjoy Robuchon’s famed foie gras burger right in Singapore. The signature hip red and black interiors by Pierre-Yves Rochon have been adopted although the vibe is much more lively, thanks in large part not only to the energetic and charming restaurant manager Diego Requena but also to the Filipino members of the kitchen team who have taught Atelier Chef de Cuisine Lorenz Hoja not only adobo but also how to dance the Otso Otso. At the bar, you can converse with them, kid with them, flirt with them if you wish, yet they don’t miss a beat in handing out excellently executed couture cuisine. Have the king crab or the lechon de lait (lechon na maliit, hehe!) for a most memorable experience.
Relish offers creative burgers: blue cheese beef burger with rucola, poached pear & walnut butter burger, a paper-thin omelet-wrapped Ram-Lee burger, a char-siew pork foccacia burger and a curry chicken burger. It’s a great venue for a relaxed lunch with old friends.
This teahouse takes tea appreciation to a different level. They offer over 800 single estate fine harvest teas and exclusive blends, as well as tea patisseries and other tea-infused delicacies. My latest favorite is their chocolate tea: black tea blended with morsels of cocoa beans. They also have chocolate tea pralines that are to die for! Check out TWG Teas at ION on Orchard for this experience.
Showbiz chizms! Dingdong Dantes and Marian Rivera reportedly dined at this fancy restaurant in Resorts World Sentosa. It offers a spacious setting with clean lines that highlights the open kitchen and specialty ovens that make the restaurant’s signature breads. But the menu is inspired by fresh Australian produce such as Tasmanian milk-fed lamb. A fun order is the Seafood Ice Experience: several tubes are lined before you with various flavors from savory to sweet. And don’t miss out on the Valrhona Hot Chocolate Soup: a scoop of black pepper vanilla ice cream perched on warm molten chocolate. Winner!
If Sentosa is a bit too far, right in the heart of the city, with a spectacular view of the F1 track if you are there at that time of the year, is Jaan at the Swissotel. This restaurant takes the “ladies who lunch” experience to a totally different level. From the spectacular view of the city to the (practically) wall to wall Murano crystal and silver free-form chandelier to the educated service of the staff and finally to the carefully and very creatively crafted French cuisine, the restaurant reeks of class. Zucchini is appreciated with burratina cheese and enhanced with almonds and black olives. The otherwise unassuming cod fish is made enthralling with chanterelles and a smoked garlic emulsion. With the chef’s oh-so-pretty plating and sensational combination of flavors, this restaurant will definitely maintain its ranking as one of the 50 best restaurants in the world.
With all these and more, Singapore has really established itself as a culinary destination. Pretty cool that among the best of the best at the top of this world is our very own Karla Mendoza! •
Pizzeria Mozza. The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands (across theater). Lunch 12 to 2 p.m. Dinner 5 to 11 p.m. Tel. +65 6688 8522. Reservations highly recommended. Casual.