… from darkness to light, and the virtues of acceptance.
Curator & Writer | Hakan Burcuoğlu · Venue | Gastown, Vancouver · Gear | Leica
Filipinos pioneered pathological altruism. I’m saying it, because I know they won’t—vanity never seemed to be their brand of fashion. I have a lot of Filipino friends, and their perennial positivity has kept assuaging my existential allegiances, so much so, that I’m like, happier again. Must they all be champion Good Samaritans? And must their joie de vivre be so contagious? Regardless, they’re giving us cynics a pretty shit name.
Mark’s provenance; his remarkable journey that traverses Las Piñas, Philippines and Vancouver, Canada is a masterclass in familial resilience, an eloquent dissertation on patience and dedication, and silent revelry in nostalgic longing. It’s poignancy, distilled. Thankfully, having enough aunts around him to rebuild modern civilization, in the absence of his mother and father, his childhood never culminated into a vestige pilfered of its innocence. And the proof’s in the pudding, just look at the photos. [Spoiler: Fanny Pack fashions]
It’s an exciting time for Mark, and things are happening to him at a rate he can neither process, nor fathom. And, as is the case with most Dionysian minds, he too sublimates. It’s all healthy of course—he’s got good bones, following in the footsteps of a brave, industrious and self-made mother. His prized trait is his virtue of acceptance, which is why, at ostensibly the most important time in his life—and career—he holds the power to weave his own dreams. And he’s earned it, time and time over. So here’s to you, Mr. Dreamweaver. Welcome to The Curatorialist family.
HB: I’ll stick to ritual and start with provenance. How was it being a kid in the Philippines?
MS: It was different. Laid back. My mom was sponsored by my aunt, and left for Canada to provide for us after I was born. My father wasn’t quite in the picture. I never got to see my mom until I was 8 years old but luckily my mom’s huge family—7 sisters and a half-brother—took care of me and my brothers until we moved to Canada for good. I grew up with them until I started living in Canada. We were always happy, and content with what we had.
HB: What was the explanation given to you regarding your mom’s absence?
MS: No one had given me an explanation as to why she’d left, so I remember just rolling with it. It seemed normal at the time. It really did. Obviously, as I grew older, I put the pieces together. I still can’t imagine how painful it was for her, leaving three sons behind to make money, only to return years later to bring us back to Canada. What we knew of Canada was whatever my mom sent us as gifts.
HB: The box phenomenon.
MS: [Chuckles] They’re called balikbayan [repatriate] boxes and they’re boxes of goodies that Filipinos sent back to their families during special times. My mom sent them for New Years and on our birthdays. My favourite thing were the Hershey’s bars with almonds—so fucking delicious! It was way superior than what we had in the Philippines. And of course, the shoes.
HB: Now I get why you’re such a sneakerhead.
MS: The candy was good but it was always about the shoes—Jordans, Hardaways, any kind of Nikes really.
HB: Seems you had that swagger, even as a child.
MS: My brothers and I were trouble… we just did dumb shit. We’d drive these tricycles down the street just to get chased by vicious strays. We made candle lit tunnels from dirt, climbed sketchy water towers… played hide and seek in abandoned buildings. And we’d play a lot in the night time—perfect for firecrackers. I remember that darkness; our neighbourhood wasn’t lit very well so it got very dark—pitch black.
HB: It does sound like a fun childhood, always exploring.
MS: We had so much fun. Our New Year celebrations were epic—everyone in our family came over for a huge reunion. My uncle had a cover band and they were fucking amazing, like legit! The food was unforgettable—my aunt was an extraordinary cook who prepared feasts using ingredients out of our backyard. Vegetables from our garden with homemade shrimp paste, aromatic rice, crispy pork. She’d dry fish, tomatoes—everything from scratch. Once she cut up a chicken for my birthday. I still remember it running around headless in the backyard.
HB: Were you friends with that chicken?
MS: I grew up with that chicken, fed it every day. We’d blow on it’s behind, and I don’t know if I should even say this [laughs hysterically], its butt hole would dilate! So fuckin’ funny!
HB: I’ve got no more questions. Nice knowing you Mark.
MS: [Chuckles] I can picture it so vividly! We were kids, come on!
HB: What was your relationship to cooking during those times?
MS: I wasn’t too interested because all I wanted was to play. But I remember cooking for fun—my friends and I used to boil these special flowers to make slime, which we then blew bubbles out of. We always made our own fun. I also helped with chores in the backyard like puffing rice on hot coals and rocks. That backyard… the rooster was our alarm clock. It still triggers so many memories. I miss my family like crazy.
HB: Children nowadays don’t have that connection to food. I’d say you were lucky in that regard.
MS: I was an eater. I’d eat absolutely anything. I would put rock salt in my pockets and climb our mango tree with my paring knife—eat that shit fresh! I was the youngest, but also the most open in the entire family. I had a reputation. Everyone saying shit like “Don’t eat that, it’s dirty street food” made me want to eat it even more.
HB: And of course, all of this presumably manifests in your cooking.
MS: Those smells and aromas evoke my favourite childhood memories and inspire the way I cook. I use spruce tips for instance, which have a flavour node of green mangoes. It brings me back to those times I ripped mangoes off our tree.
HB: How did Vancouver’s smells and aromas compare? Last time I checked, mango trees don’t grow in Surrey.
MS: It was night and day. I left for Canada right after my birthday in June of ‘98 and remember it was freezing when we landed. Everyone was wearing t-shirts! But the first thing my brothers and I noticed was the air quality—so crisp, that fresh smell of pines.
HB: Did you resume your adventures when you started school?
MS: It was difficult. I had an accent and got into a fight on my first day of school. Some older kid with these huge glasses made fun of the way I spoke and called me “chinky eyes”. So I punched him.
HB: He deserved it.
MS: Here’s the fuckin’ twist—we get called to the principal’s office and he starts rambling, “That’s not what we do here in Canada”.
HB: Classic FOB treatment.
MS: I obviously didn’t know how to express it, but even as a child, I had my values. What he said wasn’t right, but I didn’t know why it wasn’t right. That wasn’t the only incident, I got picked on a lot.
HB: Those terrible experiences must’ve made you miss the good old days in the Philippines.
MS: My first pop-up events were called Family Matters for a reason. It’s where my values lie and the reason I work so hard—to have a family of my own one day. Unfortunately, those dreams aren’t part of the picture now. Things happened, so I shifted priorities and decided to focus more on myself and my career. I need to work harder… I thought I’d be somewhere better by now.
HB: You’re not even 30 and millions are watching you on Top Chef. Nevermind that, you’ve thrown a party in pretty much every single space in this town.
MS: Fuck, you’re right. I don’t think it’s sunk in yet. I’ve dreamed of having my own place for so long and always thought I’d get there by 30. Looking back, I feel bad about turning down lots of opportunities—opening a place in Australia being one—that would’ve been dreamy. But now, I feel those setbacks were meant to happen. What’s the rush, right?
HB: People in this industry start very young so I understand where you’re coming from. By 30, you’re pretty versed in it.
MS: I’ve made a habit of accepting things, and it’s made my life easier to live. I never complain about things outside of my control. If I was still preoccupied with other things or working on the line, I wouldn’t have applied for Top Chef. There are so many negatives in this industry and unless you find a way to turn them into positives, you’ll never make it. You’ll be a 35 year old chef, bitter as shit. I love everything I do—for me it’s a way of life, not just a job. You have to fucking own it to make it.
HB: What you do is pretty singular. I don’t think I’ve ever met a chef quite like you.
MS: [Chuckles] I haven’t either! It’s the flavour of the day, literally. I’m always winging it—constantly adapting—and so much of what I do comes together last minute. Seeking out flavour combinations is key, but I can just as easily get inspired by a beautiful painting. I like to rethink classical dishes most people are acquainted with, but serve them my way. I just let it be. I don’t need to prove anything to anyone, I just need to do me.
HB: Must’ve been hard for a chef like you to work in large scale kitchens, just pumping out food all day.
MS: Certain restaurants I worked in were big machines and my body and soul weren’t there for them. It wasn’t for me, so I left. Big restaurants play to their strengths and that’s fine. But some chefs I’ve come across in those type of environments put up a front, like “I’m so much better than this place”. Everyone has a choice to either stay, or leave. Don’t fight it, accept it.
HB: Apart from parting with those kind of high scale kitchens, is there anything else you’d refrain from?
MS: It bothers me tremendously when people put someone else’s idea on their menu. You can’t fucking do that, it’s annoying. I rack my brains thinking about so many details—multiple layers—when creating dishes. Someone worked hard to get to that, and you’re just copying it because it’s trendy and it sells.
HB: What if you call it a pastiche like most artists.
MS: Once I made a dish with sweet soy pork belly on oats. I was inspired by a dish at a renowned restaurant—maple pork jowl with savoury oats. I was like motherfucker this is good—sweet and savoury, the perfect combination. Someone accused me of it being to similar to the original. I was inspired, very open about it, and you clearly didn’t think before making that comment. Inspiration is taking notes and elaborating with your own technique. You’re telling me you never got inspired by a dish before? You should be happy.
HB: What would be the ideal kitchen environment for you?
MS: Leading a team in my own kitchen and creating new generations of chefs—a safe environment where cooks wouldn’t feel terrible for making mistakes in the kitchen. Mistakes make bones in this industry. You need to embrace the mistake, not yell at people. If they keep making the same mistake over and over, than there’s an issue. Looking back, there were so many things I experienced that didn’t need to happen the way they did.
HB: From darkness to light.
MS: Being a good cook or businessman doesn’t necessarily make you a respected leader. Passionate cooks are easily manipulated because they’re green and eager to please. I’d do everything asked of me because I just loved my job. You don’t realize it’s exploitative till much later. I’m a product of those insecurities, and much more confident thanks to them.
HB: That’s the sort of competition you don’t want.
MS: How I was treated—it’s not something I’d want to pass down. In my early 20s, I was arrogant because I was insecure. I wanted to surpass those who I thought were better than me. But there’s always a right way to go about it. Just treat people with respect, and be honest.
HB: I’m quite curious as to your mother’s experiences in the kitchen—especially way back when.
MS: She’s never spoken about it. I can’t even imagine what it was like working in hotel kitchens in her time, and how strong you’d have to be to get through that. She’s also a breast cancer survivor. My mom is a brave woman with tremendous restraint, and she raised us well.
HB: What a remarkable story.
MS: She knew what she needed to do in the end, and perhaps that’s where I get my laser focus from. What I’m going through now—this struggle—is part of the process to get me where I need to be. All I want in my career is to cook what I love cooking, and make my mom, family and friends proud. I never forget those people who’ve helped me along the way.
HB: What kind of food did she cook for you growing up ?
MS: Lasagne, chocolate cake, peach cheesecake… tons of cookies. She was always baking. She loved hosting, and always cooked for her friends, so there was always food.
HB: I’m sure you get lots of compliments from loved ones, but what about negative feedback. Do you take critique well?
MS: I’m never interested in the positives.
HB: We might be soulmates. But I might be a tad more cynical.
MS: Never ever satisfied.
HB: What’s really driving you then? Since you know nothing will suffice.
MS: Just being able to cook for people—to express who I am on a plate. It’s also a great feeling when you’re cooking with friends. I know now that when people look at my plates, they know it’s a Mark Singson plate. It feels good, but it’s not what I’m after.
HB: Your dishes looks stunning. And now that you’ve told me you’re constantly winging everything, I’m even more impressed.
MS: Flavour’s most important. Plating should never be something you spend too much time thinking about, it should come naturally. I love having that control of putting everything together. Some chefs try way too hard to make things look pretty for instagram.
HB: Talking about others, do you follow what they’re doing?
MS: I pay attention to what’s going on, but my focus is my food. It doesn’t feel right if I’m not doing something new, different or unexpected at any given time. And that scares a lot of people in this industry. We don’t grow because fresh ideas get shut down before they even have a chance to reach the consumer. We’re a small city—everyone should support one another, no matter what. Let ‘em be. Fucking support! It’s how cities become world class.
HB: Sounds like you’ve experienced shutdown firsthand.
MS: I remember the amount of shit people gave me on instagram. They used to make fun of my plating. Guess how they’re plating now? Don’t rip on something and then end up putting it on your menu. You’ll eat your words.
HB: And what was your response?
MS: Nothing. Just noise. You’ve never seen shit like mine and now you’re upset about it. It’s a small circle and word gets around. But that shit never bothered me, I got a thick skin for people’s bullshit.
HB: Garnering more prominence, you must get your share of sycophants too.
MS: Some people think they can just come in, snap some photos, and get a free meal. You know who I give free meals to? My friends in the industry. That’s all that matters to me. All chefs want a strong media presence. But can you admit that you want that? I can. In fact, it’s a skill every chef should have. If I properly understood how social media functioned, I’d take over the world! [chuckles] But I don’t have that. I’m willing to learn though.
HB: What’s your prediction for all this then?
MS: It’s going to die. Sure, next couple of years, capitalize on it. But at this point everyone’s an influencer. Everyone can buy followers. There’s a new catering company in town, they have 4 posts and more than 8000 likes. It’s stunning. What I like about my feed is that it’s raw—no gimmicks. I just want to be quick. It’s always some random fucking angle and I like it.
HB: Whenever I speak with friends in the industry, there seems to be this consensus on how we lack a real sense of solidarity in the industry. Do you also feel like everyone’s just fending for themselves?
MS: It’s a cliquey city and it’s fucking annoying. The old dogs need to let go for the city to evolve, but they just don’t. It’s an expensive city and it’s all about the money. There’s so much new shit—raw talent—we should be focusing on. There’s so many cooks here who don’t get the exposure they deserve. But I feel the change coming. It’s around the corner.
HB: You’re more hopeful than most, and I’m in total agreement with you.
MS: I love and hate this city. We’re young, but things are still too much of a trend. Coffee… coffee shouldn’t be a trend. You shouldn’t feel the need to play dress up to get a cup of fucking coffee. Bread here is a trend, it’s not a part of everyday life. We don’t have that on our side, and I feel like the East coast does.
HB: I’d asked Chef Deniz Tarakcioglu the same question and he was unexpectedly hopeful regarding Vancouver’s food future. He was talking about how the new ways of eating—light, healthy and Asian inspired—overlapped with what we’ve been doing for years.
MS: I agree with Deniz. Any restaurant here could be 100% seasonal with the climate we’ve got. But I feel the customers are the ones who aren’t ready for it. My friends who left and never came back—they don’t see the potential Deniz and I see. I’m still here and I see that potential. It’s so humbling to feel the support of so many people, especially now with the show and all. I’m forever thankful. I’ll keep building the foundation, and when it all blows up, hopefully I’ll be right in the middle of it all.