With a culinary career spanning two decades and several continents, Chef Shawn Armstrong brings an unusual blend of taste experiences to his role as Executive Chef of Montage Deer Valley. He is well known for his award-winning cuisine that combines diverse taste combinations developed over many years at high-profile venues, such as Hong Kong’s Oyster & Wine Bar, Singapore’s Cliff Restaurant at the Sentosa Resort and Spa, the Maldives Coral Reef Resort, and the Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas.
While in Singapore, Chef Armstrong was named Global Chef of the Year by Singapore’s premiere culinary academy, the At-sunrice. He also earned a Three-Chef-Hat rating for Cliff, his restaurant that became of the top five in Singapore, as well as recognition as New Restaurant of the Year by World Gourmet Summit. He is an impassioned chef, whose understandings of how to create unique food combinations reflect his home roots and his travels abroad. We recently spoke with him at the Montage Deer Valley in Utah.
Pursuitist: When did you first start to cook? Was it out of interest or necessity?
Chef Armstrong: I come from the area around Houston, Texas, so I do remember going into the kitchen and working in the kitchen with my parents and grandparents early on. We did basic Texas fare – a lot of smoked meats and barbecuing. I do remember once when I was in my teens and we were making some holiday dinner and for a time, I was the only male in the kitchen. My other family members were in the living room watching sports on TV. My grandparents were great cooks, and they were the first to really teach me what goes on in the kitchen.
Pursuitist: When did you become really interested in the culinary arts?
Chef Armstrong: I became really interested in food and restaurant management in my late teens and early 20’s. I am a graduate of the School of Culinary Arts, which is part of the Art Institute of Houston, and I learned a lot about different cooking techniques there. However when I went to Singapore, and was named Global Chef Of The Year by the At-Sunrice Culinary Academy in Singapore, I was honored, and knew then this discipline would be my life’s work. Those tastes, food preparations, and even ingredients of the Far East are so different from those I grew up with. I snet 6 years in Singapore, and each day I learned something new.
Pursuitist: We saw in another interview that the most unusual thing you ate while over in the Far East were Duck Tongues. WHAT did they taste like?
Chef Armstrong: Well, those tongues came from a Singapore food cart, and they were marinated in soy sauce and garlic. They were a little rubbery, but they tasted like the marinade, so I really couldn’t tell any more than that.
Pursuitist: This brings up another question that deals with the adventurous palate. Could you explain your view of consumer taste differences in creating culinary dishes in Singapore and Japan vs. those in the U.S.? Which of these countries do you think accepts more experimental dishes and tastes?
Chef Armstrong: It really depends on where you live and what you are used to. In Singapore, Hong Kong and certainly in other areas in the Far East, people have a very adventurous palate as they are used to eating parts of animals and fish we in the U.S. just are not! But on the bright side, many in the U.S. are being introduced to adventurous eating through Sushi. At Yama Sushi, one of our four dining venues here at the Montage Deer Valley, we combine unique ingredients in our custom rolls: one of my favorites is the West Of The Mines that combines soft shell crab, avocado, mango, blackened albacore, Serrano chili, cilantro and Unagi (eel) sauce. The thing is, though, here at the Montage, some guests love adventurous food, while others just like a burger and fries. Since we are responsible for four dining venues, if there is one thing we must be in the kitchen, it is flexible!
Pursuitist: The culinary standards at the Montage are very high, and one of the emerging trends in all culinary arts is the movement toward slow food and greater food authenticity – no artifice, only farm to table. How has that shown itself at Montage?
Chef Armstrong: Local food sourcing is very important to me, so when we can, we use local vegetable farms, fish/trout and animal farms to source only the best products possible. We also get our cheese and honey locally, so we are assured of freshness as well as authenticity. At Apex, our menu is quite varied, but our ingredients are from this area or from surrounding states. The peas from the Sweet Pea soup are all sourced from local farms. The Steelhead are from Idaho or Washington State. Our garnish and vegetables come from locally sourced farms.
Pursuitist: Is there one necessary implement you really need, or insist on having that you learned on or about very early that you still use now?
Chef Armstrong: Yes! The Texas Smoker. Even in Singapore, I had one of those. But when I worked as Executive Chef at the Maldives Coral Reef Resort years ago – it was such a beautiful place, and the fish was the freshest and some of the best I ever tasted, but you know what I truly missed? The Texas Smoker. It is a cooking implement that is really part of my DNA.
Pursuitist: What character traits, or personality traits does it take to make a great Chef?
Chef Armstrong: Well, you have to be great at multi-tasking, you must be patient, and be creative. And keep your temper in check. You must also know what things taste like before you make them into dishes that guests will like.
Pursuitist: This moves into the issue of taste memory. Great chefs usually have this, remembering the taste of the various ingredients before you create the dish, so that you will know what the dish tastes like before your create it.
Chef Armstrong: Yes, I have it – I think I always had it, but taste memory is expanded by a lot of education and travel also. My taste memory has been enhanced by the travels and living in the Far East, but my Texas DNA is still alive and well with barbecue and smoking meat.
Pursuitist: We wanted to ask you two personal questions: If you had not been a Chef, what would you have done with your life?
Chef Armstrong: I would have been a Fireman, like my father.
Pursuitist: If you arose in the middle of the night and you were hungry, what would you go out into your kitchen and prepare — for yourself only?
Chef Armstrong: Well, I would make something very simple. Probably something Tex-Mex – tortillas, beans, chorizo. No matter where I have gone and what I have done, I still love the tastes of Texas and the Southwest.