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OUT AND ABOUT: Chefs Holland (left) and Lewis have found that there is much that can be foraged in Singapore, such as yellow stem figs, weaver ants, and butterfly pea. Noni fruit abounds too.
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Yellow stem figs.
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Weaver ants.
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Butterfly pea.
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Noni fruit.

Foraging for a good meal

Two Australian chefs are putting together a five-course menu using wild produce gathered around Singapore.
Sep 24, 2016 5:50 AM

TELL someone that they can forage for their own food in Singapore, and they are most likely to give you a bewildered look.

But two Australians - chef and master forager Elijah Holland and Tin Hill Social's executive chef, Michael Lewis - are doing just that.

For three nights, the two are putting together a five-course menu using produce gathered within a 51-kilometre radius of the restaurant - essentially the whole of Singapore and the outlying islands, such as St John's. The menu will also feature ingredients procured from local crocodile, quail and vegetable farms.

Surprisingly, there is much that can be foraged, such as pepperomia, lavender sorrel, Chinese violets, creeping cucumbers, and even weaver ants.

In Singapore, plucking flowers and leaves from public parks and nature reserves is not allowed, but the duo have found areas, such as the open fields behind Horse City and St James' Church Kindergarten at Dempsey, that are full of wild plants.

"My friends told me I wouldn't be able to forage for anything in Singapore," says chef Holland. "But I have proven them wrong."

The 24-year-old has been cooking since he was 13, and has worked alongside some of Sydney's top chefs including Peter Gilmore of Quay and Matt Stone of Oakridge Winery. He worked his way up to sous chef while under chef Alfonso Alés at Relais & Chateaux member Jonah's on Whale Beach. It was also at Jonah's that he met Mr Lewis.

Chef Holland is the owner of Nature's Pick, an Australian supplier of local and foraged produce from the Sydney region to some of the city's best restaurants, including Est and the award-winning Bentley.

His biggest stint to date is as head forager for Noma when the restaurant held a 10-week pop-up stint in Sydney earlier this year. He did such a good job that Noma's Rene Redzepi invited him to work at Noma Australia.

Still high from that stint, he says that "it was amazing to work with Rene, and he treats everyone, including me with respect".

Chef Holland not only travelled to the Blue and Snowy Mountains and up and down the coast to gather herbs, seaweeds, plants and fruits, he was also part of the team that created the menu.

"It was fun, showing Rene how he should be handling certain plants, and he thought some of my ideas were great," says the chef.

He says he became more serious about foraging about four years ago, when he realised that the ingredients that he was using could be found in the wild. But he's no novice about which plants are edible and which are not: as a child of botanist parents, permaculture and horticulture were part of his day to day.

"I've not had anything that I shouldn't be eating," he says.

An easy way to find out if anything's poisonous, he expounds, is to rub it on the forearm.

"If there's a rash, you don't want to be eating that."

At his former restaurant called The Powder Keg, he managed to keep food costs low as 40 per cent of the food was foraged. He resigned from the restaurant after he joined the Noma Australia team.

Chef Holland regularly holds pop-up events featuring foraged food across Australia and New Zealand.

At Jonah's where he worked with chef Lewis, the two would often forage at the beach, finding wood sorrel and beach fennel to add to the menu. They later went their separate ways, but are collaborating again on this Four Hands dinner at Tin Hill Social.

The menu has yet to be firmed up, but diners can expect quail with curry leaves, which is abundant in Dempsey, and of course those weaver ants, which have a lemony taste.

Already, they have been braising and fermenting certain plants and fruits.

"The menu will eventually be decided on depending on what and how much we manage to forage," says chef Lewis. He first moved to Singapore in 2013 to head Spathe Public House.

Over the course of his 12-year career, he has worked alongside some of the best chefs in the world, including Emilio Macias of Astrid y Gaston, Jacques Marcon of two-Michelin-star restaurant Regis & Jacques Marcon, and famed Australian chefs Neil Perry, Matt Moran and Luke Mangan.

"These dinners allow diners in Singapore to be more aware of their surroundings, to go beyond supermarket, or farm produce," he said.

  • 'From Bukit Timah Hill to St John's Island: Tin Hill Social X Elijah Holland Four Hands Celebrates Foraged and Farmed Local Produce' is on from Sept 29 to Oct 1 at Tin Hill Social, 100 Turf Club Road, Horse City. The five-course dinner is priced at S$100++ per diner, with an additional S$45++ per person for organic wine pairing. For reservations, call 6466 0966.