Top Singaporean chefs, where are you?

There has never been a better time to be a chef in Singapore.

The restaurant scene is booming, with figures from the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority showing that about 52 restaurants opened each month last year, on average.

With tighter rules on hiring foreign workers, Singaporean chefs, especially competent ones, are practically worth their weight in gold.

Culinary school options for students wanting to pursue careers in the food and beverage industry have also widened.

Aside from Shatec, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, students can now enrol in culinary programmes offered by polytechnics, and by the Institute of Technical Education, which has a tie-up with prestigious French culinary school Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon.

For those wanting more than diplomas, the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) collaborates with the renowned Culinary Institute of America (CIA) to offer a bachelor of professional studies degree in culinary arts management.

They can also enrol in At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy, which offers diploma qualifications and degree programmes through tie-ups with Johnson & Wales University in the United States, University of West London in the United Kingdom and William Angliss Institute in Australia.

The perception that only no-hopers end up in the food and beverage industry is changing too, with the phenomenal success, and media and business savvy of international chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal from the UK, Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz from the US, and Rene Redzepi, whose restaurant Noma in Copenhagen recently topped British trade publication Restaurant magazine's annual list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants.

Yet, aside from Justin Quek, who headed the kitchen at Les Amis when it opened 20 years ago and then found success in Shanghai and Taipei, and lawyer- turned-chef Willin Low, whose restaurant Wild Rocket has attracted international attention after being written about in publications such as The New York Times, it is hard to name a Singaporean chef who is in the big league.

Michael Han was touted as the most exciting Singapore chef since Quek, when he opened his Armenian Street restaurant FiftyThree in 2009 with the Les Amis group. Trained in law, he switched to a culinary career and worked in restaurants such as The Fat Duck in the UK, Mugaritz in Spain and Noma.

His spare, elegant restaurant, serving food inspired by the places he had worked in, was the hottest reservation for a time but closed in 2012. Plans to re-open on Tras Street have come to nought. Attempts to contact him have also failed.

Last week, when the World's 50 Best Restaurants list was unveiled, two Singapore restaurants made it to the top 50 - Restaurant Andre, headed by Taiwan-born, Singapore permanent resident Andre Chiang, and Waku Ghin by Japan-born, Australia-based chef Tetsuya Wakuda.

Three other Singapore restaurants are in the 51 to 100 list: Iggy's, Les Amis and Jaan. None of their kitchens is headed by Singaporean chefs.

There is no question that Singapore's dining scene is more vibrant with the influx of foreign chefs, who bring with them new techniques and flavours, and provide training for those wanting to get into the industry.

However, in a city obsessed with food, what is holding home-grown chefs back from aiming high?

Am I ready?

This is a question that Joshua Khoo, 29, a Shatec graduate, asks himself when he thinks about getting onto those "best of" lists.

The answer at this time is "No", a sentiment that other young chefs with their own restaurants share.

Khoo and business partners Dylan Ong, 27, and general practitioner Eric Chiam, 41, run three very popular restaurants; Saveur in Purvis Street and Far East Plaza, serving inexpensive French food, and Concetto at The Cathay, serving Italian food.

There are lines out the door but Khoo, who has worked at the now-defunct Guy Savoy at Marina Bay Sands and the Raffles Grill and staged at Tetsuya's in Sydney, says: "I believe it's intimidating to aim to be on the list. Based on my service standards, I'm not there yet.

"If you look at the restaurants on the top 50 list, the super level of food comes with super level of service."

There is a perception also that only high-end or fine-dining restaurants make it to the list, even though Restaurant magazine's Asia's 50 Best Restaurants offshoot, which also has a secondary ranking of restaurants from 51 to 100, features casual places such as Yardbird, a yakitori restaurant in Hong Kong.

Petrina Loh, 31, co-owner of small plates restaurant Morsels in Mayo Street and a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in San Francisco, says: "To get onto the list, there are factors other than just producing good food. You need good service and consistency."

Chefs Dylan Ong (left) and Joshua Khoo (right) of Saveur and Concetto.

She and other chefs grappling with a severe manpower shortage, high staff turnover and the daily grind of managing a business say they can ill-afford the time to plot their way onto the lists.

"We are a very new restaurant," she says of the 16- month-old Morsels. "It will take three years to build a name, build a following. We also need to build a team that can convey our love and vision on a plate. That's hard here."

Marcus Loh, 32, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who owns Mexican restaurant El Rocho's in Circular Road, says: "You get caught up with the daily operations, making your business sustainable."

These chefs are realistic about what it takes to get on the list.

One factor is a well-oiled publicity machinery that gets chefs on the radar of the media and diners.

Loh, who opened his restaurant at the end of May last year, says: "I can bet you that a chef who is on the list wanted to be on the list. You have to know the right people and have the right connections. You have to plan for it from day one; get into competitions and take part in events."


A question of timing

Marcus Loh (above), 32, of El Rocho's

Veteran chef Anderson Ho, 49, who is executive sous chef at Sats Catering and who was chef of the now-defunct restaurants Fig Leaf and Le Papillon, says Singaporean chefs tend to start their careers late.

He says: "The education system doesn't really allow students to have a taste of kitchen life. In Europe, they start at 15. After school, they work in a restaurant kitchen for four hours, washing dishes, peeling potatoes.

"If they have the potential, they are given opportunities to get into the industry. They have a very good head start."

Many of the Singapore chefs interviewed have university degrees and some have had several years of work experience before deciding to switch careers.

Loh from Morsels majored in finance and marketing at the University of San Francisco and has a master's degree in wealth management from the Singapore Management University. She worked in banking for eight years.

Willin Low, 42, of Wild Rocket worked as a lawyer and prepared himself for a culinary career by working for a year in an Italian restaurant and doing private chef gigs for two years.

El Rocho's Loh did a double degree in mathematics and business at the University of Wisconsin before enrolling in the Culinary Institute of America in New York.

Male chefs also have to serve national service, which means they start out in the business at a later age or have to break their culinary training to serve NS.

Their counterparts in Europe work their way through and up the ranks in kitchens around the continent, so that by the time they are in their mid-20s, they would have chalked up eight to 10 years of experience.

Andre Chiang, 38, of Restaurant Andre in Bukit Pasoh, started when he was 13, helping his mother run a restaurant in Yamanashi Prefecture in Japan. He went on to culinary school in Taipei while working in fine dining restaurants there. In 1998, he headed to France and spent years working for Michelin-starred chefs Jacques and Laurent Pourcel, Joel Robuchon, Pierre Gagnaire, Michel Troisgros, Alain Ducasse and Pascal Barbot.

By the time he arrived in Singapore in 2008 at age 32 to head Jaan at Swissotel The Stamford, he had already worked in the toughest kitchens in France, had opened restaurants for the Pourcels and headed kitchens in fine-dining establishments.

Some chefs here get experience in kitchens here and abroad, but may not be able to build up the six to 10 years that veteran chefs say are needed to run a fine-dining kitchen.

El Rocho's Loh says he knew he had a long road ahead and decided to open his casual restaurant quickly because he was "afraid of falling into the procrastination trap".

He says: "I started cooking at 27. I always thought I had to catch up. I knew I couldn't take my time; I saw an opportunity and took it."


The underdog everyone loves

Chef Sebastian Ng(above), who sold his share in Ember to travel and will open something casual sometime down the road.

The proliferation of casual restaurants here serving meals that do not take five hours to finish, in dining rooms that might be quirky or edgy or plain, reflects what is happening elsewhere in the world.

Fine-dining restaurants, which put out the sort of food that propels chefs to fame, are on the wane, says consultant Peter Knipp, 59, who also runs the annual World Gourmet Summit.

"French chefs have opened bistros and there are two Michelinstarred chefs who have given up their stars to open bistros because there is no pressure."

The pressure is something that a restaurateur once told Wild Rocket's Low about.

"He said that when you are on these lists, you are under a lot of pressure," the chef says. "We've all talked about how they are subjective. You can be taken off these lists as quickly as you are on them."

He adds: "We want to be the restaurant that Singaporeans love and the one foreign diners recommend to their friends coming here. "It'll be great if I can hover there, not part of the establishment but the underdog everyone loves."

Christophe Megel, 45, former chief executive of At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy, says: "You have people with three Michelin stars who don't do great business. But if you are happy doing what you do, you run a great business, your customers are happy and speak well about you and you get a great rating on top of that, that's the cherry on the cake."

He gives the example of a recent visit to Immigrants, a gastropub in Joo Chiat run by Damian D'Silva that serves heritage Eurasian and Peranakan dishes.

"It was so packed that half the menu was sold out," Megel says. "That's a great testimony of success."

While Bjorn Shen, 32, of Artichoke at Sculpture Square, a restaurant which serves modern Middle Eastern food, had once aspired to work for famous chefs, he stuck to his guns. He says: "I want to blow people away with what we do, so it's not gonna be five textures of beetroot on a plate."

Sebastian Ng, 39, has run Ember in Keong Saik Road for 12 years, a busy restaurant filled with regulars who love his solid cooking with smart Asian accents, and his skill with a piece of pork belly.

His perfectionist streak has left him stressed out and his doctor is concerned about his cholesterol and blood pressure levels. So he has sold his share in the restaurant to travel, get new ideas and plans to open something casual sometime down the road.

"Honestly, who doesn't want to be on the list?" he asks. "But at the end of the day, that is not my ultimate dream. A packed restaurant and happy customers. That's more important."


Kiss your life goodbye

Peter Knipp (above), 59, who also runs the annual World Gourmet Summit.

To illustrate how difficult it is to find committed staff, Brandon Foo, 28, chef de cuisine of Le Bistrot Du Sommelier in Armenian Street, tells the anecdote of an apprentice who did not show up for work one day and handed in a medical certificate the next.

The chef asked what was wrong and the apprentice said that he was tired.

Foo says: "I told him, 'I'm tired, everyone is tired'. Being a chef is a big commitment, 13, 14, 15, 16 hours a day. But Singaporean chefs can't really commit."

He did not go to culinary school, but was mentored by chef Patrick Heuberger, a co-owner of Le Bistrot Du Sommelier.

Foo has also worked in France, Switzerland and Australia, and at Guy Savoy in Marina Bay Sands.

He was recently named Rising Chef of the Year at this year's World Gourmet Summit's Awards of Excellence.

He says: "The schools show them the bright side. For me, it's wrong.

"If you are running a business like mine, you need to work very hard."

Indeed, the chefs interviewed, even those in their 30s, speak of interviewing and sometimes hiring culinary school graduates who want to skip the hard work and become the next Gordon Ramsay without paying their dues first.

Wild Rocket's Low says he hired a Singaporean graduate of an overseas culinary school who lasted all of one week. On the second day, he takes the chef aside and says: "You are under-utilising my talent by making me chop vegetables."

When Low asks what he thought he should be doing, the younger chef tells him he should be planning the restaurant's menu.

Other chefs laugh when told this anecdote as they have similar stories to tell.

Chok remembers two culinary school graduates who took four hours to filet 40 seabass, but none was useable.

Jason Tan, 32, former chef at Quek's Sky On 57, who has left to open a new restaurant, talks about the focus needed to get to the top.

He has a girlfriend but says: "I hope I can achieve as much as I can, career-wise, before I get married. My parents ask when I am getting married. I say I want to wait."

He adds: "Ever since I've been a chef, I have been prepared to sacrifice. When others are enjoying themselves, I'm cooking. But I'm so used to it."

Not many others are.

Knipp talks of young chefs with swagger. He says: "Their fathers have money to help them open a business. More often than not, they have a rude awakening.

"If you want to be on top, kiss your life goodbye. In Singapore, many young people are pampered."

Quek says wryly of some young chefs: "Sad to say, today, they have a lot of commitments outside of work."

The wheel is spinning

Despite the challenges, the 22 chefs, restaurateurs, culinary school heads and consultants interviewed say it is only a matter of time before a Singaporean chef with enough passion and gumption rises to the top.

Cynthia Chua, 43, founder and managing director of The Spa Esprit Group, which is behind eateries such as Argentinian restaurant Bochinche, Tiong Bahru Bakery and Skinny Pizza, says: "In Singapore, the stigma of choosing culinary arts as a career has only started to ease off in the past decade.

"In the past few years, there has been a definite rise in the number of locals going into the trade, but we still have loads to learn. We are seeing a first wave of local chefs moving into fine dining and it will take time before we are on a par with more mature countries."

Megel says the restaurant scene was small when he came here in the late 1990s. "Now, you see a lot of young, talented Singaporeans going into the business and becoming successful. You must give it another five to 10 years, then we talk about it again. "The wheel is spinning. We need a little more time."

That time, the chefs interviewed say, had better be spent getting a solid foundation in cooking.

Chok and El Rocho's Loh say the culinary programmes here must be more rigorous. They, like others, add that diplomas and degrees are just the beginning, that it is important to find a way to get five to six years of experience abroad.

Yuan Oeji (above), chairman of the Prive Group.

Quek says: "The training chefs get is not solid. In my day, you started from scratch, deboning lamb, making jus. People don't have these skills."

His advice to budding chefs is to not be too eager to start their own restaurants and to do it only when they have a good foundation and a good concept.

Ignatius Chan, 51, who with Quek started Les Amis and who is co-owner of Iggy's at the Hilton Singapore, says a laser-like focus is necessary to reach the top.

He says: "People speak of passion but what is passion? It's something you breathe, you dream, you live."

He gives the example of his friend Quek.

"Justin was willing to use his life savings to go to France to learn," he says. "It's a serious commitment, it's not about working three months here and there, six months in Noma."

Another champion of getting the basics right is Yuan Oeij, 44, chairman of the Prive Group, which owns restaurants such as Prive and Wolf.

He says: "It's more important that Singapore's culinary scene achieves greater depth and breadth, and the accolades will follow.

Chasing stars is the last thing that young Singaporean chefs should be doing. It is far better to pursue the passion, work hard, be inspired and chalk up the experience needed to achieve greatness."


Local good meh

Bjorn Shen (above) of Artichokeew.

Yew Eng Tong, 36, chef de cuisine of Ocean Restaurant by Cat Cora at Resorts World Sentosa, used to think that the best Singaporean chefs could do was work their way up to executive sous chef level in a top hotel and then go on to be executive chef in a four-star hotel.

Support from RWS and taking part in the prestigious biennial Bocuse d'Or competition, named after the famous French chef Paul Bocuse, have boosted his confidence. Last year, he was placed 17th. He is training for Bocuse d'Or Asia in Shanghai in June to qualify for the world competition next year. This time, he is aiming to be in the top 10.

Yet, he still thinks home- grown talents are at a disadvantage.

This even though he has seen with his own eyes foreign imports who cannot put together a menu.

"The really good chefs stay in their own countries," he says. "Those who can't make it, they make their way out."

These are provocative words but his views are shared by some other chefs interviewed.

Loh of Morsels says: "The younger generation, when they go out, they prefer to go somewhere with an ang moh chef and they will pay for it. We know of people who think we are too expensive."

This is a subject Shen from Artichoke is familiar with too.

He says: "More than several diners have asked if the chefs are foreign and are crestfallen when told I am the chef."

The discrimination extends even to ingredients, says the chef, who champions local produce and tries to use them as often as he can in his dishes.

He says of chefs who have worked for big names: "They are influenced by their role models and working with all this premium stuff. Local mushrooms, good meh?"

The same question might well be asked about local chefs.

Gwern Khoo, 33, a Shatec graduate who has worked at Iggy's and Waku Ghin, decided to open a hawker stall at Amoy Street food centre with classmate Ben Tham, 31. Their stall, called A Noodle Story, sells what they term Singapore-style ramen.

Asked why, he says: "I don't have a money man behind me and I want my food to have mass appeal. So I start off doing it small, then expand."

He adds: "If an investor opens a fine-dining restaurant, a brand-name chef is important. If he pumps in $5 million and there is a Singapore chef who is good, Singaporean diners might not be willing to pay $300 to $400 for a meal there."

Culinary consultant Jimmy Chok, 44, who in 1997 opened Fig Leaf with Sats' Ho and who has run restaurants such as Salt, Academy Bistro and Bistro Soori, says "Singapore diners don't believe in paying for local chefs. Restaurant Andre, Jaan, Gunther's, they are all charging a certain price. They are packed".

"It is so hard to charge a decent price in a locally run restaurant."


Singapore's next top chefs?

Brandon Foo, 28

Chef de cuisine, Le Bistrot Du Sommelier

Experience: Started his career as a kitchen helper in the now-defunct New York New York restaurant in Citylink Mall, then went on to work at Au Petit Salut, where he found a mentor in chef Patrick Heuberger, who went on to Le Bistrot Du Sommelier.

Foo has worked in France, Switzerland and Australia, and in the now-defunct Guy Savoy at Marina Bay Sands. He was named Rising Chef of the Year recently at the World Gourmet Summit's annual Awards of Excellence.

Timothy Goh, 33, director of wines for the Les Amis Group, says: "I have been impressed by the quality and authenticity of his food. I have travelled to France and eaten at so many good bistros, his food is very similar to what I have had there.

"I'm proud that he's a Singaporean. That's why I go to Le Bistrot Du Sommelier, even though we have our own Bistro du Vin brand."

Tan Hsueh Yun, 46, food editor, The Straits Times Life!, says: "It's hard to tell, tasting chef Foo's food, that he did not grow up in France eating a French mama's cooking. I would eat there more often if it was easier to get a table."

Yew Eng Tong, 36

Chef de cuisine, Ocean Restaurant by Cat Cora

Experience: The Shatec graduate has worked his way through establishments such as Traders Hotel in Tanglin Road, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Singapore and The Cliff at The Sentosa Resort & Spa. He represented Singapore in the Bocuse d'Or competition last year, coming in 17th. He is working towards being in the top 10 in the 2015 competition, one of the toughest in the culinary world.

Christophe Megel, 45, former chief executive of At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy, who is mentoring him for the competition, says: "He has incredible culinary talents and also understands what cuisine is all about. He has developed incredible skills while preparing for the Bocuse d'Or, where technical tasks have to be worked to perfection."

Wong Ah Yoke, 52, food critic of The Straits Times, says: "Eng Tong's contemporary Western dishes at The Cliff were well thought-out in terms of matching ingredients' flavours and textures, without trying to be edgy.

"But now at Ocean Restaurant, he seems to be restricted by the culinary direction set by Cat Cora, which is more mass market. I feel that he can be better if he is given more room to stretch himself."

Jason Tan, 32

Opening a new restaurant

Experience: The Shatec graduate was chef de cuisine at the now-defunct Julien Bompard restaurant and went on to head the kitchen at Sky On 57 by Justin Quek at Marina Bay Sands.

He also worked for a year at the award-winning restaurant Robuchon a Galera in Hotel Lisboa, Macau, in 2006, and has represented Singapore in the Bocuse d'Or competition, coming in 18 in a field of 34 in 2009.

Quek says: "My role today is to train people. In his 31/2 years here, he did a good job and I told him that he should go open his own restaurant."

Tan Hsueh Yun says: "I've followed chef Tan's career since he headed the kitchen at Julien Bompard and his food has such finesse. One time, on the fly, he made some foie gras ice cream that I desperately wanted more of."

This article was published on May 4 in The Straits Times.

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