Singapore foodies spoilt for choice with at least 14 food festivals
Diners here seem to have an insatiable appetite for food festivals.
By the end of this year, there would have been at least 14 of them.
These include the Restaurant Association of Singapore's month- long Singapore Restaurant Month, which started on July 1, and Indian food festival Suvai at the end of last month, organised by the Indian Chefs & Culinary Association (Singapore).
Both are held in conjunction with the Singapore Food Festival, which had its 22nd edition this year.
Four festivals made, or will be making, their debut this year: Singapore Restaurant Month, with 50 restaurants each offering one dish to mark Singapore's Golden Jubilee; Citibank's $100Gourmet, which started in April; Epicurean Journeys by The Luxury Collection Hotels & Resorts in June; and Gastro + Tipple by Sphere Exhibits, a subsidiary of Singapore Press Holdings, which starts at the end of this month.
This works out to more than one festival a month, although organisers tend to avoid January, February and December because of New Year, Chinese New Year and Christmas.
April was the busiest month for foodies, with the World Gourmet Summit (WGS), World Street Food Congress, Gourmet Japan and the start of the year-long $100Gourmet.
More food festivals are in the pipeline, organisers say, although they are secretive about their plans, as they battle one another for sponsors and partners.
Any talk of festival fatigue seems pointless, as diners continue to lap up the offerings. Festival organisers say they are making money or breaking even.
None of them will say how exactly the money is made, only that it is from a combination of ticket sales, booth rentals (for festivals that have them), profit sharing and sponsorship.
So why are people flocking to the festivals?
Mr K.F. Seetoh, 52, founder of food guide Makansutra and organiser of the World Street Food Congress, says: "To say we are a foodie city is an understatement. People can't get enough of culinary experiences - anything that breaks the monotony.
"What else is there to do in Singapore? A food festival is like going to a new playground. The offerings push their palates by not offering bastardised food."
Others say the festivals are different enough that there is something for everyone.
The World Gourmet Summit, which will have its 20th edition next year, is one of the oldest in Singapore. It draws famous chefs from abroad to cook here.
Mr Peter Knipp, 60, who runs the annual event, has brought in chefs who are stars, or who later became stars, in the culinary world. Spanish chefs such as David Munoz and Sergi Arola, French ones such as Anne-Sophie Pic and Pierre Herme, have been headliners.
4xFour, by the team that organises outdoor festival Savour, also brings in foreign chefs, but with an emphasis on what the organisers call "trending" ones. These include Mads Refslund, co-founder of Noma, who is now consulting head chef of Acme in New York; and Hiroki Yoshitake of Sola in Paris.
This year, the hot ticket is British chef Ollie Dabbous, whose London restaurant Dabbous has a 12-month waiting list.
Similarly, the selection of chefs in Citibank's $100Gourmet is anything but stuffy. The year-long programme that began in April has included Anthony Demetre from Arbutus and Wild Honey in London, and Nick Bril from The Jane in Antwerp. Each chef works with two restaurants in Singapore to present two different menus.
Mr Seetoh's congress scours the world to bring in authentic vendors to tickle the tastebuds of people who live in a city state with a very strong street food culture.
In their festivals, Gourmet Japan, Gusto Italiano and Salon Gourmet, Sphere Exhibits and food consultancy Poulose Associates work with restaurants here to put up show-stopping dinners paired with wine or spirits.
Mr Francis Poulose, 47, managing director of Poulose Associates, says: "We wanted our programmes to be 80 to 85 per cent local chefs and 15 to 20 per cent foreign guest chefs.
"When the foreign chefs leave, the rest need to survive the next 360 days. We want people to have a reason to go back to these restaurants to dine, so we curate the best there is locally."
He adds: "People want to see value in the produce, in the beverages served, perhaps in the guest chef. They have to be able to see value. Otherwise, why go? There has to be a unique selling point."
For Savour's Darren Chen, 36, content and pricing are key to attracting people.
Savour, which started in 2012, is an outdoor festival where foreign and local chefs offer plates of food that cost no more than $18 each. It also has a gourmet market, masterclasses, a hands-on cooking studio, wine workshops and other events for people to explore.
Mr Chen's 4xFour, which started in 2013, is an annual pop-up restaurant at a different location each year. An eight-course dinner costs $288, with Visa cardholders paying $248. The event is sold out every year.
On starting Savour, he says: "The main thing for me, looking at what was out there and being a diner myself, there were all these dining experiences, all very inaccessible.
"So we thought about an event where people could have access to chefs in one location, accessible pricing, good content such as demonstrations. Everything we have built is about access."
And content, as he stresses: "The one thing I've learnt over the last couple of years is that content is king. When you want to grow attendance, it's about the content."
"The only thing I understand about the market is content, pricing and access. Otherwise, you are just doing a private event."
These are issues which also concern the other organisers, who have to make sure events remain attractive to Singapore's notoriously fickle diners. They also have to think about attracting younger diners.
Mr Knipp says: "The diner has evolved massively on all fronts. Diners are more inquisitive. They want to find out not just about the chef, but also the menu, the wines and whiskies before they make a decision. They are asking more focused questions. They are not just going to the dinners because the chef is familiar. They are asking why they should come."
He says he has been noticing younger diners at WGS dinners, people in their 30s, and is working to appeal to them. "I have a new generation coming," he says. "That is a wake up call."
Also tapping into a younger demographic is Sphere Exhibits. It is starting a new festival, called Gastro + Tipple, on Aug 24, which pairs food with cocktails. Maybank card members pay $89, other diners pay $138, for a three-course meal paired with three cocktails at 11 restaurants, including The Pelican Seafood Bar & Grill at One Fullerton, UNA at Rochester Park and The Disgruntled Chef at Dempsey Road.
Mr Poulose says: "We are constantly looking for opportunities, for gaps in the market. The other events we organise are more serious and wine-centric. This one is to reach out to the younger demographic. It's meant to be novel and fun."
Diners who go to these festivals say they do so because of the opportunities they get to taste food by famous chefs, rub shoulders with them and enjoy a great evening out at a restaurant they might not otherwise go to.
Plastic surgeon J.J. Chua, 49, says he makes his choices based on the venue, reputation of the chef, the alcohol pairing and pricing.
He says: "The menu is different from the usual fare served in the restaurants. I look forward to going to a restaurant that I haven't been to before and, often, I go back after the event.
"I went to a Gourmet Japan event at Syun in Sentosa and I would go back again as the menu is exciting, the chef is friendly and the captain used to work in a restaurant I frequented."
Ms Hope Wee, 55, a lawyer, attends up to four festival or wine dinners a month, "as a reward for working hard". The friends she has made also show up regularly at these events and organisers know to seat them together.
"I enjoy myself; get to know new people and learn new things," she says. "Sometimes, the wine and food pairing is magical. There is usually a convivial and warm atmosphere."
Younger people who flock to Savour and other outdoor events say these festivals are a chance to sample a wide array of food and see famous chefs in action.
Ms Natalie Koh, 24, a creative assistant manager in an events company, says of Savour: "There were lots of chefs from around the world and the food was good. Prices were a fraction of what the chefs would charge. It's a really good deal, to get to try so many restaurants in one place."
She goes with three to four friends and they pool their money to buy food, which they share.
Going forward, organisers of these events have taken or are looking to take their festivals overseas.
Mr Chen will be organising Savour in Shanghai. The event will run from Oct 22 to 25 at The Hub, Hongqiao, a new integrated shopping, dining, entertainment and retail area.
He says: "Other cities on our radar include Beijing, Tianjin and Chongqing. We have a three-year plan to build Savour in at least five cities."
The rising median household income in China and the clamour among its people for new experiences, he says, makes it a good destination for expansion.
Also on his radar are Thailand, Malaysia and one location in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, he will take 4xFour to Beijing in November this year, and Shanghai in May next year. The event debuted in Mumbai in April this year and will be held there again in November. His company is looking to take it to Delhi too.
Next year, there might be a World Street Food Congress in a regional country, says Mr Seetoh.
"Three regional countries are talking to me," he says. "One wants to firestart its street food culture, two others are negotiating to bring in the event."
Suvai, too, is looking abroad.
Chef S.R. Bala, 41, president of the Indian Chefs & Culinary Association, which organises the event, says: "If everything goes well, we will have Suvai in Singapore one year and overseas another year."
Expression of interest has come from Dubai and India.
An Indian food festival in India?
He says: "They don't have mee goreng, sup tulang or kambing soup. They don't even have fish head curry."
What to look out for
What: This festival showcases the chefs and food offerings at the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort. Look out for a farmers' market with produce flown in from Canada and the United States.
Where: Marina Bay Sands, Sands Expo and Convention Centre, Basement 2, Halls D and E
When: Today, 11am to 9pm
Price: $28, food prices start at $3
Info: Call 6688-8826 or go to marinabaysands.com/epicurean-market
Gastro + Tipple
What: Have a three-course meal paired with three cocktails at 11 restaurants, including Bedrock Bar & Grill, Bumbo Rum Club and Post Bar.
When: Aug 24 to Nov 27
Price: $89++ for Maybank cardholders, $138++ for others
Info: Book online at www.gastro-tipple.com from Aug 21.
What: A guest chef from overseas works with two restaurants here each month to present two menus. This month, Australian chef Luke Burgess, formerly of Garagistes in Hobart, pairs with Rene Knudsen of Opus at Hilton Singapore, and with Diego Jacquet of BoCHINche.
When: Opus - Aug 22 (lunch), Aug 21 to 25 (dinner), BoCHINche - Aug 28 and 29 (lunch), Aug 26 to 29 (dinner) Price: $100++ (Citibank card members), $180++(regular) for a six-course degustation menu
What: A selection of top Italian restaurants here create special menus that are paired with wine. This year, the restaurants include Oso, Buona Terra and Gattopardo. Three Michelin-starred chefs from Italy will be hosted at Dolce Vita and The Lighthouse.
When: Sept 1 to Oct 11
Price: Dinners range from $110.40++ for HSBC cardholders, $138++ for others, to $304++ for HSBC cardholders, $380++ for others
Info: Book online at www.gustoitaliano.com.sg
What: Four trending chefs from overseas take turns to cook at this pop up restaurant, which sets up in a different location every year. This year's line-up include Ollie Dabbous from England, Davide Scabin from Italy and Paco Morales from Spain.
Where: 39 Harding Road
When: Oct 28 to Nov 20
Price: Lunch (six courses), price to be confirmed, Dinner (eight courses), $248++ for Visa cardholders, $288++ for others
Info: Book online at www.4xfour.sg from Sept 1
This article was first published on August 16, 2015.
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