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Keeping Food Haute - How fine dining chefs stay relevant in unpredictable times
IS FINE DINING dead? Has ‘Casual Upscale' replaced it? With economic headwinds coming our way, will the purveyors of S$300 menus and above be among the first casualties or will luxury ingredients and table-side service win out? With the fickleness of diners, the shift towards sustainability and the emphasis on value-for-money, chefs and restaurateurs in Singapore look at the issues facing the fine dining scene and share their own experiences.
UPGRADING THE PRODUCT
Fine dining isn't dead - but the way it's presented has changed. The days of jacketonly dress codes are gone, but the luxury experience in the form of presentation, quality and value still remains, according to chef-owner Emmanuel Stroobant of Saint Pierre.
Fresh off its recent accolade of a second star in this year's Michelin Guide awards, the restaurant is preparing to close for two months in January for a complete facelift and reopening in March. He saysthat the restaurant's private room will be reconfigured to offer more window-seating to take advantage of its vantage Marina Bay waterfront view. Everything from the kitchen to plates and table sizes will be fine-tuned with a view to "upgrading the experience from business class to first class".
Chef Stroobant, who returned recently from a trip covering three Michelinstarred restaurants in Europe with fresh culinary insights, foresees fine dining as less about luxury ingredients per se but about "more small specialist producers working with chefs". He adds, "I see more human stories, like a chef building personal relations with their suppliers and farmers, and adding some of their own personality into their menus."
As for the six-year-old Kisho Japanese restaurant in Scotts Road, a full renovation is in store, even as resident chef Kazuhiro Hamamoto also adopts the personal touch with his sourcing of ingredients.
Rather than relying on suppliers, Chef Hamamoto visits Wakayama each year to handpick ume plums for house made Kisho Umeshu. He also heads to Kyoto and nearby Miyazaki; and Karatsu in Saga prefecture for seafood such as aka uni, abalone and fish. And for extra exclusivity, he also reaches out to smaller artisanal producers for varieties of soy sauce or sake that are new to Singapore diners.
While many fine dining places sing the seasonality tune, Shigeru Koizumi of the modern kaiseki restaurant Esora goes deeper into micro-seasonality. For example, the Japanese divide the year into 24 periods starting from Spring, which are further subdivided so you have a new micro season that lasts five days when a different part of nature comes to life. So from say, Nov 7, winter would have begun and the land starts to freeze. That would yield ingredients specific to that period, such as buri from Hokkaido which is at its peak from Nov 7 to 11, says Tan Ken Loon, owner of Naked Finn who also has a business supplying micro seasonal and sustainable seafood to Esora and other fine dining restaurants like Odette.
Other seasonal ingredients include Shisamo, Fugu, Sawara and Sanma, "a fish that travels from the cold waters of Hokkaido towards Honshu in the fall," he says. "My mother used to grill Sanma fish in autumn and serve it with rice and a bowl of hot soup. This November, I use the Sanma in a donabe and serve it over warm rice with miso soup."
ADAPTING TO TRENDS
Tristin Farmer, executive chef of the newly-minted two-Michelin-starred Zen, charges upwards of S$450 per diner but presents haute cuisine in totally nonthreatening surroundings.
He sees merit in a casual approach, mindfully creating a familial dining atmosphere. The boundary between kitchen and dining hall is not as clear as in the past and it is no coincidence all dishes are finished table side in this restaurant. He says, "We have seen a big increase in open kitchen restaurants and chefs are starting to be more present in the dining room, serving guests and simply making conversation. We treat our customers like family. It's simple like that."
THE RIGHT PRICE
Price point is a key consideration for diners when evaluating a dining experience, says Sebastien Lepinoy of the three-Michelinstarred Les Amis. According to him, one star restaurants are typically priced from 80 to 120 euros (S$120 to S$180), two stars from 120 to 250 euros and three stars – more than 300 euros.
But he notices cases particularly in Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong, where one and two star restaurants easily charge more than what a higher level Michelin restaurant would cost.
Even with a great meal, diners may still find it difficult to reconcile the price they pay, benchmarked against a three star restaurant, or if they feel they get better value in another city.
"This is definitely something restaurants here need to address," he adds.
After a difficult first six months when business dropped by 20 per cent, Les Amis has been full since Sep 17, when it won its third star. For comparison, the current Autumn degustation menu is priced at S$420, while a four course classic menu starts at S$270.
Chinese executive chef Cheung Siu Kong at one-Michelin-starred Summer Pavilion feels that it is imperative for a chef to be at the restaurant himself."The language of fine dining is intimacy, we are speaking about personal tastes and preferences of our diners, down to the details. Diners also place trust and confidence in us, so our being here assures them that the dining experience will be well managed."
He sees Chinese cuisine moving away from a communal dining style to more refined presentation, to appeal to sophisticated diners. In his case, "we present lobster broth in a beautiful vessel and pour it only at the table to keep the heat," he says. "We also serve Chinesestyle petit fours to elevate the dining experience."
He is a great believer in the personal touch, and adds that the future for Chinese fine dining hinges on a new generation of chefs with enough experience and foundation to take things further.
All of which leads to fine dining not diminishing, but evolving into more memorable experiences.