Ten Singapore restaurants on the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list but not a single one run by a Singaporean chef. Is there hope for local talent to get into the list? Chefs and restaurateurs weigh in.
Loh Lik Peng
Director, Unlisted Collection
"As a group, we did very well with Andre and Burnt Ends so I can't really complain. That said, I think there is still not enough recognition for Asian cuisine restaurants - it is, after all, an Asian list. It's true that none of them are helmed by Singapore chefs. This is because opportunities are quite thin for Singapore chefs and they don't get enough backing from investors and the eating public often overlooks them. We have a new generation of chefs coming up now such as Jason Tan at Corner House, and in our group we are making great efforts to groom local chefs. We have Sufian Zain (Ember) and Johnston Teo (Sorrel) and Alex Phan (Sorrel) and we continue to look for more.
Willin Low of Wild Rocket and Malcolm Lee of Candlenut Kitchen, for example, are doing very well and gaining a lot of recognition. They're perhaps not as prominent as some restaurants on the list because they don't have the same profile internationally. This does not mean their food is not as good but it will require more effort to promote them. We have a lot of local talent but as a country we are not really doing well enough in promoting them internationally.
Some countries actively promote their chefs by bringing reviewers into their country and bringing them to the top restaurants. They also send their top chefs overseas for promotional events. We don't really do this because it's not really any government agency's job to do this, hence it gets little attention. It's a question of bringing the top Singapore chefs to the attention of the reviewers out there. They can't review restaurants if they don't know about them."
Wee Teng Wen
Co-founder, Lo & Behold Group
"It's only a matter of time before Singaporean chefs are listed alongside heavyweights from the region.
The standard of cooking is not what is lacking - we have amazing chefs doing brave and exciting things as well as a rich hawker history. The issue lies in voters appreciating what Singaporean chefs have to offer on the same level as Asia's 50 Best establishments.
It simply means being patient. Chefs here have only begun delving into Western cuisine very recently and Mod-Sin even more so. It takes time for them to establish themselves, especially when much of Singapore's culinary history lies within the realm of humble street food. I have no doubt that Singaporean chefs - especially Willin Low - will carve a name for themselves and get onto the list one day.
The new voting process helps close the geographical distance and provides more equal representation in voting which is a definite push in the right direction. It's a good thing because this broader panel approach gives a more faithful representation of the region's tastes at a given time. Looking at the world's make-up, it makes little sense for the global gourmet yardstick to be of a European slant. But it could be interesting to compare the awards of the Asia-based panel versus the global one to see what sort of differences there are in votes."
Chef/owner, Restaurant Andre
"A journalist asked me which country I think in the next five years is going to be leading the trends, and I said 'Korea'. In any Michelin restaurant in Europe now, you see young Koreans in the kitchen. So it won't happen now - maybe in five to 10 years' time, but these young cooks will go back to their homeland and start their own restaurants.
There are a lot of great Singaporean cooks everywhere in the world learning in New York, Spain, France, learning with the best, and it will take time for them to get more mature.
Take me, for example. I spent 16 years in France before I arrived in Singapore. Sixteen years ago you can't compare Singapore then to what it is today. Everything takes time. In Restaurant Andre, for example, my pastry chef is Singaporean. In the batch of young chefs we already see, some have started to sprout. It will take more time to be globalised and seen internationally. Maybe in another five to 10 years but we can't force it. Singapore started a bit later than other cities but it's growing. And when it happens it won't just be one or two (chefs), it'll be a big wave."
Chef/owner, Wild Rocket
"As with any list, a level of subjectivity is present and naturally will attract some controversy - it will always be in favour of a certain group/type of restaurant more than another. Can or should the best restaurant of a country be one that is not the cuisine of that country? For example, the best restaurant in Thailand this year doesn't serve Thai food. No list is completely 'fair' but what's important is that this list celebrates good restaurants and that in itself is a good thing.
(Just because a Singaporean chef is not on the list) doesn't say anything about the standard of Singaporean chefs who have won numerous prestigious awards internationally. There were no Vietnamese restaurants nor traditional Sri Lankan and Malaysian restaurants listed either. Surely this doesn't mean the cuisines are not of a certain standard. I think we musn't take the label of Asia's 50 Best too literally.
I think chefs should never do anything to get to any stage. The only audience we are seeking to please should be our customers and we should cook to our best abilities for them. If anyone or any list wishes to recognise our efforts then it is a bonus and a pat on the back."
Chef/owner, Candlenut Kitchen
"I have no doubt about the quality and standard of the restaurants on the 50 Best list. But I would like to see more representative cuisines of each country - indigenous cuisines that expose the rest of the world to the vibrant and diverse world of Asian cooking. There are so many cuisines yet to be discovered in Asia and I'm sure we as foodies would be excited to discover and taste them.
At some point, Singaporean chefs should be on the list, to fly the flag for Singapore, to demonstrate the talents of our local chefs. It would be weird, for example, to have no Japanese chefs on the list for Japan. Local chefs need to take ownership of the diverse and unique food culture here. We have much to learn and we can definitely improve and push further and aim higher. In turn, diners need to show their support to local establishments and chefs, which gives them that motivation and drive to do even better for their guests.
Of course, we aim to one day be on that list to represent Singapore and Peranakan cuisine.
Willin Low is also doing very interesting things at Wild Rocket and it is a very distinct and unique style of Modern Singaporean cuisine.
So we should take the risk and go for it. We need to stay connected to the past and use it as a foundation to move forward. We have to create a unique style of cuisine, be it modern Peranakan or modern Singaporean, for a dining experience that you can only have in Singapore."
"I haven't looked at the results. The awards are based on the perception of 300 people - do you know how many people live in Asia? They could maybe account for 0.001 per cent. It has more commercial value than real value. The most important thing is concept; food is secondary. I've been to a lot of five-star restaurants, and I've been very disappointed.
There's no value in the Singaporean chef. Justin Quek is the exception, but I don't think he's very interested in being in the limelight anymore. When you have a European chef, people tend to give you more attention.
When I started my first fine-dining restaurant, I had calls from people, and they would ask me, 'Is your chef European?' They feel that a French restaurant has to have a French chef. Chef Andre has good marketing and is a great chef.
No one's going to come in and open a fine-dining restaurant and say, I'm going to hire a Singaporean chef. I think Singaporean chefs should leave the country, go somewhere else, and do local food in a fine-dining setting, and then once you've made a name for yourself, then come back to Singapore. Make a name for yourself outside Singapore, then you'll be appreciated at home.
"I think it'll take another 20, 30 years (for Singaporean chefs to be recognised). (But) I feel that people abroad are paying attention to our food. How do we take advantage of this attention? Singaporeans have to have more faith in their local chefs, and not compare them to hawker chefs. We have to appreciate our local chefs and give them encouragement. I really salute the ones trying. Who else will keep our heritage alive?"
Ex-director of At-Sunrice Culinary Academy, president of Bocuse D'Or Singapore, Founder of F&B consultancy A-Munition
"Chefs are always for me a community. Every time we do something, we do it to represent who we are, what we do, the country we operate in.
If somebody asked me today are you French or Singaporean, I'd say, yes, I have a French passport, but I am a Singapore chef. When I see 10 Singapore restaurants on the list of Asia's 50 Best, I say damn it! That is pretty good because that's serious stuff. It's not like having three or four. Who is behind that, yes it's the chefs, but it's not an individual human.
Tetsuya Wakuda made it so clear. What a great example of incredible leadership. First thing he said (when he won the lifetime achievement award) was 'It's my team'. What's the team made of? Not all foreigners, right?
We have a great pool of talent coming along, and it will take a little bit more to see them mature. I know it's going to happen. The same way when I undertook the challenge with At-Sunrice, I knew it's going to happen. Everybody said to me 'It's crazy'. But it's happening!"
With additional reporting by Avanti Nim
This article was first published on Mar 14, 2015.
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