Shrimp Po'Boy, Granddad's Cough Medicine and Muffuleta Salad at The Bird Southern Table & BarJohn Kunkel, The Bird Southern Table & Bar

10 QUESTIONS WITH JOHN KUNKEL, THE BIRD SOUTHERN TABLE & BAR

He’s no stranger to the dining scene: Kunkel is the brainchild of 50 Eggs, the James Beard Award-nominated restaurant group behind Yardbird. And its Singapore offshoot, The Bird Southern Table & Bar, churns out more of the same Southern cuisine within Marina Bay Sands, but with clever twists. Think buttermilk biscuits alongside Shrimp Po’ Boy and Jambalaya, the latter reminiscent of paella. But the restaurant’s cocktail programme – with its emphasis on Kentucky Whiskey – is also one of the restaurant’s crowning glories, as Kunkel shares.
John Kunkel, The Bird Southern Table & Bar

John Kunkel is the face behind 50 Eggs restaurant group's The Bird Southern Table & Bar

Many Singaporean diners aren’t entirely familiar with Southern food. How do you think The Bird reflects diners’ tastes here?
Southern food is confusing to a lot of folks, but it’s just very relatable American food. And it’s everything – it’s burgers and fish and chicken and vegetables. We have a very broad canvas to deal with unlike, say, Italian food, which has such specific flavours. We’ve made lots of changes since we first opened in 2017 – introduced new menu items, listened to our customers, whether it’s certain flavour profiles or the use of seasoning.

Is there a specific dish you could tell us more about?
One of the first ones we introduced was the crab cake, which comes from a very coastal area of Southern US. Everyone has a great version of it. It’s certainly something within our cuisine that we know well. But putting it on a beautiful black pepper sauce – that gave it a local taste.

The Bird's take on crab cake comes with black pepper sauce and cold-pressed pickles

The Bird's Crab Cake ($23++) comes with black pepper sauce and cold-pressed pickles

You’ve said in past interviews that Southern cuisine is comfort food that brings friends and family together.
Comfort food means different things to different people. I’m sure many Singaporeans look at chicken rice as comfort food. For us, Southern food is make-you-feel-good food: familiar, approachable flavours that allow you to enjoy your dining experience. A lot of Singaporeans might not be familiar with American, Southern-style food, but I think they’ll recognise the flavours and quality of ingredients, and the care that goes into making them.

America’s typically viewed as a ‘fast food nation’ – think cheap and quick meals with little nutritional value. How have you elevated Southern food beyond that idea? 
Fast food in America’s become a convenience of using frozen products and pre-prepared items, but we’re really the opposite of fast food. There’s nothing fast about it. Every ingredient and dish is made from scratch and prepared with love using the best ingredients. While America is known as a ‘fast food nation’, it’s also known for its amazing chefs and restaurants. And hopefully we’re one of those.

Singapore’s a city obsessed with good food, but also ‘fad food’ like rainbow cakes and unicorn-themed foods. Having exported the flavours and rich heritage of Southern cuisine here, what do you think is the formula to keeping diners coming back? 
I don’t have anything unicorn [laughs]. But we have some pretty Instagrammable dishes. We always think about plating in our restaurants. With each plate of food, before every bite, we want you to have a ‘wow’ [moment] – we want you to pull out your phone. But we want you to be even happier when you take a bite.

The Bird Southern Table & Bar's take on Shrimp Po'Boy

The Shrimp Po'Boy ($26++) features a baguette dressed with crispy fried shrimp, house pickles, spicy remoulade, shaved lettuce and tomato

Let’s talk about dishes at The Bird. What prompted you to come up with a vegetarian menu? 
Southern food’s very much about vegetables, whether canned or pickled or harvested while in season. Growing up, my grandparents had a garden in the backyard, as did most Southern families. Like all good cuisines, American Southern food relies on the ingredients that are close to you and freshest. We have vegetarian and gluten-free menus because that’s the way people eat now, and we’re here to serve others and make people happy. We opened [a Yardbird restaurant] in Los Angeles about a month ago, and there’s seafood on the menu – and salads. We shop for local vegetables from the farmer’s market. We always want our restaurants to reflect our customers’ taste and what ingredients are close by.

What about the Muffuletta Salad? 
That’s very similar to Italian-style chopped salad, but it originated in New Orleans. It’s packed with great cured meats like salami and prosciutto and mortadella, mozzarella and parmesan cheese, and a broken olive vinegarette. I can eat spoonfuls of [the dressing], it’s so good. There’s this one store in New Orleans that’s been around since 1906 and is famed for its Muffuletta Sandwich. We took inspiration from that to make our salad.

The Jambalaya is a 'fun, rice-based dish' from Louisiana in the Southern US.

The Bird's take on Jamabalaya ($46++) comprises spiced rice, scallops, head-on prawns, mussels, spicy andouille sausage, gumbo sauce made using lobster stock simmered for two days

Going back to the rest of the menu – the Jambalaya has a lot of heritage behind it.
Jambalaya’s big in Louisiana – a fun, rice-based dish that I think people would like here. It’s a dish that’s really left up to the chef. One of my favourite places in the US is New Orleans, where you can have Jambalaya in six different places, and they’ll taste six different ways because the dish carries African, French and Creole influences. It’s about how you layer flavours, make your sauce and your roux [and] how you cook the vegetables. But we always add our twists to everything. Our recipe’s different than anything else you’ll find.

Tell us more about The Bird’s cocktail programme.
That’s always been one of the best things about the restaurant. We put a lot of thought into them and highlight whiskey at the restaurant here. You could have your Kentucky whiskey in an Old Fashioned, which is a classic way to have it. It’s smoky and a little sweet, and goes perfectly with a good cut of beef. The Blackberry Bourbon Lemonade’s very approachable and easy to drink. It’s sweet and flavourful and has cardamom and great herbs in there. It’s a great start to a meal – a great pairing with fried chicken, for example.

And do you see yourself reinventing the menu in the near future?
We’re working on a new menu now, as a matter of fact. Probably rolling it out in the next couple months. We’ve done a couple dishes in our new outlet in Los Angeles, and there are a couple dishes I wanna try here. We did this beautiful black-eyed pea hummus, Southern-style. A lot of times I’ll develop a recipe with my chefs in LA, and if we love it we’ll bring it here – and likewise, dishes created here will be used there, too. We’re always sharing stuff, but I can’t tell you yet. You’ll have to come back and see!

The Bird Southern Table & Bar is at L1-82 and B1-07 of The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands. For menus and more details, click here. 

The Muffuletta Salad ($18++) is built with romaine & radicchio, green olives, red peppers, cheeses and cured meats
Jambalaya