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Future of Chinese cuisine
EVERY morning before service at Red Star Restaurant, 89-year-old Masterchef Sin Leong heads to a corner of his 6,000 sq ft kitchen to pay respects at a red altar, bearing a black-and-white portrait of his late sifu ("mentor" or "teacher" in Cantonese). His sifu's teachings - on the importance of being prepared and always doing your best - are framed right next to it.
It has been more than five decades since he worked under his sifu's mentorship, but the respect chef Sin has for the man who taught him how to wield a wok has lasted a lifetime.
Today, the concept of sifu and apprentice in Chinese food has gone the way of the dinosaur. So too, restaurants of Red Star's scale (its dining area alone is about 10,000 sq ft), thick menus filled with over 150 dishes, and refined cooking skills that require the many years of experience one needs to chalk up just to earn the title of "chef" in a Chinese kitchen.
'Four Heavenly Kings'
"In the past, if they understudy any chef, the chef is like a master to them. Now when people come and work, they learn a few dishes, then switch to another place. Not only that, they take the recipe and start to make changes, and call it their own creation," says chef Sin's business partner, Masterchef Hooi Kok Wai, 79, in Cantonese.
"Young employees job-hop to get promotions. They learn to cut vegetables at one place, a few months later, they go to another place to learn to saute fish, then a few months later they move on to be a junior chef. Unlike last time, when we were stationed at one spot for years until we became experts. We had to learn to cut the same vegetable in different ways for different dishes, for example," he elaborates.
In fact, chefs Sin and Hooi just might be the last chefs of their kind, since no one has been knocking on their doors to be their understudies despite their revered status as veterans in the local F&B industry. In an age where fluffy scrambled eggs and Michelin stars reign supreme, not many are even aware that these two men make up half of the "Four Heavenly Kings" of our Singaporean Chinese cuisine, along with the late Tham Yu Kai and the late Lau Yoke Pui.
Even at Spring Court, which is arguably Singapore's oldest Chinese restaurant at 87 years, hiring has been quite the challenge for third-generation owner Mike Ho, 47.
"Singaporeans have choices, they don't have to work at a kitchen of a Chinese restaurant. It's the perception too - there's glamour in French or Italian cooking, but none in Chinese cooking," says Mr Ho. That's why his kitchen of over 20 staff is mostly made up of Malaysians or Hong Kong-ers, with fewer than five Singaporeans who are all in their 50s or 60s.
"Of course, young people are influenced by the media and celebrity chefs. They don't have a celebrity Chinese chef to idolise, or to inspire them," he points out.
One of the few well-known Asian chefs is Martin Yan - he of "Yan can cook, so can you" TV fame - who was born in China but is currently based in San Francisco.
He too acknowledges the lack of Chinese chef role models in the industry, and traces this to the roots of Asian culture.
"Asian parents tend to think only students who cannot make it into university go into the kitchen, so there's a stigma that if you're a chef you're not well-educated. But in the Western world, chefs are well-respected, even though Chinese chefs actually make a lot more money than Western ones. Plus F&B and hospitality are the top economic sectors in most countries," says chef Yan, who was in town earlier this week to hold a dialogue session on the "Future profession of Chinese chefs" at At-Sunrice Global Chef Academy.
As it stands, the future of the Chinese chef profession looks pretty bleak. Even if an aspiring chef does not go the apprentice route, there are very few options at the academic level. Culinary schools in Singapore focus more on Western or European cuisine, with At-Sunrice offering a five-week Diploma in Culinary Arts courses, which teaches both Asian and Western techniques. Each round of this course has space for 25 students. The Culinary Institute of America as well as the School of Applied Science in Temasek Polytechnic also train their students in both Asian and Western techniques, while Shatec specialises in Western cuisine.
Chef Boon Ng, a senior chef instructor and assistant faculty manager at At-Sunrice, says: "Less than 10 per cent of graduates go on to work in Chinese restaurants - most go into hotels or Western and modern-Asian restaurants. They don't go into Chinese cuisine because they feel it's very restricted, and very specific."
It's a fact that restaurants have to wake up to, says Paul Sin, section head of Temasek Polytechnic's School of Applied Science, which teaches baking and culinary science. He is the son of Masterchef Sin Leong, but decided on a teaching career instead of joining his father
"For diploma holders, expectations are higher. The cost of living is higher now, and there are a lot more jobs compared to my father's time. It's not like the good old days. People expect career progression, and those companies that are more progressive are the ones that will be able to find people," he says.
He sees a future where Chinese cuisine goes the way of its Western counterpart - a proliferation of mass market restaurants, leaving just a handful of premium-priced, chef-driven restaurants which emphasise technique and an artisanal approach.
In this new order, central kitchens and outsourcing will play a big role. Red Star for instance, invested about S$100,000 (after a 50 per cent government subsidy) in a siew mai-making machine about two years ago, and is able to make about 1,000 pieces per hour.
The restaurant only sells a few hundred a day, but can sell the excess to other restaurateurs who may not have the capital to invest in their own machine or hire the manpower to carry out that job.
He explains: "In the past, clothes were all tailor-made. Now, where do you find this? It's all factory-made, and people don't complain. They've worn factory-made clothes since birth, and don't know any better. The next generation of yam rings might be like that. They won't know any better. You want to eat a yam ring made specifically for you, find the restaurant where it's a signature dish and pay a premium."
He adds: "To speak the unspeakable - those who don't change will slowly die off. Unless you can command a premium."
However, chefs such as Yong Bing Ngen of Majestic Restaurant is hesitant to adopt this practice.
"I won't say never, but only if the technology improves," says the award-winning Chinese chef about outsourcing. "If one day I don't need to defrost a har gao, but just open a packet and cook it fresh, then I might accept it. But, if like today, the har gao comes from a central kitchen frozen, and needs to be thawed before steaming, then I cannot do it. The quality would have been compromised," says chef-owner Yong, 50.
For now, he still prefers to stick to handmaking all his dishes from scratch, and cooking everything fresh. "Our kitchen still has enough people to manage right now, but we can slowly see less and less people getting into this line of work. Like in the past, we'd have say 10 applicants to choose from, but now there are only two - either you take them or you don't... but I think Chinese food won't die off, because people still want to eat it."
Meanwhile, others like TungLok Group's executive chairman Andrew Tjioe agree with chef Sin's view of central kitchens and outsourcing. They have been using central kitchens since 2009, and Mr Tjioe says some benefits include "economy of scale when you purchase" and "less wastage".
"Restaurants don't have to be big, but they have to be special," says Mr Tjioe. "Gone are the days of very big menus. I used to have minimum 180 dishes in the menu decades ago, but what for? I cut it down, and nobody complained. The most important thing is your 50 had better be good. No point having 100 dishes but all lousy. Like at our new restaurant Lokkee, I only have about 50 items on the menu, and so far so good."
To combat the Chinese kitchen's negative stereotypes about hot, sweaty work, Tung Lok tries to ensure a comfortable working environment. "In traditional Chinese kitchens, the majority are woks, but now we use Kombi ovens, Western stoves, and griddles. They're not noisy, and they generate less heat than an open fire. Our menu is balanced so most of the dishes aren't prepared in a wok - that makes hiring easier since there are people who shy away from operating the wok. We can even hire people from Western kitchens to cook in our Chinese kitchens," says Mr Tjioe.
Similarly, some independent restaurateurs are also making shifts in their business model in order to attract not just the next generation of diners, but also younger kitchen staff.
The owners of Li Bai Cantonese Restaurant at Sheraton Towers opened a contemporary Cantonese eatery named Full of Luck Club at Holland Village just one month ago, while Ricky Ng of Blue Lotus Chinese Eating House at Sentosa plans to open a more modern outfit called Blue Lotus Grill House in Tanjong Pagar this November. The new concept will focus on "individual plates, less sharing, and have a more global, less traditional, approach to dining", says Mr Ng, who was chief operating officer of TungLok Group before striking out on his own. "So it's not stuffy, but more fun and communal.
"We want to show the younger generation that you can also use skills such as searing and apply them in our kitchen where we also have 'Western' equipment, like a Josper oven. I hope to inspire and attract the new generation, especially local talent, who are interested in a culinary career."
Ultimately, despite their manpower challenges, Chinese restaurants remain positive. Hua Ting Restaurant at Orchard Hotel still manages to fill their kitchen roster through word-of-mouth recommendations or references from their industry circle, says the restaurant's Masterchef Chung Lap Fai. Spring Court's Mike Ho also maintains an optimistic outlook of the future for traditional Chinese restaurants like his.
"I know going forward, it's inevitable that we have to go with technology and all these nifty machines, so it's definitely a consideration for us," he admits.
"But at the same time, I think slowly, people will come back. Sometimes, things fall out of flavour, but after a while you start thinking about the food your parents used to cook and eat when they were younger, and there's a nostalgia. So there'll always be a place for Chinese food.
"Like after SG50, I saw a lot of Singaporeans become more curious about their roots. That made them proud of their culture and want to go deeper into it, so I believe there will come a time when Singaporean Chinese food will become interesting again." And hopefully, with local chefs who want to cook it.