About two weeks ago, I received an invitation to a unique dining experience at The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore, and was promised a surprise at the end of the meal. Thinking that a celebrity encounter awaited, I accepted.
It was a lovely four-course dinner prepared by executive chef Massimo Pasquarelli, comprising:
- Appetiser: Chilled angel hair pasta and vegetable caviar, lime marinated shrimp deluxe, tomato confit, dashi broth jelly
- Soup: Cream of topinambur, smoked foie gras, red wine poached pear, pistachio crumble
- Entree: Baked Scottish salmon, herbs pesto mousseline, sauteed beetroot gnocchi, sweet and sour sauce
- Dessert: Valrhona chocolate banana cake served with Madgascar vanilla ice cream
Guests were cautioned that they would be filmed and photographed during the course of the meal, and asked to sign a release form before dinner commenced.
While waiting for the food to be served, I noticed that the waitstaff had set the table with a curious set of fork and knife – the fork had a middle prong missing and the knife had a chunk missing from its blade. At the end of a very trying first course (if you’ve tried twirling pasta with a gaping, two-pronged fork, you’ll know what I mean), I decided that something was suspicious – and my suspicions were confirmed when the soup was served with a spoon that had a cleft.
After a lovely dessert of Valrhona chocolate banana cake – The Ritz-Carlton’s signature Mother’s Day cake sold every year in partnership with Smile Asia Week – the big reveal was uncurtained.
Two junior art directors from McCann Health, Ms Emily Mok and Ms Tan Yuan Ling, were revealed to be the brains behind the novelty silverware specially designed to raise awareness for Smile Asia, a Singapore-founded alliance of global charities which organises medical missions to treat facial deformities for the less-privileged all across Asia.
The idea, explained Ms Tan and Ms Mok, was hatched in the office pantry while brainstorming an idea to submit for the Young Spikes Integrated competition in 2016. They had just joined the company as junior designers after completing their internship. The Young Spikes competition is part of Spikes Asia Awards, an annual accolade for excellence in creative communications in the Asia Pacific region. That year, Smile Asia was the non-government organisation which handed out the creative brief for the competition.
While the girls had never interacted with patients who were born with cleft lips and palates, they said that they tried to imagine how to present the difficulties they faced in a way that was relatable to a lay audience. And so The Cleft Collection was born.
They then approached Smile Asia and The Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore to implement the idea at a dinner just before Smile Asia Week, which falls between May 7 and 13 this year. It took the team two months to prepare for the event. They engaged an ironsmith to help them make modifications to 30 sets of silverware.
“Chef (Massimo Pasquarelli) was very supportive of our idea, and even proposed menu items which he knew would be difficult to eat with the specially-modified cutlery,” Ms Mok told Alvinology.com.
Indeed, diners including myself struggled with the meal as soup dripped from our deliberately defective spoons even before they reached our mouths, and as spears of asparagus rolled away from our two-pronged forks.
Ms Mok and Ms Tan were initially apprehensive about executing their idea for the first time, as they expected irate diners to demand a normal set of silverware to eat their dinner with. “We peeped in(to the dining room) every once in a while. But thankfully the response has been good,” said Ms Mok.
You can see it for yourself in this video which was shared on the Smile Asia Facebook page:
More than 100,000 children across Asia are born every year with cleft lip and/or cleft palate and do not have access to plastic surgery and treatment that will change their lives for the better. While these genetic deformities are not immediately life-threatening, such patients will experience difficulties in feeding and forming speech if their cleft goes uncorrected. While the procedure is generally inexpensive and easily accessible in advanced nations like Singapore, it is not the case for many developing markets. This is why Smile Asia organises overseas missions to deliver care to children with cleft lip, cleft palate and other facial deformities.
Although dining with The Cleft Collection is not, by any means, an accurate reflection of how eating is like if one were a cleft patient, cleft patients do need to take extra care when eating and swallowing their food because it could dribble out of their mouths or trickle down their airways instead.
Smile Asia has since purchased all 30 sets of silverware with the intention of working out a campaign that will raise awareness for the plight of these children, said Mr Abhimanyu Talukdar, co-founder and secretary-general of Smile Asia.
“For you, it’s just one meal. You will find ways around to make the silverware work for you. But for cleft lip and cleft palate patients, it’s a lifetime,” said Dr Vincent Yeow, co-founder and vice chairman of Smile Asia.
With the Mother’s Day cakes practically selling themselves out this year for the fifth year in a row, let’s hope that Smile Asia’s next fundraising campaign will be just as soup-er.