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Raising the bar
Singapore can be proud. We don't just have crazy rich Asians in our midst, but talented people whose achievements are being noticed outside of Singapore for the first time. Imagine, the first ever Singaporean to be named Sake Sommelier of the Year in an international competition, or a Singaporean hobby chef living in Melbourne who beats the country's best to win the MasterChef Australia trophy. And how about sitting in a bar sipping on artisanal craft beer or gin that's made in Singapore? Here are the stories of enterprising men - including a former accountant, ex-police officer and architect who want nothing more than to build Singapore brands in the food and drink industry.
Sake Sommelier of the Year 2018
It was third time lucky - or rather sheer hard work and perseverance - that Joshua Kalinan finally walked away with the Sake Sommelier of the Year 2018 in the UK after making it to semi-finalist and runner up in his two previous attempts.
Mr Kalinan, 52, works as a Singapore Airlines' inflight auditor and wine sommelier, but his fixation with the delicate Japanese brew pushed him to pursue sommelier accreditation, and now, he's looking forward to his hard-won prize from the UK-based Sake Sommelier Association: a trip to Kyoto for an exclusive visit to Gekkeikan, one of Japan's oldest and most prestigious breweries. He will get to go behind the scenes of sake production during the brewing season in 2019. "I am eager to learn hands-on sake production from the toji (master brewer)," he enthuses.
To be a top sommelier, one needs to constantly upgrade one's relevant sake sommelier qualification. As some of the qualifications were not available in Singapore, Mr Kalinan had to travel to Japan, Hong Kong and the UK to get exposure as a sake sommelier. "I spent some time visiting sake breweries during the brewing season - which was cold and harsh - just to get a feel of how sake is made and the various processes involved."
As it turned out, his love affair with sake was a fluke. Wine is his main specialty, he explains. But in 2013, he was in Tokyo to sit for the CWE (Certified Wine Educator Exam) when he visited an izakaya and "caught the sake bug". After returning to Singapore, he decided to pursue his sake education. In 2014, he completed his Certified Sake Sommelier qualification from UK's Sake Sommelier Association.
After finishing as semi-finalist and runner-up, it was a tough call for him to take part for the third time, what with his family and work commitments. But in 2017, he made up his mind to go for it. This time, the test and requirement were much tougher than before. But in early 2018, he was elated to find out he was placed as one of the three finalists. "I was the oldest of the three and the only non-practising sake sommelier, unlike my competitors who were sake sommeliers in Michelin-starred restaurants."
He wasn't taking any chances. "I started preparing one month in advance - reading books, learning kanji characters and tasting all the different sakes that I could get hold of."
The competition was tough, with arduous tasks such as pairing sake with Chinese food and chocolate. Pairing is one of the toughest tasks for a sake sommelier. "You need to know the sake's style, acidity, sweetness or dryness," says Mr Kalinan, who's always game to try unorthodox pairings.
Sake goes beyond Japanese cuisine, and there's no reason why it can't be matched with Singapore's myriad cuisines. While he's not ready to give up his day job, "one day I hope to write a book on sake pairing with local cuisine, making this topic easy for everyone to digest," he adds.
Winner of MasterChef Australia 2018
The judges of MasterChef Australia had no issues with crispy chicken rendang - like their UK counterparts did recently - when they crowned Singaporean Sashi Cheliah MasterChef for 2018 just last month. The former officer with the Singapore Police Force's Star Unit won A$250,000 (S$249,637) and a host of fans along the way, thanks to his flavour-packed creations.
The 40-year-old father of two is proud to champion Singapore flavours on the global stage. "That's my motive. What I did on the show was to showcase Singapore and Asian flavours, with my own touch, such as the lychee duck and spiced lamb with jus," he says.
Mr Cheliah is currently based in Melbourne for six months to helm Gaja, a pop-up at HWKR Melbourne which focuses on Asian cuisine. Gaja rolls out dishes such as rendang, ayam masak merah, rojak, prawn Hokkien noodle, biryani and Keralan pepper chicken, curry puffs and ice kachang. "We started on a good note on a Friday night, attracting three times the (usual) crowd," he says.
This pop-up is a testbed for his plans to open a permanent eatery. "If this business plan (at Gaja) works well, I'll bring my team and the plan to my new restaurant." He adds that his future venture can be in Adelaide, Melbourne, or even Singapore. "It depends on where the opportunities are. I'm open to any ventures, even franchising."
Mr Cheliah, who's known to be a whiz with spices, credits his mother and aunt in Singapore for helping him develop his palate. "They are very particular about flavours. My mum always buys fresh food for us, and nothing frozen. That's how I got the habit of preparing only fresh food."
Being in Australia for the last six years (he lived in Melbourne for two years before moving to Adelaide), Mr Cheliah had a lot of time to cook at home. "That gave me a lot of training - unknowingly - for MasterChef," he quips.
Mr Cheliah is also fortunate to have a highly supportive family. "My wife is amazing. I would talk to her on the phone about my ups and downs. She was taking care of our two kids, working full time and building our house." Filming took six months with only a few days' break over Christmas and Easter. "That's how we could get quality results. They put in you in one place. You just concentrate one thing - food. It was like a crash course for us."
A fan of Gordon Ramsay, Mr Cheliah learnt a lot from the top chef during the show. He recalls: "He was passionate and productive - he wanted us to win. When Recce (a fellow contestant) and I received the immunity pins (after defeating professional chefs in a cook-out), he was so happy, jumping around like a child."
Mr Cheliah, who used to work in Queenstown's Special Operations Command, hopes to use his food business as a platform to support the employment of former prisoners. He's currently talking to a group in Victoria called Second Chance to get a few prisoners who will be out on parole soon to assist him at Gaja.
At the moment, Mr Cheliah is on unpaid leave from his job as a prison officer at Adelaide's Women's prison. "I haven't resigned yet. If my business doesn't succeed, at least I have something to fall back on," he laughs. His motto? "If you don't try, you wouldn't know."
TEO HONG HAN
Owner of Pink Blossoms Brewing
The newest entrant to Singapore's craft beer scene is a former accountant who specialised in cross-border tax structuring. Teo Hong Han, owner of Pink Blossoms Brewing, always loved craft beer, but "never imagined that I would become a brewer someday".
He started production in July, and has opened a tasting room at 50 Ubi Ave 3 for walk-in tastings.
He describes his beers as "American-influenced. Big bold flavours but tweaked to suit our tropical weather". For a start, he is specialising in many variants of pale ales and stouts. "Our pale ales share the same DNA of bold hop aromas without harsh or lingering hop bitterness. Our stouts are aromatic and flavourful but very easy to drink." He says that even some non-beer fans have taken a shine to his brews.
"Over the next few brewing cycles, we have plans to experiment with some novel techniques," shares Mr Teo.
Mr Teo's passion for craft beers began when he and his wife were living in New York City in 2015 (they returned this year). "We could taste the endless creativity of the US craft brewers and experience first-hand the vibrancy and diversity of the industry. We spent many weekends travelling across the country to visit breweries. Some of the renowned ones don't even distribute beyond their local districts. The only way to acquire their great brews is to drive long hours (sometimes more than eight hours) to visit the brewery. We visited more than 100 of them, of different sizes and styles," he recalls.
The couple could see that the options for fresh craft beer in Singapore were vastly limited. Ever the dreamer, Mr Teo told his wife that it was time to return home and share all these wonderful beer flavours with Singaporeans.
He adds that as a food paradise, Singapore should have a wider variety of artisan beers to pair with the great food. "The 2018 World Beer Cup has 101 main competing categories. We probably only see around 10 to 20 per cent of these categories available in Singapore. So we could benefit from having more variety and options," he says.
Aside from visiting breweries in the US and learning about the business, Mr Teo also took up a diploma to learn what he needed to set up a brewery from scratch.
Pink Blossoms Brewing's 30-seater tasting room is where customers get to sample pilot batches. "It allows us to interact directly with consumers to better understand what they like or dislike before we take our recipes to large scale production. The vision is for Pink Blossoms to be constantly innovating and improving, like in America."
Besides serving beer, the tasting room is renovated to mimic an art gallery rather than a bar. "We want to support local artists and art. We have empty spaces in the tasting room for budding artists to display their works," he shares.
In the next few months, Mr Teo will be doing road shows to introduce their first few commercial offerings. "Consumers can definitely expect a lot more variety and options if demand for our beer picks up," he shares.
ANDREW HODGSON, TIM WHITEFIELD, CHRIS BOX, CHARLIE VAN EEDEN
Founders of Tanglin Gin
They may be expats, but they've crafted something for Singaporeans - the first locally made craft gin with the colonial-sounding name Tanglin Gin, distilled with 11 spices and botanicals including orchids.
Head of operations Andrew Hodgson, 39, drew from his experience of working with a range of central governments and agencies worldwide to help create Singapore's first distillery. Head distiller and master of botanicals, Tim Whitefield, 53, is an architect by training who's made his own cheese, salami, beer, cider, and now, gin. Both are from the UK. Working alongside them are Australian Chris Box, 47, head of finance, a Singapore PR who's lived in Asia for two decades, and Dutch Charlie van Eeden, 41, head of marketing who works as brand director for a fintech company.
About 18 months ago, this group of corporate folks decided to produce gin in Singapore. Mr Hodgson says: "Singapore had no gin to celebrate. It has an amazing bar and cocktail scene that's the envy of cities around the world. With so much talent and opportunity, Singapore was crying out for a home-grown brand for mixologists and home-experimenters to play with."
But it wasn't easy to start."Being the first in any field is always going to be hard." They also had to set up in a food-zone at Mandai Foodlink to comply with existing regulations. One thing that's guaranteed is the gin's quality. "For example, the vanilla that we use currently costs more per gram than silver. However, we decided to keep it in there to create our desired smooth finish that distinguishes us from many gins in the market," he shares.
For the group, it was important to develop a gin that defined Singapore: "a blend of cultures and a passion for progress". With that in mind, they produced an old-world modern gin - a combination of one of the oldest gin recipes from the 1760s - with a modern day twist. "I think that it's this modern twist that sets Tanglin Gin apart from others - key being two forms of orchid (Dendrobium Nobile Lindl and vanilla beans, the fruit of the orchid vanilla planifolia), amchoor and whole organic oranges from Tim's garden."
Next up, Mr Whitefield is testing new gin flavours including a chilli mandarin gin and one called Noir. If the latter works out, it will "be a very international gin". Says Mr Hodgson: "We'll then come back full circle with a gin called 'The Botanic Gardens' or 'The Gardens of Singapore' - which is still very much a work in progress."
Mr Hodgson hopes it doesn't end with Tanglin Gin. "We would love to see more home-grown brands in the market so that one day Singapore can develop a global name for itself."