Headlining chefs give casual fare a shot, and diners can only benefit.

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For some chefs, the decision to shift to casual dining is a practical one. Ang Song Kang, who helms oneMichelin-star Cantonese restaurant Chef Kang Kitchen, says that Chef Kang’s Noodle House, a wonton mee stall that he opened in Toa Payoh, is part of his “retirement plan”. The 54-year-old says: “I can’t be behind the wok my whole life, it’s tiring work. But I like to eat wonton mee, so I opened a hawker stall to sell it.”

Overseeing the stall are siblings Benson and Winson Moo, who had apprenticed under Ang. Most things are done from scratch in the stall’s confined space, from frying their intensely umami shrimp sambal, to preparing pork lardons, and roasting char siew. The springy egg noodles, though, come from Hong Kong, as Moo admits that they don’t have the expertise. Every plate of noodles comes with a bowl of chicken soup, slow-cooked until the liquid and collagen have emulsified into a milky-coloured broth. The noodles are tossed in dark soya sauce, and served with char siew and generouslysized wonton filled with pork, shrimp and black fungus. Block A Jackson Square, Block 11 Lorong 3 Toa Payoh.
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Chef Rishi Naleendra has closed his buzzy modern Australian restaurant Cheek by Jowl to open a more casual concept, Cheek Bistro, in the same space. He won’t be cooking there much though – the kitchen will be largely managed by the young team that trained under him. The dishes still have that strong Cheek DNA: well-executed, unfussy, with just a couple of ingredients on every plate. “To be honest, this is what every chef wants to eat most of the time. Comfort food. Sometimes, all we want to eat is a nice steak and potatoes,” says Naleendra. Said steak at Cheek Bistro comes as either a T-bone or ribeye, and is served with grilled mushrooms, green peppercorns and Cafe de Paris butter – a classic, flavour bomb of a compound butter made with an entire laundry list of ingredients including shallots and anchovies.

Moving to casual helps with turnover, too. “People can just come in for a quick lunch, there is no commitment to a two-hour meal.” Meanwhile, his wife Manuela Toniolo will remain in charge of the front of house, while Naleendra works on a new fine-dining concept that is due to open in the second half of the year. 21 Boon Tat Street.
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For Dave Pynt, chef-owner of Burnt Ends, expanding his barbecue empire into a hawker space was part of his “romantic idea of being able to do a couple of dishes, and perfect them over a period of time, and become renowned for those dishes”. With that, they have opened Meatsmith Western Barbeque at Makansutra Gluttons Bay, with head chef Nicol Wong behind the grill. While sister restaurants Burnt Ends and Meatsmith are slanted towards Australian and Southern-style barbecued fare, the Gluttons Bay stall features dishes more akin to those found in a hawker centre: salted egg chicken chop, freerange pork chop, and rice bowls.

Being in a hawker centre though – even a specialised one like Makansutra Gluttons Bay – comes with its fair share of challenges. Wong explains: “It’s essential to our brand to stick to fresh proteins but this sometimes means our costs are on the higher side, so we need to find the right balance between sticking to what we do best and keeping our pricing honest and suitable to what one would expect of a hawker stall. Additionally, in a restaurant, we normally have a team of cooks to deal with prep and service so the workload is distributed. With the hawker, we are juggling prep, cooking and cleaning in a small team.” #01-15, 8 Raffles Avenue.