Foodie confidential: Chill with chilli crab

Restaurant Labyrinth's Han Liguang has no intention of becoming a celebrity chef.

When asked if young chefs are disillusioned by what seems to be a glamorous job, the 29-year-old bachelor nods in agreement.

He says: "It's a fair statement as many young chefs have unrealistic dreams. My aim is not to be a celebrity chef. I just want to serve good food. Food has to be good before the creativity comes in. There is a lot of hard work behind the scenes."

Unlike many chefs who were mingling with guests at food festival Savour 2014, chef Han, who ran a booth on the first two days of the event, was busy dealing with a crisis.

Just as the doors opened for hungry guests, his deep fryer stopped working. Yet he kept a brave front and fixed the issue in an hour, while calmly speaking to diners and explaining the signature dishes from his modern Singaporean restaurant in Neil Road.

Think chendol xiao long bao with pandan-flavoured skin filled with red bean, coconut, gula melaka ice and grass jelly, dipped into a gula melaka sauce.

His restaurant's signature dish, Singapore chilli crab, features an ice cream made with chilli crab sauce, mantou sand, crab bisque mousse topped with caviar and crispy soft shell crab.

These avant-garde interpretations of local cuisine come from an accounting and finance graduate who did only "microwaving" in his university days at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

A chance to make bread-and-butter pudding during his examination period ignited his love for baking as Han - born to a Thai mother and Singaporean father - found it to be "very relaxing".

After three years in the banking industry, he took an apprenticeship at Italian restaurant Garibaldi and was chef-consultant for Tanuki Raw at Orchard Central.

He opened Restaurant Labyrinth last month. On his culinary journey so far, he says: "It's like being in the army. But I told myself, you only live once. Opening a restaurant has been the biggest adventure of my life. It is the toughest, but the most rewarding."

What are your childhood memories of food?

Like most young Singaporeans, I grew up eating hawker food as well as Thai dishes since my mum is Thai. I also ate a lot of McDonald's and dishes such as fish and chips.

Which are your favourite restaurants?

For simple and good French food, I go to Gunther's. For pasta carbonara, I go to Garibaldi. Both restaurants are in Purvis Street. For noodles and fried rice, I go to Chinese restaurant chain Din Tai Fung - it's not the best but it's value for money.

What are your favourite desserts?

Tiramisu. It's hard to find a good one in Singapore, but I think the Da Paolo group of restaurants does a pretty decent tiramisu. I used to crave molten lava cakes, until I started making them. I can drink Taiwanese bubble tea every day. I like the milk tea from bubble-tea shop Eskimo.

What's your guilty pleasure?

A solid pan-fried foie gras.

Are you an adventurous diner?

Sort of, but I draw the line at eating pests such as rats and insects. I like codfish sperm, kangaroo and crocodile meat - all of which are catching on and more people are eating now.

You go back to Thailand every year with your family. What must you eat when you go back?

The Thai version of chill crab, but with no shells, from the popular restaurant chain Somboon Seafood. I also go around eating street food such as prawn rolls.

What local foods did you crave when you were studying in the United Kingdom?

Nasi lemak and roti prata.

What's on your foodie wishlist?

To dine at the now-defunct elBulli in Catalonia, Spain, and learn how they conceptualised their cuisine.

What's your worst kitchen disaster?

It happened within the first two days of opening Restaurant Labyrinth. We take 12 hours to make a tomato consomme that is used to make a "mozzarella balloon". One night, we had 14 diners but served the balloons to only 13 of them as we had run out of consomme. I ended up making a fresh batch in 10 minutes to serve to the 14th guest.

What's the biggest challenge you've faced so far?

Manpower. I've had a service manager and waiters not turn up for work. I think there should be regulations for when contracts are not honoured. The balance of power has shifted to the staff and they can quit any time.

If you could invite someone to a meal with you, who would you pick?

My grandfather, in his 80s, who used to run the now-defunct Cairnhill Steak House. I would love for him to try my food one day.

euniceq@sph.com.sg


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