Food for thought

2014 will go down as a year of plenty for the food-obsessed who had their fill of eclectic cafes, artisanal coffee, restaurant-bars, mod-Sin cuisine, pastry shops, avant-garde cooking, local food producers and everything in between.

Wee Teng Wen

Co-founder of The Lo & Behold Group

For the group, hitting the one-year mark for bar-restaurant The Black Swan and revamping OverEasy "to cement our vision of the quintessential American diner" were the highlights of the year.

Industry-wise, what stood out for Mr Wee was that "for the first time ever, we are starting to see a proudly 'Made in Singapore' food product scene - from vegetables and herbs to granola, popsicles and jams."

Modern Asian cuisine will be at the forefront in 2015, he predicts. "I'm most impressed by the unadulterated Asian concepts in non-Asian countries, all executed with flair and aplomb, such as Pok Pok in Portland. I am excited to see how Singapore can lead the charge in this respect.

"Fine dining is primed for a comeback, but with more innovative concepts that push boundaries, and trade over-the-top molecular gastronomy for timeless classics executed with finesse."

Lo & Behold won't be sitting pretty in 2015, either. The cocktail scene will get a boost when 20-year-veteran Julian Serna of Sydney's Eau de Vie, The Morrison Bar & Oyster Room and Hemmesphere joins them as group bar mentor.

"His innovative approach to cocktails adds a dose of theatre and drama, not yet seen on the local cocktail scene."

The second quarter of 2015 will see them relaunching The Rabbit Hole, the outdoor garden bar of The White Rabbit, as a specialised wine and gin bar, complete with a curated list of wines by the glass and house-made tonics.

"In the later half of 2015, we will also open our flagship fine dining concept, but we can't reveal much now."

Lo & Behold also marks its 10th anniversary this year, and "we'll be working on a company rebranding exercise, and moving offices, which has been a long time coming".

The trend of fusing bar and restaurant concepts is here to stay, "and we like to believe we've had a hand in shaping the scene in that respect, with concepts like The White Rabbit and The Black Swan being prime examples".

What of his pet peeves? "Two words: 'exposed bricks'," laughs Mr Wee. "We're really, really tired of the hipster, industrial look!"

Yuan Oeij

Chairman of The Prive Group

IT was a busy year for The Prive Group: it launched its second Prive outlet in the refurbished Chijmes in September and the hotspot Bang Bang with partners Massive Collective, drawing celebrities such as Gordon Ramsay and

Not to mention beating six other contenders for the coveted Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) riverfront dining spot.

Lobster rolls were Mr Oeij's favourite trend of 2014, with eateries such as Pince and Pints, but he laments how some traditional eateries have cashed out by selling their businesses and recipes.

"Somehow the magic is lost once a corporate takes over the business and tries to expand and 'improve' things. The magic is not just about the recipes or the property but the people and the stories."

With the uncertain economy and tight labour market, "more outlets will close but even more concepts will open up". Like it or not, the gourmet coffee market will still be strong, even as the weaker players get pushed out.

"That said, I would like to see chai tea becoming the next trend - it can be hip, artisanal and extremely tasty with many variations, including different brewing methods."

Smokehouses and New York-style delis will be the new rage, while the Telok Ayer, Boon Tat and Amoy Streets will be even more popular "linking up with Gemmill Lane, Club Street and Ann Siang Hill, creating an F&B enclave that covers a network of streets".

He's hoping to see more "healthier" restaurants too, "emphasising vegetables and healthier carbs and proteins in a pleasant dining environment".

He's fully supportive of "places with soul and character like Bjorn Shen's Artichoke" as well as "unique quality offerings, particularly by home grown operators like Unlisted Collection, Lo & Behold, Spa Espirit and even smaller set ups like Naked Finn and Assembly Coffee".

What he wants to see less of, though, are "no-shows or last minute cancellations; short leases and landlords focusing on high rent not quality; people taking up a nice space and doing something sub-standard with it; pretentious restaurants and bars with snooty attitudes; rude and indifferent staff".

Not to mention the Ministry of Manpower's policies that "constrain the F&B sector's ability to offer world class standards - we are severely losing out to our neighbours like Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Bali".

But what he's particularly looking forward to is his new pet project at the ACM, which "will be an iconic flagship restaurant that will provide guests with a Singapore experience, with great views of its riverfront heritage setting".

Andre Chiang

Chef-owner, Restaurant Andre

Besides managing his flagship restaurant as well as other eateries in partnership with restaurateur Loh Lik Peng, Mr Chiang also took the plunge overseas with two projects: Porte 12 in Paris and RAW in his hometown of Taipei.

Coming in fourth on the Asia's Best 50 restaurant list as well as the guide's Chef's Choice rounded off the highlights of the year for him.

"It was a very productive year and I look forward to happily enjoying it in another hectic and challenging year to come."

Porte 12 and RAW were especially significant moments for him.

"Since Restaurant Andre opened in 2010, we trained so many great talents - it is more about giving them an opportunity and platform to shine, rather than me as 'Andre expanding his empire'. I'm really not into that and I'm not a businessman. I'm just passionate about beautiful things and crazy about art and design besides cuisine."

Casual, trendy lifestyle dining, coffee culture and healthier eating are some of the trends he feels will continue into 2015. The proliferation of tapas bars, cocktail bars, cupcakes and Italian restaurants, on the other hand, were "overkill".

In fact, he sees an upside in healthy dining, and "authentic multicultural cuisine", while "locavorism will continue to grow".

Mr Chiang already has his own farm in Taiwan growing produce for his restaurant: "two hectares of land is a lot for us, and we are currently using less than 25 per cent so there's still other produce we are planning to grow including leafy vegetables, flowers, and fruits, besides developing our own variety".

Detail is going to be the next big thing, "whether it's the coffee you serve in your restaurant, self-grown vegetables, home-made drinks and cocktails, and so on".

As he sums up, "Lifestyle is in, Formal is out; Trendy is in, Old School is out; Healthy is in, Heavy is out; Filter brew is in, Espresso is out; Adapting to the world's vibe is in, Staying still is out; Real good produce is in, Fancy technique is out."

Phillip Poon

Director of Massive Collective

One of the highest points of 2014 was opening Empire, Massive Collective's first bar in the CBD which is literally "high" on the 45th floor of the Singapore Land Tower.

Other new openings such as Sear - a modern steakhouse and oyster bar, and late night dining spot Match, helped expand the group's portfolio beyond clubs and bars.

This came just in time too, as Mr Poon dubs 2014 the year of bespoke cocktail bars that were becoming a little too monotonous for his taste.

"I'm all for a great cocktail but I wish bars would just focus on great service and showing customers a great time rather than the nuances of a cocktail that takes 30 minutes to make."

Which is why he applauds unique F&B concepts by "dedicated and passionate owners focused on a niche concept and doing it well" such as 2am Dessert Bar, The Naked Finn, and Burnt Ends.

Down the road, Mr Poon believes casual food or shared plate concepts will be the way to go, as fine dining becomes more and more of a "hard sell as the economy is not like the better years in the past".

One thing he intends to keep an eye on is the latest trend of healthy food concepts, which has motivated the group to consider expanding their healthy food delivery service Foodmatters into a standalone restaurant or cafe.

It looks like 2015 will be a busy year for the group as well, as Mr Poon says: "We are looking to extend our footprint to other parts of South-east Asia with possible ventures in Jakarta, Bangkok and Bali."

His pet peeves include restaurants with a no-reservations policy, overpriced dessert places, brunch spots, and restaurants. "We have suddenly become more expensive than most cities in the world!" he says.

Karen Seah

Managing director, co-founder of The Big Idea Group

The Big Idea Group has big plans for 2015. They intend to have four new openings, plus carry out a revamp of Marmalade Pantry as part of an "aggressive expansion plan".

This comes on the back of a successful 2014, where the group sold a majority stake to Far East Organisation in February, and saw business improve significantly at their revamped Bedrock Bar & Grill and Japanese steakhouse Fat Cow.

"This tells me that sometimes, all you need is to reconfigure, reshuffle and reprogramme," says Ms Seah, who hopes for the same results at their recently-relaunched Oriole Coffee.

Re-opening Oriole was her favourite project of the year as it allowed her to travel for research and work with top baristas such as Matt Perger and Ben Kaminsky.

In 2015, she believes that "casual dining will still prevail, while fine dining will not be making a big comeback and only the best concepts will do well".

The same principle also applies to the oversaturated cafe scene, where "every F&B hopeful is trying their hand at making another 'hipster' cafe that looks the same as another 'hipster' cafe", so "any concept that has found a unique and well thought through angle to differentiate themselves will have a good chance to make it".

"Good creative unique concepts are in, cookie-cutter hipster cafes are out," says Ms Seah, who encourages the development of local brands that can work overseas, as opposed to people trying to make overseas brands work here in Singapore.

She also believes in the chef-owner formula because it gives the owner control and creativity over the food. At the same time, she warns that "not every creative chef is also a good businessman and if the chef isn't a good finance and operational person, he's going to find himself in the soup. Pun intended."

Loh Lik Peng

Director of Unlisted Collection

The numerous cafes and cupcake shops that popped up last year may have kept the Instagram crowd happy but Mr Loh has had enough of them.

"The copycat thing is so prevalent here. Who needs more cafes and cupcake shops?" he asks.

"I think sometimes the barriers to entry are too low and people assume that doing something mediocre and run of the mill is sufficient because they see someone else doing well. It's a shame to see so much wasted resources thrown into useless concepts. So cafes and cupcakes are definitely out for me."

Craft cocktails also got the thumbs down from him and he hopes it will die out soon. "People need to think up something more original. Perhaps it is time for some interesting small batch craft breweries," he suggests.

The lobster roll prevalence got a thumbs up, because he loves lobster, but Mr Loh was also surprised to see how popular new tapas bar FOC at Hong Kong Street is. "I thought that trend was over but it shows that strong fundamentals can defy trends."

Last year had been a steady year for the group, which owns restaurants such as Bincho, Pollen, Esquina and Restaurant Ember.

While there were no new restaurant openings in 2014, because of a manpower shortage, Mr Loh is bouncing back with three new openings within the first quarter of this year.

Long Play, a bar with light bites, and Sorrel, a tasting-menu restaurant, will open this month. The third: Meat Smith, which focuses on smoked meat will open next month.

For 2015, his hope is "something like the bistronomy movement from Paris taking off here. I do love my fine dining but it is very hard to do well in Singapore with our manpower constraints.

"We have many talented local chefs and I think they can do more with their skills but perhaps not extend their ambitions to fine dining when the setup is so prohibitive and the market so small.

"I'm hoping to do something along these lines myself with Sorrel so hopefully it is a movement that will take off. I love what chef/partner Jason Tan has done at Corner House but it would not be an easy thing to repeat that success."

Cynthia Chua

Founder of the Spa Esprit Group

Don't be surprised if you see the stylishly groomed Ms Chua getting her hands dirty planting vegetables.

In a few months' time, she will be launching Open Farm Community, where there will be a big playground for the family and a great food menu for the kids.

She declined to give more details but says that there will be a sprawling herb garden which will be freshly plucked for the kitchen. "You will see herbs, vegetables and all sorts of fruit trees," she says.

"The casual all day dining restaurant with superb food quality is what I see will continue to grow. Honest good food, cooked well with a good vibe."

Open Farm Community comes after her successful partnership with urban farming consultancy firm Edible Gardens last year, which she says was a high for her.

Together, they have set up a rooftop garden at Wheelock Place which is used for planting vegetables and herbs. The harvest will be for use in Spa Esprit's Tippling Club restaurant.

"The partnership meant that there was a more integrative effort for us to create awareness in gardening and farming projects," she says.

"To see how the back end of farming can be integrated successfully to the front end such that it is more interactive with the consumers is interesting for us. Many spoke about farm to table but I have not seen one that is interactive with the consumers." She hopes to introduce gardens and farming to the community.

Urban farming aside, Ms Chua was also kept busy with her other restaurants last year. She brought a lively vibe to a fairly quiet Martin Road by housing coffee joint Common Man Coffee Roasters and Argentinian restaurant/grocer Bochinche together in a non-descript office building.

Tippling Club's move from Dempsey Hill into a row of shophouses in Tanjong Pagar and a revamp of its food menu proved to be a success, which attracted a strong lunch crowd on top of its busy dinner service.

2014 saw cafes sprouting nearly every other weekend, and Ms Chua believes that the trend will continue this year.

"Specialty coffee has invaded our lives. That will not change and I see more being influenced and the coffee craze will continue to improve. People will get more discerning. It is a worldwide trend, from London to Paris, Berlin and New York. I see this as a really progressive growing trend."

Andrew Tjioe

Executive chairman of TungLok Group

Manpower and rent - two issues that get Mr Tjioe's goat.

For years, the TungLok Group has been known for its fine dining restaurants, but last year, the group started going more into casual dining, with the rebranding of Modern Asian Diner (MAD) into Dancing Crab, and the openings of Noodle Stories and Slappy Cakes pancake joint.

"Our fine dining restaurants are still the main revenue stream for us, and they are doing well," says Mr Tjioe. "But we are undergoing a transformation of the business. Going casual means it is less taxing on manpower, because some operations can be done in a self-service style."

Not just for the group, Mr Tjioe believes that casual dining is the way for the Singapore food scene to go this year. "Even celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay is opening a casual restaurant here," he says, referring to the British chef's Bread Street Kitchen, to open at Marina Bay Sands.

"With more casual dining restaurants opening, it will definitely raise the standard of the food. Even in such a setting, you can get fine quality food," he says.

He admits that he is being very cautious when developing new concepts because of the manpower shortage in the food service industry.

This is also why Mr Tjioe says that the group is unlikely to open any new restaurants in Singapore this year. Instead, he will be focusing on its catering business as well as expanding overseas.

As a restaurateur, Mr Tjioe likes how the local food scene is vibrant, and that diners are "choosy but they can be adventurous, have diverse taste buds, and are open-minded".

His pet peeve however, is the ever increasing rent. "It is disgusting," he says. "It is sucking every bit of my blood." He adds that as rent is calculated on gross turnover, landlords know exactly how much each restaurant makes.

"They make sure you won't die, but you won't be fed either," he says. "If the restaurant does well, they penalise you by charging more rent."

He hopes that with the current lower demand on F&B premises, rents increase will slow down. "Hopefully the landlords will come to their senses," he says.

Beppe de Vito

Owner of the ilLido Group

Nothing gets Mr de Vito more than this: "F&B operators who give sub-standard food and service, and customers go for it anyway simply because it is cheap."

There is none of that at his two new restaurants: &Sons, a drink-centric but food-centred outpost in Chinatown, and Southbridge, an oyster bar in Boat Quay.

"I'm very proud of how well both outlets are doing. We have managed to establish both brands as signature F&B destinations in Singapore in a very short amount of time," he beams.

The group will open three more restaurants this year, ilLido Bali in Seminyak by April, Osteria Art on Market Street by May, and Aura at the National Gallery by September/October.

Mr de Vito is now in the early stages creating the design and style, menus and service experience for the three restaurants.

Aura will be one to watch out for.

"There is a demand for dining in unique and novel locations, and naturally these iconic buildings become part of the demand. But when it comes to opening in locations like this, the concept is important - the product on offer shouldn't scare away the masses with the design, menu and service," he says.

"That was the thought process I had with conceptualising Aura - we wanted a elegant and chic destination that all diners can have access to at any time of the day and for any and all occasions, and that's the model we are after."

He sums up 2014 as the year that saw the trend of 'fun dining'. "Diners want high quality food and drinks and also great service, and they want that in a hip, relaxed environment," he says.

His outlook for 2015 will be one that will see the gradual merger of fine dining and fun dining.

"Restaurant-bars will fuse together personal service, communal tables and non-snobby prices - with the emphasis on elegant and exquisite dishes using fresh or high quality ingredients."

This article was first published on Jan 3, 2015.
Get The Business Times for more stories.