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Rebel with a Culinary Cause

Text and images by Melanie Lee @ Makansutra

Rebel with a Culinary CauseA restaurant meant to be comfortable and lively

When 30-year-old Chef Bjorn Shen was coming up with a name for his restaurant in 2010, he flipped the pages of a food dictionary and looked at what word his finger would be pointing randomly to. According to him, the first few attempts resulted in some “pretty dumb words”, but then he got to “Artichoke” and liked the sound of it. With that, Artichoke Café + Bar was born.

Just as how this name-giving exercise went, Chef Bjorn’s vision for Artichoke is kept simple and open-ended: Do something different. Chef Bjorn describes Artichoke’s unique Moorish-inspired cuisine as “food cooked by a funky grandma that makes you feel like you are getting a great big hug”.

Rebel with a Culinary CauseBjorn Shen, chef and owner of Artichoke

While studying in Brisbane, Chef Bjorn worked in kitchens to support himself, and at one point, was a Sous Chef at a Greek restaurant. He became friends with his Turkish and Lebanese colleagues, while his housemate was from Iran and the classmate he was closest to was Arab-Canadian. With this Middle Eastern exposure, he became intrigued by his friends’ cultural cuisine. “It has so many similarities with Southeast Asian cuisine in terms of the spices used and the communal settings. It is familiar, and yet it is so different,” he muses.

In coming up with Artichoke’s menu, he says that he is an interpreter, and makes sure he studies each dish thoroughly, knowing exactly where it comes from, the ingredients used, and the folklore behind it. “I like to call it modern cuisine, but with the soul intact,” Chef Bjorn says.

The vibe of Artichoke is very much an extension of Chef Bjorn’s personality – chilled out and friendly. However, the food is far from sloppy with an eclectic, mix of salads, dips, seafood, meats, freshly baked breads and desserts all served in hearty, colourful portions for communal sharing.

Tuna Kibbeh Nayeh made with Lebanese tuna tartare, Bulgar Wheat and Seven Spice Baharat.

“It’s the kind of place where you come with loosened ties and the servers would sit next to you to take your orders and you get to taste a bit of everything. The music is loud, people can shout across tables and it’s all meant to be very comfortable and lively,” he explains.

Ironically, it’s this casual approach that has offended some customers, who come here expecting a posh, fine-dining experience where they are treated like royalty. “I’ve had complaints that our service sucks. But at Artichoke, it’s about breaking down the barriers when it comes to enjoying good food. I’ve come to accept that this doesn’t sit well with some people and they never come back again,” Chef Bjorn says with a shrug.

However, if there are errors or areas of improvement, Chef Bjorn is open to such criticism and does not hesitate to apologise and improve the situation. In fact, he met his girlfriend when she dined here as a customer and complained about the beetroot salad. “We’ve tweaked the recipe after her feedback and it’s really good now,” he admits with a broad grin.

Given how hard it is to get a table in Artichoke without a reservation these days, it looks like Chef Bjorn’s risky move in opening up a “non-standard” eatery has paid off. And to think that this promising young chef almost became an academic after completing a Master of Business in Marketing at the University of Queensland. He was taking on tutoring and consultancy contract jobs from his alma mater in Food and Beverage Management, and was contemplating pursuing a PhD.

However, an invitation to “guest cook” with his master’s thesis supervisor (who used to be an executive chef) at a winery made him realise how much he loved being in the kitchen and decided to commit to cooking full-time. Chef Bjorn returned to Singapore to “do something impulsive and stupid while he still could” and set up Artichoke with a six-figure loan from his family. Now, with the success of the Café + Bar, he has paid back the loan and is also opening a bakery later this year to provide career development opportunities for his team of chefs who have stayed with him since day one of Artichoke.

“I’ve always had alternative views and for me, I don’t really bother about ‘competition’ and I don’t need to be on a cooking show. But it does get to me that my guys are not taken seriously by their peers who work in fine-dining restaurants. They are the best kitchen team a chef could ever have,” Chef Bjorn says wistfully.

His chief gripe about Singapore’s dining scene, however, are “restaurants that call themselves unpretentious but are actually pretentious with waiters that call you ‘sir’ and serve you pretty little canapés”. For Chef Bjorn, down-to-earth dining is found right here at his cosy little place called Artichoke.