Cynics who step into new restaurant The Summerhouse at Seletar Aerospace Park will call its edible garden a gimmick – yet another place joining a list of eateries trying to grow their own herbs that eventually end up as mostly garnish.
That is, until they get a chance to speak to chef de cuisine Florian Ridder. At 28, he has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants around Europe for the last nine years. The Summerhouse is his first venture out of star-studded kitchens, and the 966 sq m garden – the size of a resort bungalow in Sentosa Cove – is Ridder’s happy place.
It was just two years back when the former head pastry chef at three-Michelin-star La Belle Epoque in Travemunde, Germany, found himself in a funk. Having left La Belle Epoque to open a Moroccan restaurant in Hamburg, he was deeply uninspired.
“I realised I had lost my connection with food and where it comes from,” he says. “You get a bit brainwashed working in a three-star kitchen.”
Though he honed his craft at acclaimed restaurants such as La Belle Epoque and Piment in Hamburg, he remains at heart an earnest chef with a desire to evoke in diners the same emotions that a plate of his favourite spaghetti bolognaise – made with minced meat and a dash of cinnamon – sparks in him.
The Germany-born reveals that if he had not got a call from acclaimed German chef Juan Amador with an offer to come to Asia for the first time, as part of the opening team at Alma in Goodwood Park Hotel, he would have become a farmer.
“I need to be connected to the source of food. These days, you call the supplier, get the produce and it is done. It annoyed me in Germany, and then I came to Singapore where nearly 100 per cent (of produce) is imported and it’s 1,000 times worse,” says Ridder.
“Then, you have kelongs in Singapore that can’t sell their products because people would rather import from somewhere else.”
– Florian Ridder, chef de cuisine, The Summerhouse
So, rather than pay top dollar and burn fuel importing ingredients such as Italian tomatoes, he uses the cherry fruit from nearby Cameron Highlands instead.
Fish and prawns are supplied by a local kelong, Seafood Culture, their flavours then enhanced with herbs such as basil from the garden.
Take a starter of kelong-fresh tiger prawns. The prawns are lightly grilled to enhance the sweetness of the meat with a lick of char. A dusting of burnt lemon powder and an intense Thai basil cream completes this tasty morsel. Mains like a locally farmed pan-seared grouper come with inspired touches like a slightly pungent belacan-infused reduction with orange blossom hollandaise and carrot pesto.
“I don’t agree with spending so much to bring in ingredients from around the world and causing air pollution and waste,” says Ridder. “Then, you have kelongs in Singapore that can’t sell their products because people would rather import from somewhere else,” he continues.
Hunting down local produce makes for interesting stories to tell, too. The milk, for instance, is imported from Europe, but not before he had gone so far as to track down a local cow farm that rears Holstein Friesians, the same breed of cows he is familiar with back home, only to discover the farm (and milk) didn’t, well, smell good.
Though it takes effort and commitment to keep to his cause, his face lights up when he talks about the fresh produce he gets straight off the kelongs. “Every morning, when the prawns arrive, they are jumping around so much in the box,” he enthuses. “People always think the grass is greener on the other side, but why not look for something that is just as good, right where you are?”
PHOTOGRAPHY Vernon Wong
ART DIRECTION Fazlie Hashim