There was nothing small about the recent all-star collaboration between Singapore pizzeria Small’s and one of Manila’s ascendant Italian restaurant A Mano.
But if anything, the sexy one-off collaboration—which is part of this year’s Asian Culinary Exchange and Singapore Tourism Board partnership called Serve It, Singapore, which brings the city-state’s cuisine to more Filipinos—highlights how big disruptive ideas can spring from something as minuscule as a group chat.
“Both teams created a WhatsApp group chat and we started brainstorming ideas,” reveals Small’s chef Bjorn Shen. “We looked at each other’s social media photos to see what the other was doing lately and we started to build a menu around that.”
It didn’t matter that the start of their collaboration stemmed from a group chat. What’s insightful here is that both camps managed to channel each other’s strengths into a single cohesive output.
“I think that the best collabs come about when two brands have their own established styles and they bring 100 percent of their personalities to the fore,” says Bjorn Shen. “The cuisine mashups don’t matter that much. Anything can be massaged to work.”
“I think that the best collabs come about when two brands have their own established styles and they bring 100 percent of their personalities to the fore,” says Shen. “The cuisine mashups don’t matter that much. Anything can be massaged to work.” And massage they did.
Small’s goes big with A Mano’s dough
Using this familiar communication tool as the starting point for a cross-cultural collaboration paid off. “I knew that we would definitely use A Mano’s pizza dough rather than try to recreate Small’s dough in Manila, as A Mano’s pizza dough is tried, tested, and proven,” Shen shares. Upon learning the hydration and salt percentage of the dough, Shen proceeded to “choose toppings that would complement the dough” the way he only seems to do so.
Shen’s choices draw on influences from his 16-year culinary journey from Australia and Denmark to Indonesia and India, underpinning the diasporic importance in a chef’s career.
From a fun Pizza Bianca with torched flounder fin ridiculously topped with grated ankimo (monkfish liver) to a deep fried pizza dough stuffed to the brim with complex flavors from the stracciatella, zucchini, shiso, and seared iwashi (sardines) and even the seemingly simple boat-shaped Turkish pide filled with garlic, clams, chicharon, and juicy yellow tomatoes, everything on this concise body of work is a banger.
There’s something here from every aspect of Shen’s life cycle as a chef; the pizzas creep into a progression of flavor profiles—the subtlety of the Pizza Bianca paved the way for the Montanara’s squishy and squelchy mouthfeel (thanks to the deep fried dough that should be an A Mano mainstay) before ending with an explosion of flavors that pay homage to his Middle Eastern eatery Artichoke.
It’s easy to see why Shen has received all the accolades he’s had: He doesn’t want to be boxed in by limitations.
“All three dishes I did were things that I’m currently doing or that I’ve done in the past,” says Shen. “Because this is an overseas collab, I thought it would be best to bring along with me dishes that best represented my branding, and that the audience might relate to because they’ve seen it on our social media platforms previously.”
It’s also clear that there is a wild quality to how Shen plays by his own rules and revels in the vivid, the offbeat, and the complex. This is evidenced by the fact that his four-seater (yes, you read that right) pizzeria inside Artichoke was thoughtfully created to encourage experimental ideas and foster boundless culinary alchemy.
It’s also clear that there is a wild quality to how Bjorn Shen of Small’s plays by his own rules and revels in the vivid, the offbeat, and the complex.
“Ever since I was young, I was always doing things differently, and that shows in how I approach food,” says Bjorn. “Singapore has always been a place that embraces new ideas and celebrates creativity, which is the reason why I think the work we’ve been doing at Small’s has been received as well as it has.”
Italian hands at work
For their part, A Mano’s heady doughs, chef Jonathan Redoblado’s deft hands, and Amado Forés’ playful attitude and vision for this collaboration noticeably charged the omakase experience with a replenishing la vita è bella energy.
Coming from their Top 15 finish on the 50 Top Pizza list in Asia-Pacific this year proved that Forés’ guiding principle for his restaurant left a lot more room for imaginative Italian executions. Nearly everything they dropped on this collaboration was a vehicle to get this message across.
The uni arancini with nori and ikura was inoffensively rich while the Florentine beef tartare played off the citrusy flavors of the ponzu and yuzu pearls and the chewiness of the crisp rice. But A Mano was at its best in the lobster and corn ravioli, a standout in its creaminess, freshness, and frothiness and, when paired with a French 2021 Francois Lurton Les Salices chardonnay, transforms into a bona fide star.
“Singapore has always been a hotbed for culinary creativity,” says Forés, who in a press release admitted his excitement to work with Bjorn “to serve Filipinos a special meal that bridges our diverse approaches to the art and craft of cooking.”
Shen meanwhile was nothing but appreciative about working with Forés and the A Mano team. “The entire team was fantastic but I got to meet Amado finally. I’ve followed him on Instagram for years now, and have always been a fan of his gastronomic travels.”
“Singapore has always been a hotbed for culinary creativity,” says Amado Forés, who in a press release admitted his excitement to work with Bjorn “to serve Filipinos a special meal that bridges our diverse approaches to the art and craft of cooking.”
And perhaps rightfully so given that creative collaborations these days are vehicles for even more promising potential for the culinary community.
“You don’t have to think so hard about it. It’s not going to cause any permanent damage even if it doesn’t work out 100 percent the way you envision it,” says Shen when asked about how to go about collaborations.
“Do it to expand your culinary horizon and add to your experience bank. These things are what make you a better cook in the long run.”