The local F&B industry is about as predictable as an episode of Game of Thrones, and Bjorn Shen has seen his share of ups and downs.
The chef-owner of Artichoke in the Bugis neighbourhood started his business eight years ago, an eternity in Singapore’s fickle food scene. Then he branched out into opening fried chicken joint Bird Bird, which he shuttered last November. “We all know the statistics when it comes to restaurants and cafes in Singapore, and how 7/10 don’t make it past the first couple of years. We played. We lost. But I’m glad we tried nonetheless,” he mused.
It would be a low point in any chef’s career; especially one whose personality is interwoven with his eateries, right down to the cheeky names (other than Bird Bird, Bjorn also launched an ice cream bar brand called Neh Neh Pop).
“I got my a** handed to me,” said Bjorn frankly about the failed venture.
But like a true garang restaurateur, he has bounced back, fast. In April this year, he was confirmed as one of the three judges, alongside MasterChef Australia alum Audra Morrice and fellow local chef Damian D’Silva, in the inaugural season of MasterChef Singapore. The show airs Sept 2 on Ch 5.
“I ate some really good food on the show, and was shown some really creative ideas,” shared Bjorn of the experience.
While he jokes that he has “a face for radio”, Bjorn has quite a bit of TV experience under his belt, also appearing on Kix’s reality show Ultimate Brocation, Toggle’s cooking competition show Eat List Star and hosting Channel NewsAsia’s eight-ep documentary Savouring the Future.
“If there are more [opportunities] in the future, I will take it as it comes. I’m not like, ‘Whoo, let’s go into TV!” My bread and butter is still Artichoke,” he says.
Which is why he returned to cook at Artichoke with a revamped menu after spending three years as an executive chef overseeing both Bird Bird and Artichoke, entrusting most of the cooking back then to his staff.
“Ever since I came back to the kitchen here, the food has taken on a much simpler direction. We used to be all about super big flavours and a lot of complex dishes going on, but recently, we’ve taken a more refined, simpler approach,” he tells us.
You’ll find him in the kitchen “five nights a week, unless I have filming or event engagements”. Gone also is the “fancy plating” — Bjorn held a garage sale earlier this year and sold off the elegant Japanese ceramic tableware at Artichoke.
“Now we are using Chinese restaurant plates and colourful plastic nasi padang plates,” he says.
There’s a new bar area in the restaurant too, serving artisanal ‘bottled cocktails’ from local brand Sunday Punch in flavours like the refreshing WWGT ($18), whiskey infused with green tea and osmanthus.
But for folks who love Artichoke for its kitschy, homey decor and inventive Middle-Eastern-inflected ‘dudestronomy’, well, there’s still that.
“People always think I eat deep-fried mayonnaise,” quips Bjorn. “But let me define dudestronomy. It’s not about eating cheeseburgers and three-day-old pizza from under the couch. It’s about elevating junk food. It’s about using chef-y skills and good ingredients [to make] what is otherwise trashy food.”
Like Chocolate Salty Pie ($6), Bjorn’s riff on McDonald’s popular chocolate pie that got an atas upgrade with Valrhona 77 per cent dark chocolate and sea salt.
It is also, we think, about feeding people till they reckon they need to buy a bigger pair of pants. At the end of our visit, Bjorn generously plies us with takeaway boxes of baklava croissants (think a flaky croissant with orange blossom honey-drenched baklava filling), little containers of garlic aioli that we mentioned we like (“Eat it with fries, trust me,” he urges), and his cookbook ‘Artichoke: Recipes & Stories from Singapore's Most Rebellious Kitchen’ filled with “legit recipes”.
We’re not sure if we can cook like Bjorn, so we’ll probably just join the regulars who crowd his restaurant for a good feed, even on a weekday.
Check out our photo gallery for a list of what’s good on Artichoke's new menu.
Artichoke is at 161 Middle Rd, S188978. Tel: 6336-6949. Open daily except Mon. Tues-Fri 4pm-9.45pm; Sat & Sun 11.30am-2.45pm & 4pm-9.45pm. Last orders 15 mins before closing. www.facebook.com/artichokesg.