On The Pass: Damian D'Silva Of Folklore
Damian D’Silva is a name synonymous with Singapore heritage food. Having spent the last 20 years plumbing his childhood memories to recreate dishes that have long disappeared from local tables, the lanky 63-year-old has come to be regarded as a treasured keeper of time-honoured recipes. Folklore, the restaurant he has helmed since 2017, is his most successful venture yet. Not only has it garnered plenty of buzz for its stellar food, it has also thrust him into the spotlight, earning him a place on the judging panel of MasterChef Singapore. Yet, when asked about his achievements, D’Silva would say that he hasn’t achieved much at all.
That’s because despite the praise and cabal of loyal fans, D’Silva hasn’t garnered the industry recognition he knows he deserves. In the last year, he has taken time out for “eating holidays”, travelling to the likes of Japan to understand how a restaurant garners those all-important stars or the mantle of one of the world’s best. All too often, he says, the most feted of restaurants failed to live up to their hype. “They’re just okay, you know?” he says pensively.
I come away from them thinking, ‘if they can do it, I can do it too’. I just have to find the right partners.
It’s a refreshingly candid statement from a man whose biography, published in 2012 by the now defunct Ate Ideas (and, in full disclosure, edited by this writer) was titled Rebel With A Course. D’Silva’s public persona had always been that of the devil-may-care chef, more concerned with what he felt like cooking on any given day than what his guests had come for.
“I know now that working for myself is the worst thing I can do,” he admits. “Because you can’t be good at everything. I’m good in the kitchen and cooking. I know I do that very well. But in the past, my restaurants were too much about me and not enough about what people wanted,” he says of his previous ventures like casual restaurant Soul Kitchen and his hawker stalls in Bedok and Holland Grove.
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This is the last mile I’m going to run, and it’s not a marathon. It’s a hundred-metre sprint. But at this age, if I run too hard, I might die!
BEYOND THE PLATE
Today, D’Silva understands that he needs to take his food to a higher level by focusing on the dining experience. “The food would not be any different, but the service has to come first. Because when a guest comes in, it’s how they’re treated, seated and served. You get all that right, then the customer is at ease and you’ve set the stage for the food. If I have good service and the right ambience, then my restaurant would be at a different level. Can it be done? Yes. But not here,” he says gesturing at the tile-lined dining room that is Folklore, located past the busy lobby of Destination Hotel.
The ambience is casual, the crowd a mixed bag of families and young professionals, the service unpolished though earnest. As popular as it has been since it opened, Folklore simply doesn’t harbour the right profile for a spot in the Michelin Guide or on the World’s 50 Best list. For that, as D’Silva said, he needs the right partners, people who share his passion and are willing to spend the kind of money needed to propel him into the industry big leagues. Not that he’s short on offers—at this point, he’s mulling them over. At 63, D’Silva is acutely attuned to what he needs to do to achieve his goals. Or perhaps, at 63, he has finally realised what his career goal is.
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I know now that working for myself is the worst thing I can do. Because you can’t be good at everything.
“I’m smarter now. This is the last mile I’m going to run, and it’s not a marathon. It’s a hundred-metre sprint. But at this age, if I run too hard, I might die!” he jokes, letting out a hearty laugh. “So, I want to make sure that whoever I go into business with next are the right people. And if they look after me and everything works out, and I get the accolades that I want, then good for all of us. If someone appreciates me, I’m going to appreciate them as well.”
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BACK TO THE TABLE
Until then, he will continue to serve his unique brand of heritage food culled from his childhood memories. The dishes include many that Singaporeans have yet to try. Dishes made with seldom-used ingredients like threadfin belly and the leaves of the long bean plant, as well as the immensely tasty yet humble dishes that his grandparents used to cook for him as a schoolboy.
“I can’t keep putting out a new menu every few months because there are certain dishes that people expect and come back for. Dishes like these will be served as specials to my regulars who are a bit braver, who are willing to try new things,” he explains.
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Certainly, the likes of Peranakan yong tau fu (essentially yong tau fu ingredients cooked in a laksa soup base) and prawns fried with onions, sambal belacan and eggs are not new. But they are dishes that have all but disappeared from the home and restaurant menu.
As ever, it is D’Silva’s mission to show that our repertoire of heritage eats is deep, wide and practically endless. A mission that alone deserves more than a few accolades.
- Photography Allen Tan, BAM Visuals