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IF SINGAPORE POSES some major competition with restaurants opening and closing with alarming frequency, the picture is very different in top Chinese cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Even apart from these, there are tens if not hundreds of other cities hungering for new restaurant concepts.
Mainland Chinese investors readily pump in money for sexy concepts and to lure big names to their turf. Meanwhile, there is an ever-expanding pool of affluent customers who gladly fork out thousands of Chinese yuan for an innovative meal.
Is it any wonder that Singapore chefs are packing up their knives and seeking opportunities and more appreciative audiences in the East? Some recognizable names from Singapore’s culinary scene share their experiences.
1. Jereme Leung
PU BEN by Jereme Leung
Jereme Leung is no stranger to China’s rollercoaster F&B scene. Since moving to Shanghai in 2002, he has witnessed how the attitudes of Chinese consumers have changed dramatically over the past 16 years.
“The market has matured,” he observes. “Especially in a city like Shanghai, the market is pretty competitive and saturated, while corporate spending habits have also changed a great deal under influence from the current government.” Shanghai has more than 60,000 restaurants spanning some 10 regional and 11 international cuisines. In order to stay relevant, food professionals need to constantly adjust to the ever-changing competitive climate. “There is no place for complacency,” says chef Leung. “One needs to reinvent oneself constantly to stay afloat.”
He himself has made a career out of evolving, with a resume that charts his transformation from chef to television personality, culinary consultant and entrepreneur. His concept restaurants, currently represented by CONRAD hotel, are Ufaa by Jereme Leung in the Maldives; China Blue by Jereme Leung at CONRAD hotel in Manila; Sea Pavilion by Jereme Leung onboard MSC Splendida Cruise; while another establishment is in the pipeline in Macau as part of CONRAD’s restaurants division.
Although chef Leung travels far and wide for business, he has not forgotten the city that gave him his biggest break in China. He has run the hip and trendy Pu Ben by Jereme Leung in Shanghai for some three years now, featuring the best seasonal produce in China in classic Chinese recipes with a twist in presentation. Chef Leung thinks that one of the key attributes of Pu Den’s success is the superb teamwork and constant fine tuning over the past three years. “Taking over an existing restaurant in a location that is not ideal, while rebranding it is a challenging experience,” he explains. “This can only be done with a lot of work both in the concept development and execution stages.”
Success did not come easy; apart from having canny business sense, chef Leung has this advice: “Take time to understand the vast country that has different taste profiles and eating habits. For example, fresh fruit is served before the meal in the Jiang Nan region, while typical Chinese business etiquette dictates that all dishes are served at the same time to show respect and to wish for bountiful blessings for the invited guests.”
2 Wharf Warehouse 5/F No. 579 Waima Road
Laomatou Huangpu District Shanghai 200010, China
Telephone: 86 21 6339 1188
2. Johnston Teo
The Pine at Rui Jin
Johnston Teo spent years under the tutelage of chefs Ryan Cliff and Julien Royer, but most people would remember him as the man behind Sorrel restaurant. But now chef Teo is making waves in Shanghai’s buzzing F&B scene. “I met up with a good friend who happened to be working on a new project in China. Through her I met the founder of the company,” he recounts. “And that led to me packing my bags and moving here in June last year.”
He adds, “At Rui Jin, we serve contemporary Asian. It was the reason I came -- to learn more about my roots as a Chinese and understand the eating culture. It’s about taste and flavour, not about my philosophy. I want my diners to come here and have a good meal, above everything else.
“Like Singapore, Shanghai is a melting pot of cultures, it’s very international; every cuisine carries influences from all over the world. We share and learn from one another and open ourselves up to what others can bring.”
What about the challenges?
“It’s more of a mental challenge than anything,” says chef Teo. “Language is definitely on the top of the list. I’ve improved my communication since coming here and working with my team on a daily basis. One of the most important things is to understand the market here -- what people are familiar with and how we need to adapt to fit in and give them a great experience.”
Set in the gorgeous Suzhou-style garden of the historic Rui Jin Hotel, the restaurant has attracted well-heeled locals and gourmands since opening in the first quarter of 2018. The dishes might remind one of Odette, the two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Singapore; after all chef Teo was part of the research and development team there. When asked about how he manages the potentially fickle diners in the cosmopolitan city of Shanghai, he replies, “I enjoy the challenge everyday as my team and I continue to grow together and strive for consistency on a daily basis.”
Building 11, Intercontinental Shanghai Rujin
118 Rujin Er Lu Shanghai
Telephone: 86 173 2104 3505
3. Edward Voon
Edward Voon was about to start his own restaurant in Singapore seven years ago when he met his investor, the current Chairman of the Hong Kong-headquartered Goldin Group. While cooking for the would-be investor at a private event, he was convinced to abort his plans and switch his base to Hong Kong. “Mr. Pan is a property developer and he was looking to open a contemporary French restaurant in one of his properties. He persuaded me to come and work for him in Hong Kong, saying I would have the restaurant I’d been dreaming of – at LE PAN” he said.
“The ethos at LE PAN is ‘Contemporary French Reimagined’. I fell in love with French cuisine and gastronomy, which I find has an intrinsic beauty. Plus of course a history that commands enormous respect around the world,” he explains. “I’m self-taught in French technique, but mastering it empowers chefs with the precision, discipline and attention to detail to elevate cooking to an art form, and to realise the full potential of the world’s finest ingredients. I often use the flavours of my Asian upbringing in unexpected ways to give new twists to my dishes.”
Opening a restaurant in Hong Kong is not easy, especially when consumers are spoilt for choice. “We are located in a new top-class office tower in Kowloon Bay; it’s an upcoming commercial area but it needs time to become established. Getting discerning diners to come here from across the island is a psychological barrier we had to address.”
He adds, “The locals will find every excuse to wine and dine on all occasions. Since most of my corporate clients are always on the move, my food needs to create an immediate impact to stay competitive. Not forgetting there is always a new restaurant opening every week,” he adds. “My food is about sensations and feelings; understanding people and understanding culture.”
Ground Floor Goldin Financial Global Centre
17 Kai Cheung Road Kowloon Bay, Hong Kong
Telephone: 852 31882366
4. Andre Chiang
When one door closes, another one opens. In Andre Chiang’s case, the minute he closed his doors at Restaurant Andre in February this year, he prepared for the opening of The Bridge in Chengdu. “I met Hebe Ni, the owner of The Bridge while she was still studying in Britain,” he says. “When she took over the family business, she invited me to Chengdu. This city reminds me of why I picked Singapore 10 years ago.”
Like Shanghai a decade before, Chengdu is at the forefront of the culinary wave sweeping China. In these cities, you no longer need five-star hotels to savour top-notch fine-dining; and foreign cuisine is no longer about exclusive restaurants for wealthy locals and rich expats. Increasingly, China’s middle class is demanding more diverse options. “I could see the potential growth in the city which has one of the highest standards of living in China,’ explains chef Chiang, “on top of that, I was intrigued by the cuisine and its rich produce.”
For the Taiwanese chef, “My first encounter with Sichuan cuisine was bewildering. There was nothing that I was familiar with and every dish has its own unique flavour. I felt the world needed to know this amazing cuisine apart from the stereotypical ma la (numbing spicy flavour).”
Therefore, “my approach is to explore the DNA of Sichuan cuisine, injecting new elements and taking it to global heights,” he explains. In fact, chef Chiang presented his interpretation of one of the four leading schools of Chinese cuisine to the Wynn Palace”s “Wynn Guest Chef Series” in Macau last month whilst meeting foreign journalists and VIPs of the hotel.
When The Bridge first opened in the beginning of 2018, it received both brickbats and praise from local diners. While the conservatives frowned on its new approach, the young and well-travelled applauded its innovative take on the cuisine. But chef Chiang is in no hurry to rock the boat; after all The Bridge is divided into five sections that cater to diverse palates. While the main dining room offers the dishes that most locals would be familiar with, the private room sets the tone with innovative and more refined menus.
To convince the hardcore conservatives, however, chef Chiang takes it one tiny step at a time, with special monthly food promotions where he and his team recreate traditional and even forgotten dishes and snacks using a more contemporary approach, as well as reviving traditional roadside snacks. “I’m not starting a new cuisine, I merely want to learn more about it. I also want to respect what Mother Nature has endowed the region with -- rich and diverse produce -- and repay it with the best flavours through the multi-dimensional experience of ear, eye, palate and senses,” he concludes .
Anshun Bridge 66 Binjiang East Road, Jinjiang District
Chengdu 610000, China
Telephone: 86 28 8444 3888