Interview
Chef Adam Penney

The mastermind behind Asia’s best burger joint breaks down the inspiration for Three Buns at its new Quayside location in Singapore

 

Chef Adam Penney has worked in some of London’s most fashionable restaurants, including Chinawhite and The Lonsdale. But in 2012, an opportunity arose to work with a fledgeling London burger joint called Patty & Bun, and his burger adventure began in earnest. His skills caught the interest of our own Ronald Akili, who quickly asked Adam to join the team heading up the Three Buns Jakarta—the gourmet burger joint included in our extended family. On the heels of opening the first standalone location in Singapore, Chef Adam tells us about the inspiration and plans for the future of his “badass burgers.” 

You’re a very accomplished chef. How did you end up focusing on burgers?

At a street food event in London back in 2012, I bumped into a chef I knew called Mark Jankel who used to work around the corner from me in Notting Hill. He told me he was helping to set up and open a burger restaurant and he thought I’d be a good fit. So I met with him and Patty & Bun founder Joe Grossman a couple of days later. I knew Mark’s food was always tasty and fresh and that he had a great ethos—and Joe had this amazing, almost lunatic energy and passion for burgers and a vision for P&B to be the very best it could be. Mark and Joe had already worked on recipes for most of the core menu items and when I first tried the burgers they’d devised, I was like “fuck, this is next level shit!”

 

While Mark’s role in P&B was that of a consultant, I became P&B’s head chef and the year I spent working with them, I developed quite a few recipes and tweaked some of the in-house recipes, working closely with Joe and the team in the kitchen. We got to play with some great products, and I got to think of the different ingredient combinations that could be used to make really great burgers.

Would it be fair to say that working at Patty & Bun changed your life?

Working with Joe definitely rekindled a childhood love that I had for burgers. I had had a few hamburgers on my own menus in the past but always as a staple menu item rather than the stars of the show. P&B was a restaurant just focusing on burgers and I think what inspired me most was the different flavour profiles and textures which could be put into a burger to make a really exceptional sandwich. I already had close to 20 years kitchen experience at that time, working with quite a few different cuisines—modern British, Asian, French, Spanish, Italian, Korean, Japanese and Indian. I have always been a fan of punchy flavours and so I guess Joe and Mark really opened my eyes to the idea that burgers are a great medium for delivering great flavour combinations.

How did your move to Indonesia come about?

Towards the end of 2013, I received an email from an old friend, Dre Masso, who I had worked with at The Lonsdale about eight years previously. I was working in London at P&B at the time. Dre asked how I was doing and explained that Potato Head was working on a burger concept and had tried out a few chefs but just wasn’t feeling them. Dre knew what my cooking style was like and had been keeping an eye on P&B. He asked if I fancied making a trip out to Jakarta to cook some burgers.

 

So, two days after my 40th birthday, I flew to Jakarta and spent a couple of days sourcing ingredients and making the components for a small tasting menu. To be honest, I just thought it would be nice to get out of London for a few days and see another country and city. I never imagined that the directors of Potato Head would be so blown away by what I presented to them. After the tasting, Potato Head founder Ronald Akili sat me down and asked me to consider coming out on a permanent basis to take the reins at the Three Buns burger concept he was looking to launch.

 

After a few weeks of thought and conversations with the guys I was working with in London, I packed up all my stuff and, on the 13th January 2014, I flew out to Jakarta.

Potato Head has its own restaurants, but Three Buns is a separate concept?

That’s right. Although I oversee the kitchen of Potato Head Singapore, I came over to look after Three Buns. The main difference is that Potato Head’s food is quite an eclectic mix of dishes, depending which restaurant you are at. For example, between Jakarta and Bali: Jakarta is brassiere-style farm-to-fork while the beach club in Bali has the same ethos but is more pan-Asian, comfort food-inspired.

 

Three Buns is a burger and cocktail restaurant in Jakarta and now Singapore (we used to serve the burgers inside Potato Head prior to opening at Quayside). The food is classic style burgers and comfort food, but we put our own twist on everything we do—we use quite a lot of Asian ingredients where we can: miso, gochujang, and gula malaka, a local coconut palm sugar. And we make as much in-house as possible which enables us to control the costs, flavours and ingredients we use.

 

I want Three Buns to be synonymous with great tasty food, shakes, cocktails and drinks—a place where guests can chill out, lose themselves for a bit, eat great food and listen to a soundtrack of old-school hip-hop and soul tracks.

Tell us about the Three Buns menu…

Our menu runs with about 12 different burgers, hot dogs, a couple of rice bowls and all are cheekily named after musical artists. We have a chili cheeseburger as a fried rice dish, called Burning Rice, which is the rice version of our Burning Man burger.

 

Our classic burger is the Baby Huey, which is our ode to P&B’s Ari Gold, but we have added a few extra ingredients to the base condiments. Our ketchup—which I played around with for a couple of years—is based on the components of Heinz’s but we add a gula malaka syrup that we make, along with clove, anise, black pepper, cocoa nibs, nori and gochujang, to give it a bit more of a punch. Slightly beefed up smokey mayo, patty, cheese and bun.

 

The Smokin’ B-Boy is our bacon cheeseburger. We get Dingley Dell bacon specially cured for us and sent over from the UK, smoked Applewood cheese, BBQ ketchup, smokey mayo, and bawang goreng (local fried shallot).

 

One of our locally inspired flavours is a salted egg mayo with a crab patty, called Big Krabby Kane. Sides are all moreish dishes and our best seller is Naughty Fries, which was originally a romantic idea of making an a la minute beef chili using patties that are charred and crushed on the grill and adding a little of our hot sauce and a pinch of cocoa powder. The idea was that this would be poured over fried spoon-shaped potatoes, with a gochujang béarnaise sauce, pickled chili, scallions and a scattering of the Bawang Goreng. However, it’s so popular we go through around 50kg of beef chili a week!

What new burger ideas are you working on at the moment?

Now there’s a question. At the new Three Buns restaurant at Quayside, we have added a few new items to the menu; one is called Bun DMC, and it goes back to the flavours I remember as a child.

 

The bar is using a lot of watermelons, so we take the rind, salt it overnight with jalapeño, red and yellow peppers and onion, then cook it down with some turmeric, nutmeg, sugar, rice vinegar and a mustard seed relish we make, to make like an old-fashioned burger relish. That’s served with a charred patty, which has a spot of onion puree, (which we pressure cook with butter and anise) cheese, ketchup and then our take on a thousand island dressing, we make a caraway seed mayo, add some house ketchup & a little Sriracha, to get this wonderful cheeseburger, creamy mayo, sweet tangy relish and again some fried shallots, for a slight crunch.

 

We are also playing around as a secret menu item, a rendang burger called Redman. We start with making a rendang base, with lots of spices, chili, toasted coconut, turmeric leaf and gula malaka, cooked down slow and low for around six hours, that is getting smothered over a beef cheek, then cooked for 24 hours in a water bath, soft and gelatinous. A real labour of love. That’s served with a coconut demi brioche bun—we removed the butter and add coconut oil, coconut aioli, pickled mooli, cucumber, scallions and red chili pickle.

 

I’ve really gotten into dry brines also at the moment, so most of our chicken is being brined in salt, sugar, chili, Szechuan pepper, black pepper, basil, oregano, garlic and onion powder, and a few herbs. We brine for an hour or so, then cook legs and wings in the water bath for around 90 minutes, the flavours and texture are great, almost like a dry confit.

 

I am also hoping to do something with Impossible Foods early next year, some sort of Three Buns-style Impossible Burger. Watch this space!

Three Buns Quayside is now open for dinner and weekend brunch, visit the site for more information or to book a table in Singapore or Jakarta.