Tuesday, 2 September, 2014

Published February 15, 2014
Chefs without borders
Mod Sin cuisine, European with Asian accents or - that dirty word - fusion? A new breed of young, local chefs are looking East rather than West in their mission to create category-defying, progressive cooking. Debbie Yong reports.
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Chilli crab-ice cream served with soft shell crab and seaweed fronds on a bed of mantou sand. - PHOTO: JOSEPH NAIR

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5 Neil Road

Hours: 7pm-11pm (Tue-Sun)

Tel 6223 4098

IT'S been almost a decade since Willin Low first coined the term "Mod Sin" to describe his style of fusion cooking, and even the definition of the modern Singaporean, it seems, has been slowly evolving in that time. "The new modern Singaporean is highly globalised," says Han Li Guang. "He or she didn't just grow up on hawker food but on burgers and fries, too. He is more knowledgeable about food and has been to the top restaurants around the world. He's probably tried the bacon ice-cream at The Fat Duck, and is far more receptive to new ideas than the Singaporean diner of 10 years ago."

Mr Han should know - he's checked off all these boxes. The 28-year-old left his corporate banking job two years ago, and after a stint of eating around the world and apprenticing under Michelin-starred chefs, he's now head chef and owner of week-old modern experimental restaurant Labyrinth on Neil Road.

On his menu: avant-garde interpretations of Singaporean classics such as a piquant chilli crab ice cream served with soft shell crab and seaweed fronds on a bed of mantou sand, and siew yoke fan manifested as roasted pork belly on a bed of risotto cooked in ramen broth, and topped with pork scratchings and a sous vide quail egg.

The initial plan was to open a dessert bar, reveals Mr Han, an avid baker since his university days, "because I enjoy the technical, scientific approach that doing pastry requires". That idea soon morphed into a dining in the dark concept, which was eventually scrapped - though the goal to do familiar local flavours with a novel twist stuck.

Named for the "adventure through a gastronomical maze that we will lead you through", the menu at Labyrinth is, aptly, degustation-only. Dinners cost $78 for five courses and $118 for the eight-course option. Lunch, to be introduced in a month, will be priced at $35 and $45 for three and four courses respectively.

The open kitchen 14-seat counter concept (there's a regular table for six by the entrance for bigger groups), meanwhile, was borne out of a lack of staff, he readily admits, but the upside is that Mr Han's thoughtfully designed creations are best appreciated with direct explanation from the chef.

And that's when the fun kicks in. In line with what Mr Han calls "DNA cooking", or cooking based on cultural relevance that go beyond mere appearances, dishes are crafted with not just local ingredients but local eating rituals in mind.

A chendol xiaolongbao, for instance, contains grass jelly cubes and red bean and coconut spheres encased in a thin green pandan skin. You eat it by going through the traditional motion of first dipping it in a dish of gula melaka syrup, which you tip out of a vinegar bottle.

"Fusion is only confusion when it is not well thought out. A lot of restaurants out there are mere copycats. You have to first understand your ingredients to put them together in a reflective way," he says.

Rather than bank on pricey imported meats, Mr Han prefers to work with local produce, ones that he personally handpicks every morning from a local butcher and a chicken supplier in Shunfu market that his grandmother has been pastronising for the last three decades. "Sure, we can use Iberico pork from Spain but it tastes better in Spain - not after a 20-hour flight to Singapore," he explains.

Likewise his insistence on keeping to his category-defying East-West cooking rather than venture to make his mark in classical French or European cuisine.

"There's a need to differentiate myself. If I do European cuisine, I will be fighting with chefs who have European heritage and who have many more opportunities to be trained under the great classical cooking chefs," says Mr Han, who helped out in the kitchen when visiting chefs Mauro Colagreco and Tom Kerridge were in town. Sous chef Christopher Lim previously toiled at Les Amis and now-closed Mod Sin restaurant, Wok and Barrel.

"In this new media age, recipes are out there on the Internet, you can learn anything you want to. (Bo Innovation's) Alvin Leung is not a trained chef - maybe that's why his dishes are so unique."

However different in form, he's still shooting for comparisons with the local torch-bearers, at least in terms of calibre, he states candidly: "We've got big ambitions. We want to be right up there with Iggy's or Justin Quek one day."