Ditching the Corporate Life

This millennial chef makes a living cooking up Michelin-style meals from his apartment

Why big time chefs are opening supper clubs, not restaurants

Chris Kong has served some of the world's most discerning taste buds, including those of celebrities such as Guy Savoy, Daniel Humm and, reportedly, Beyoncé.

But after years cutting his teeth in some of the world's most renowned restaurants, the 32-year-old chef quit the glitz and glamour of Michelin-starred kitchens for, well, his own.

"After working for so many of these great chefs, and doing their kind of food and learning from them as well, you kind of want to find out 'what's your style?', 'what does Chris' food look like?'" Kong told CNBC Make It.

Kong is the founder of Dearborn Supper Club, an exclusive private dining experience held in the humble confines of his home in Singapore.

Hungry for change

The former chef of New York's The NoMad restaurant set up his own business last year after relocating from his native U.S. He has since carved out a savory path for himself as the city's resident Michelin-trained dinner party host.

"I think, for most chefs, the dream is to have your own space or your own canvas," said Kong, who decided to go it alone after he and his wife inherited a five-room public housing apartment — known locally as an HDB flat — from family.

The couple gave themselves a year to renovate the property and experiment with Kong's casual fine-dining concept before opening their doors to the public in late-2018.

Chris Kong serves guests at Dearborn Supper Club in Singapore.

"We were lucky to have a space here that we could renovate," said Kong. "So we just set a date in the calendar and we knew we had to get it done."

Since then, Kong has welcomed a continuous stream of customers, enabling him to run the business full-time, with assistance from his wife and sister-in-law. Already, Dearborn's twice-weekly sittings — which can accommodate groups of six to eight each — are booked up until August 2019.

Feeding a growing appetite

Kong is part of a growing number of so-called supper club chefs who are capitalizing on diners' insatiable appetites for new eating experiences. It's a trend that's taken off in cities from New York to London. Singapore alone has dozens, with prices ranging from $35 to $105 per head.

Given his Michelin background, Kong has positioned himself at the upper end of that spectrum, charging around $100 (138 Singapore dollars) per head.

I wanted to give people the feeling that they were coming to a restaurant, but just maybe not in the space, in our house.
Chris Kong
Chef, Dearborn Supper Club

Kong said that brings in enough to support himself full-time, while reflecting the fine-dining experience he aims to create.

"I wanted to give people the feeling that they were coming to a restaurant, but just maybe not in the space, in our house," said Kong.

"You're going to get the same quality of service and food (as a restaurant) and there are no shortcuts in anything that we're going to do," he added.

A 'Modern-American' dream

Chris Kong with French chef Guy Savoy.
Chris Kong

Kong's "Modern-American" six-course tasting menu draws inspiration from his time spent working at French celebrity chef Guy Savoy's eponymous restaurant in Singapore, as well as Swiss chef Daniel Humm's The NoMad.

"The technique that was drilled into me working at The NoMad, and Daniel Humm, and Guy Savoy, is very structured and very technique-driven, and so I try to implement that into my cooking," noted Kong.

But it also pays homage to his own varied culinary background.

Being in the industry and growing up in it, I really knew I wanted to push myself and get better.
Chris Kong
Chef, Dearborn Supper Club

Born in Seattle, Washington in the late 1980's, Kong discovered his passion for cooking at just 15, when he began working at his parents' Italian restaurant — the first in the city to be set up by Chinese owners, according to Kong.

"Being in the industry and growing up in it, I really knew I wanted to push myself and get better," said Kong. "I thought the only way to get better was, you need to work at both spectrums, from a high-turn volume ... to a higher end."

A teenage Chris Kong with his family at their Italian restaurant in Seattle, Washington.
Chris Kong

Then, after studying business at college, he traveled to his father's native Malaysia and worked at an outdoor restaurant, known locally as a Tze Char.

"They would turn the restaurant literally three or four times (a night)," said Kong, noting the "sheer volume" of food produced each evening.

"If you can imagine these big tables of families eating, and they all want their food and the same time, and then another crowd of people coming in," he continued. "It was an adrenaline rush!"

Growing a sustainable business

That varied experience has helped set Dearborn apart in a city famed for its culinary scene, said Kong.

So has his emphasis on sustainability: Kong's menu is primarily comprised of vegetables, grains and seafood.

Kong said that decision is both in response to his own eating habits, as well as his efforts to respond to diners' growing demands for sustainable produce.

"We wanted to cook for people the way that we feel would help the environment as well," said Kong. "The best feedback is when people come back and say 'Oh, I didn't know that was a vegetable. I didn't miss the meat.'"

It's more than money, you know; it's being able to express yourself.
Chris Kong
Chef, Dearborn Supper Club

That environmental angle could just provide scope for future partnerships as Dearborn grows, Kong suggested in a nod to his business background.

"Cooking is one part of it, but I think you need to also understand cash-flow and all the other little, teeny bits of running a business," he said.

However, in the short-term, Kong said he is more than satisfied with simply shaping his own menu.

"The benefits from it, it's more than money, you know; it's being able to express yourself and being able to do something that you love to do."

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This 24-year-old hosts one of NYC's most exclusive supper clubs — and he started it in his dorm room