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From Hawker To Haute Cuisine
CRISPY CHICKEN RENDANG SOUNDS like something a Singaporean chef might dream up, along with the likes of buah keluak ice cream, jellied bak kut teh or laksa linguine. But while crispy rendang memes and jokes will be forgotten as quickly as the MasterChef judge who sparked them, is so-called Singaporean cuisine also nothing but a novelty that is fast losing steam?
The question comes on the heels of several Singapore chef-owned restaurants which have gone belly-up, including Restaurant Ards, Jiakpalang, BirdBird and Selfish Gene. They had previously been in the limelight as poster boys of a new generation of chefs who could bring Singapore cuisine to a higher level. Their selling point? To show that Singapore food is not just hawker fare and expat-driven fine dining, but a dynamic cuisine driven by the creativity and passion of local-born talented chefs.
The reality, as these chefs share, is a different story. It's one of disillusionment, an inability to make ends meet and finally, throwing in the towel and finding a regular job while putting their dreams on hold. But does it really have to end this way?
Chefs versus investors
Restaurant Ards opened in Sept 2017 to strong buzz as the first fine-dining restaurant serving progressive Singapore cuisine by chefs David Lee and Ace Tan, betting that diners would pay up to S$188 for a 15-course tasting menu of dishes with names like 21st Egg Tart, Art of Grains and Mother's Chicken Soup.
They lost. Despite good reviews, the restaurant closed after barely six months. The duo parted ways with chef Lee returning to his hometown in Malaysia, while chef Tan now works in a restaurant in Korea.
"It took us a year to start Ards," says chef Tan. "We spoke to a lot of potential investors, hoping they would understand that a restaurant like this would need time to mature. Unfortunately, when our investors saw the results after the first couple of months, they felt it wasn't a good business model and so they decided to withdraw from the project."
The two are still hoping to get back together to do another restaurant, and are trying to get investors, but "this time, we must be very clear about the risks. The restaurant model needs to change because at this stage where our names are not yet established, we should probably make the concept more accessible.
"David and I haven't given up on what we're trying to do, but now is a perfect opportunity for us to explore Asia and understand the food culture better."
Meanwhile, Nixon Low had worked at several restaurants before being hired to helm Jiakpalang in June 2017 - a hipster coffee shop that dished out everything from bak kut teh chilled in aspic to a modernised milo dinosaur. He left in January, when the investors decided that the numbers were not sustainable and rebranded it into a Thai restaurant. He has since joined an established Chinese restaurant group, and is part of the Singapore national culinary team taking part in the Food & Hotel Asia competition at the end of April.
"Jiakpalang was very destination-based, so you need a lot of marketing which we did not have resources for," he says. "Our lunch was busy but dinner was not. Manpower was an issue and so was rental." He feels that a clash of visions led to the demise of the restaurant, even though reviews were positive and they had a base of regulars. "Even when my team and I left they still texted me to ask where we were going."
He doesn't plan to open a similar concept any time soon. "The market is very saturated now, with a lot of restaurants closing. Maybe later, but I'm not confident of the market now."
Passion versus business
Immanuel Tee went from being chef to restaurateur to working for a restaurant group in the space of three years, and the experience has "seen my ego as a chef go down a lot", he laughs wryly.
He opened Immanuel French Kitchen in 2014 before teaming up with fellow chef Enoch Teo to open a chain of eateries under the Garçons brand. He sold his share of the business in the middle of 2017 and is now an executive chef at Creative Eateries.
Going from chef to businessman was toughest for chef Tee because "there are a lot of things you haven't learned. There were times when our business acumen wasn't very good."
If he were to do it again, "I wouldn't be so ambitious. I would do a cuisine that has longevity. The thing about affordable French food is that it was a trend. If one day I could create a brand like Spize, Putien or Jack's Place, that would be my dream. I don't want to open a French kitchen, run it for two or three years, then close. I want to go back to a cuisine that's closer to our hearts - maybe even zi char. I even think about going to Bangkok one day and opening a Singaporean cuisine restaurant there - just doing basic things like nasi lemak and laksa."
"It's very easy to romanticise the opening of your own restaurant," says Anthony Yeoh, who opened his own restaurant Summer Hill in January and was previously head chef of Cocotte before joining chef-restaurateur Bjorn Shen as executive chef.
"When I started, I believed that no matter what you open, as long as there's good food and you're cooking from the heart, people will come. What I learnt was that a restaurant is a business, and you're not exempt from any of the rules.
"Some people want to open a place for friends and family to eat and hang out, but that's not a legitimate reason to open a business. They're better off renting a hotel function room and throwing a party once a month."
"Singapore society is still stuck in a colonial mindset," says Han Li Guang, chef-owner of the one Michelin-starred Labyrinth and one of the rare success stories for Singapore chefs.
"We put a greater value on Western cuisine and chefs versus local talents. There's the mentality that hawker food is cheap and ang moh food is fancy. So we still struggle to compete with foreign chefs."
He adds that a restaurant like Ards was perhaps ahead of itself in the way it was priced and pitched. "At their price level, they were competing with 40 Michelin-starred restaurants. As an unknown entity, how do you get someone to spend S$188 if they can spend it at say, Beni or Shinji?"
"What really affects us is price bias," says chef Shen, owner of Artichoke, who closed his fried chicken restaurant BirdBird at the end of 2017. "Customers don't know the cost of food. Ask the man on the street how much he would sell something that cost S$10 to make, and he would double it to cover his effort. But the truth is you have to mark it up by three to four times. And it's not for profit, just a basic mark-up.
"At BirdBird, everyone compared us to KFC. We got so much flak online that I had to remove the comments section on Facebook. Even people who hadn't visited us said: 'How dare you sell chicken for S$25?'. It was half a chicken that can feed two people. Yet they would pay S$25 for a plate of pasta with two prawns, or S$18 for a slice of rainbow cake. We fought a losing battle because once people compare you to KFC, you can't win."
The experience has totally demoralised him. "If I could do it again, I would not have opened BirdBird. I'm done opening new concepts."
When Le Cordon Bleu-trained Gene Mok opened Selfish Gene cafe in 2011, "the term 'hipster cafe' hadn't been coined yet and Instagram had started only the year before." There were maybe just 20 cafes then, before ballooning to over 400 in 2014, to the point that when he finally closed down in 2017, there was nothing he could do to save the business.
The boom years were from 2012 to 2014, when his philosophy of maintaining fine dining kitchen standards (he originally worked in Saint Pierre) in a cafe setting had people lining up at the door. But, as one does at the peak of success, he over-extended by opening a dessert cafe on the second floor of the shophouse that the cafe was in. It didn't bring in the numbers, and coupled with the intense competition, things went downhill.
On hindsight, "I would have aimed for a better balance between being a business owner and a chef. Running a business from a chef's perspective differs from a boss. It's a huge juggling act, having to wear different hats while keeping the balls in the air."
Is there a future?
But at this rate, is there no future for the Singaporean chef wanting to do his or her own thing?
"Of course there is a future," says Mr Mok. "There is no right or wrong cuisine for a successful restaurant. I see this as a good time to be a chef here, Singaporean or not. We have access to all kinds of ingredients, cuisines and techniques. The crux lies in how modern Singaporean cuisine is defined and where Singaporean chefs see themselves in this culinary landscape."
Concurring, Tan Ken Loon of The Naked Finn is "a firm believer in starting from the ingredients' perspective rather than defining a cuisine style". By determining the best way to use ingredients, "our individual history, preference, ethnicity, etc, will subconsciously be imprinted on the final product - that, to me, is being honest." It's this honesty that forms the foundation of Magic Square - a pop-up restaurant and incubator programme he recently launched for supporting young talent.
To be sure, there have been successes, namely Malcolm Lee and chef Han's Michelin-starred Candlenut and Labyrinth, as well as commercial successes such as Wild Rocket, One Kueh at a Time, The Coconut Club and Mr Loon's own The Naked Finn, which has been profitable for the past six years.
Being able to find their niche and stick to their personal visions have a lot to do with sustaining their business.
But most of all, it's a question of commitment. "A lot of young chefs these days can't sacrifice their social life," notes chef Han. "In the first three years of Labyrinth I didn't drink at all because alcohol slows me down and I had to be in tip-top condition every day. Relationships were sacrificed. I had less time with my family. I had no life. This was my life."
HARD TRUTHS FROM A VETERAN
Malcolm Lee may be the first Singapore chef to crack the Michelin Guide with a star for his Peranakan-inspired restaurant, Candlenut. But his real story is one of dogged tenacity that saw him through years of financial losses to build a now comfortably profitable business with some 30 employees, at the youthful age of 33, going on 34.
On April 11, he celebrated Candlenut's eighth anniversary with a cocktail party, teaming up with chefs Willin Low of Wild Rocket, Wayne Liew of KEK Seafood and Andrei Soen from Park Bench Deli to serve a menu of quirky Singaporean mashups that included crispy popcorn chicken rendang. It was chef Lee's cheeky dig at the current foodie controversy which saw a MasterChef UK judge dissing a contestant's nasi lemak for having chicken rendang without a crispy skin. Chicken rendang, of course, is never crispy. But crispy rendang could well be a metaphor for chef Lee's argument about novelty versus sincerity when it comes to shaping the identity of a Singaporean chef.
"I always advise my kids (his term of endearment for his chefs) - you need to be passionate but you need to be sincere and true to yourself," he says. "Filter out the noise that says you need to open a certain kind of restaurant, or look for a gap in the market for Singapore fusion or whatever kind of food. You end up looking for a hole to fill but it's not yours. It's about finding your own model, but to get to that stage is the hardest, because it involves personal development and confidence.
"If you believe in yourself, your food will never go out of style, it will keep evolving as you keep reinventing it. It's not about say, now the trend is crispy rendang and everyone wants to do it - once that novelty dies, it's gone."
He cites the case of one of his protégés - Gan Ming Kiat, who runs the popular pop-up Mustard Seed at his own home - as an example of how a chef can be true to himself and build a viable business. "He bid for a restaurant space and didn't get it but I told him not to let it get him down. His opportunity will come. He follows his own style and cooks what he wants and people naturally follow. And he's a hit."
While he's in a good place now, chef Lee's struggle from the days when he opened the original Candlenut Kitchen as a naive 25-year-old echoes that of the aforementioned chefs. "For the first three years, I had no pay. The next three years, I had little pay," he recounts with a twinge of pain. "There was one time I had just S$2 in my pocket and no money in my bank account to draw from."
Those days are a distant memory, but even after seven years, he was still struggling to keep the business afloat. "I was very frustrated. When I was in the kitchen, I felt like things weren't working well outside. But if I wasn't in the kitchen, it felt like I wasn't doing my job."
He was working so hard that he slept badly, his personal relationships went sour and he was fighting battles in the kitchen, on the floor and with top management.
It was only in the past year, after Candlenut moved to its new premises in Dempsey, that something clicked. "I have a lot of 'children' to feed, so I can't just stick to plucking kangkong. I'm supposed to be in charge. I'm not just a cook, I'm a business owner."
He decided to step back. "I started to tweak the system to revolve around me." He created task forces from each department - kitchen, pastry, events, managers and so on.
"Only I can tie everyone together because I understand what everybody's job is about." Hence he works less in the kitchen now, but the result is that there is less friction between the departments and he sleeps better at night.
"Once you have these three - a profitable business, happy employees and happy customers - that's what a restaurant should be."
While "I don't advise anyone to go into the restaurant business", chef Lee still spends a lot of time helping younger chefs to distinguish between trying to be different, and being natural. "When you're naturally different," emphasises chef Lee, "that's really special."