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50 Years of Fine Food

Singapore's gourmet dining scene over the years, mapped out.

Imagine a pristine white scalloped-edged plate. Perfect cubes of eel arranged neatly under a disc made from buckwheat flour, from which little sea succulents peek out.

This is art on a plate, as presented by one of our city’s top chefs, Andre Chiang. But more than just sitting pretty, the sophistication of food presentation today is also a mark of how our fine-dining scene has evolved.

Otto Weibel, co-founder of F&B consultancy Ottscott, says: “When I first came to Singapore in 1973, there were only a few hotels with good restaurants. People didn’t have other fine-dining options.

“Back then, the focus was more on the taste of the food. We didn’t have such exciting plating styles as we do now.”

But, as the economy grew, fine dining began to flourish. Diners started looking for more exciting offerings, and this came in the form of luxe ingredients and new ways of presenting food.

“When I opened (now defunct) Le Saint Julien in 2002, I intended it to be a bistro,” says Julien Bompard, executive chef and management consultant of restaurant Scotts 27.

“But opening Le Saint Julien when the economy was recovering (from the Asian financial crisis in 1997) pushed it towards becoming a high-end restaurant in the end, because people would come and ask for caviar, lobster bisque or oyster.”

Bompard also started plating his classic duck confit in a martini glass, as diners requested for a more elegant presentation. This just goes to show that a pretty plate is really more than that– how a dish is plated also reflects the state of the economy, and a chef’s ability to adapt. We take a look at plating as an embodiment of Singapore’s evolving dining scene in the last 50 years.

(WATCH: The very same chefs execute the plating process with finesse and surety.)

1960s – 1970s

STYLE: Rule of three

STATE OF AFFAIRS: Singapore gains independence in 1965. Economy is slowly growing, but unemployment rate is still high and economy faces challenges due to scepticism over British withdrawal and the separation of Singapore from Malaysia.

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Roast pork with boiled vegetables and sauteed potatoes. Prepared by Gan Swee Lai, executive chef of Gordon Grill.

As economic growth was still in its initial stages, fine dining was considered an extravagant affair that was usually reserved for special occasions or business meetings. A hotel restaurant, like Gordon Grill at Goodwood Park Hotel, was where people would head for a good meal.

“Back then, fine dining was very formal and stately,” says Michael Cheng, director of F&B at Goodwood Park Hotel. He has been with the heritage hotel for 32 years. The highlight of the fine-dining experience then was the restaurant ambience and the quality of the food, more so than how food was presented. For instance, Gordon Grill was the first restaurant in Singapore to offer Black Angus beef, and Cheng shares that “this steak was what the restaurant’s guests usually came for”.

According to Gan Swee Lai, executive chef of Gordon Grill: “Plating then followed an ‘ABC’ style – A would be the meat, B would be vegetables, and C would be the starch, like potatoes.” It was common to place these three components side by side on the plate, with a simple gravy drizzled over the meat.

Gordon Grill was also the first establishment to introduce the French-style wagon service, which would be wheeled out to diners to introduce the meat special of the day. The roast would then be carved and plated tableside with the vegetables. “The emphasis was more on the quality of the food, as well as value for money, with heartier portions so diners would be full. The food presentation was simpler, not as refined and with fewer frills,” says Cheng.

1980S TO 1990S

STYLE: Minimalist (with Japanese influences)

STATE OF AFFAIRS: Singapore recovers from the 1985 recession, and unemployment rate is at a record low in 1990. Economy is more matured as South-east Asia enjoys greater growth. Singapore’s direct overseas investments perform well.

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Chartreuse of asparagus with scrambled eggs and caviar. Prepared by Sebastian LePinoy, executive chef of Les Amis.

Hotels remained the main go-to places for fine dining up until the early ’90s, when Les Amis – Singapore’s first independent French fine-dining restaurant – was established in 1994. At this time, chefs were also just coming into the spotlight.

“In the late ’60s and ’70s, chefs did not even get to plan the menus. It was the maitre d’ who would tell them what to put on the menu, because they were the ones talking to guests every night,” says Sebastian Lepinoy, executive chef of Les Amis.

(Read how Lepinoy broke the mold at Les Amis and turned it into the famous restaurant Singapore has today.)

This changed in the ’80s, when chefs started coming out of the kitchens to meet diners. “Nouvelle cuisine gained a lot of traction then and broke down the rigorous rules of haute cuisine, allowing non-French chefs like Les Amis’ first chef-owner, Justin Quek, to interpret French cooking with lighter Asian interpretations,” says Raymond Lim, spokesman for the Les Amis group.

Nouvelle cuisine is a Japanese-inspired minimalist style of cooking and presentation pioneered by Michelin-star chefs like Paul Bocuse and Alain Chapel. Thus, local chefs started experimenting with different ways of plating food to make it look neat. A common style that emerged was one where chefs used a ring mould to shape the main ingredient and place it at the centre of the plate.

“Back in the ’90s, chefs did not decorate the plate with edible flowers or micro herbs yet, although plating was gradually given more importance,” says Galvin Lim, executive chef of Les Amis group.

EARLY 2000S

STYLE: Stacking

STATE OF AFFAIRS:  Singapore was just coming out of the Asian financial crisis of 1997. The economy was also affected by the Sept 11 terrorist attacks in the US in 2001, and the Sars epidemic in 2003.

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Tau kwa tower with sauteed vegetables and salad. Prepared by Oscar Pasinato, chef-owner of Buko Nero.

The restaurant scene took a hit with back-to-back fiascos like the Asian financial crisis and the Sept 11 terrorist attacks, which marked a move away from the extravagance of fine dining. Chefs began looking for ways to reduce costs. “In a crisis, chefs have to look into their food costs and spend less money on the ingredients, without compromising on quality,” shares Oscar Pasinato, chef-owner of Buko Nero. “I discovered one way to do so was to use local ingredients, and turn it into something visually appealing,” says Pasinato. This is how he came up with the idea of a tau kwa (firm tofu) tower, stacking the ingredients high to create an intriguing aesthetic.

Despite being Italian, he honed his culinary skills in France back in the early ’90s, and his choice of tau kwa as a base and Western salad at the top mirrored a growing trend of fusion cuisine then. This was largely inspired by Alain Chapel, whose love for using ingredients from different parts of the world in one dish made it easy for the culinary world to transition from nouvelle to fusion cuisine.

“Stacking was also a way to hide the flaws of ingredients. So, if chefs had a less premium cut of tuna, they could just chop it up into tartare and use it as a base,” says Pasinato. Given the intimate space of Buko Nero, he notes that diners were often intrigued when they saw the tau kwa tower being served to another table. Fifteen years later, the dish is still on the menu by popular demand. “It ended up being a dish that would market itself,” says Pasinato.

2006 TO 2009

STYLE: Spherification (molecular)

STATE OF AFFAIRS: The rise of the Internet age in Singapore, as usage grew rapidly from 2000 to double that in 2006. The Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008 brought about a period of economic downturn.

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Mozzarella spherification with tomato ice cream and basil emulsion. Prepared by Emmanuel Stroobant, chef-owner of Saint Pierre.

As the Internet grew in popularity, global food influences began to make an appearance here. Most significant was the rise of molecular gastronomy and tapas joints (see Style: Sharing plates). Acclaimed chef Ferran Adria had begun his creative food experimentations at El Bulli in 1994, and his discovery of foams and freeze-drying revolutionised the course of fine dining, earning him top spot on the World’s 50 Best list by British magazine Restaurant for four consecutive years from 2006.

“Two schools of thought emerged: the French style of cooking, and the Spanish,” says Emmanuel Stroobant, chef-owner of Saint Pierre. The award-winning Belgian chef designed a 24-course molecular gastronomy menu at the World Gourmet Summit in 2007, introducing diners to a new interactive dining experience where they had to inject syringes of olive oil into freshly baked buns, and try bak kut teh (meat bone tea) with herbal foam.

“With molecular gastronomy, we were moving away from the idea that food had to be on a plate or presented in the form it came in,” says Stroobant. Stringy mozzarella, for instance, could be turned into a golden liquid sphere; tomatoes into ice cream, and olive oil into dust or caviar pearls. “Plating was more about emphasising these new techniques and what chefs could do,” he says.

Molecular techniques also gave chefs a way to innovate without having to spend on quality ingredients, when times were bad. “If you are going to create a beef spherification, there is obviously no need to purchase top-grade wagyu for it,” says Stroobant.

2010

STYLE: Conceptual
STATE OF AFFAIRS: The economy rebounded sharply in 2010, following a dip in 2009 after the Lehman Brothers minibond saga. The two integrated resorts – Resorts World Sentosa and Marina Bay Sands – also provided a great economic boost.

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Artisan – Caille/ Aubergine/ Smoked Eel. Prepared by Andre Chiang, chef-owner of Restaurant Andre.

The opening of the two integrated resorts in 2010 further transformed Singapore’s dining scene and put it on the global map, as celebrity chefs like Tetsuya Wakuda, Wolfgang Puck and Gordon Ramsay set up shop here.

More tourists were flocking to our shores, and they were “looking for something interesting”, shares Andre Chiang, chef-owner of Restaurant Andre. The arrival of celebrity chefs also raised the bar for local chefs to step up their game. In 2010 alone, there was an influx of new ideas and concepts as the economy recovered and a new pool of food tourists emerged. The likes of modern cuisine, farm-to-fork and sharing plates were all taking shape during this time.

(Read Andre Chiang’s exclusive insights and editorial with Gourmet & Travel by The Peak here.)

“What came out of the molecular wave was that chefs started to realise how precise cooking could be, learnt more about temperature control and how to work with produce to get best results,” says Chiang, who trained under Michelin-star chef Pierre Gagnaire.

Plating styles changed from presenting techniques, to enhancing the ingredients on a plate instead. Tired of foam and gels, people were looking for hearty food with emphasis on artisanal produce.

“It became important to enhance a dish and its natural flavours,” says Chiang, whose dish of smoked eel (from a small producer in the Netherlands) and aubergines from Kyoto mimics Monet’s water-lilies painting, while at the same time re-creating the natural environment of the eel.

“Here, you don’t see the technique anymore. It’s more of creating art and the experience of tasting the produce,” says Chiang.

2010

ALTERNATIVE STYLE: Rustic

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Feta burrata with green tomatoes.Prepared by Jonathan Lee, head chef of Artichoke.

While chefs like Chiang retained molecular techniques to create conceptualised plates, others like Bjorn Shen and Jonathan Lee from Artichoke were pioneering another movement: farm-to-fork. This called for using produce from small non-industrial local farmers, which was also a reaction to celebrity chef restaurants that import most ingredients.

“In theory, farm-to-table is about showcasing produce in its natural state, without doing much to it,” says Lee, head chef of Artichoke. The restaurant was one of the first to grow its own produce for harvest and to work with urban farming projects like Edible Gardens and Comcrop in 2012. Lee had also done a four-month stint in Denmark, where he picked up the art of foraging, so commonly found in Nordic cuisine.

“I learnt about plants like fiddlehead ferns in Europe that I never knew grew in Singapore too,” says Lee.

This marked the emergence of a visual aesthetic that called for rustic food presentations. Wooden boards and metal pans were the plates of choice. “The real challenge of farm-to-table in Singapore was to convince locals that our own produce could taste as good as imported ones,” says Lee, who gives the example of abalone and willow mushrooms from Kin Yan Agrotech farm.

These mushrooms, he shares, are actually richer in flavour and meatier than porcini mushrooms. So, it was even more important to treat produce simply so these local flavours had a chance to shine, and support it with the right tableware to make it look good.

2010

ALTERNATIVE STYLE: Sharing plates

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Crackling suckling pig and seared scallop carpaccio. Prepared by Daniel Sia, founder and executive chef of The Disgruntled Chef.

Spanish cuisine, on the whole, was on the rise in Singapore, fast becoming on a par with French dining.

With more tapas joints popping up on the scene, the idea of sharing plates became popular among diners, and local chefs started to interpret the term “tapas” in their own ways.

“I thought the Spanish tapas concept was interesting and could really take off , but, at the same time, too many tapas joints were serving non-authentic food like chicken wings, which gave the term a bad rep,” says Daniel Sia, founder and executive chef of The Disgruntled Chef. Sia trained under Michelin-star chef Marco Pierre White, and was formerly from Les Amis restaurant.

Rental prices for retail spaces were also skyrocketing in this period, as demand for space increased due to more restaurants opening. “Back when I was working at The White Rabbit (in 2008), I had a team of 14 people working on the menus. But I realised the effort taken to beautify dishes was wasted because people were just ordering a set to share – before the plate was sent out, they would ask for the portion to be cut into two,” Sia says.

Thus, he came up with the concept of small and big sharing plates. This also helped defray rising rental costs, which had long succeeded food costs as a primary concern.

“Doing a small/big plate concept means we don’t have to send out two dishes at the same time, because diners will be sharing,” says Sia. “This lets us reduce our kitchen size, so we can utilise the rest of the restaurant space by putting in more seats.”

2015 (PRESENT)

STYLE: Instagram-friendly

STATE OF AFFAIRS: Smartphone penetration is highest globally at 85 per cent, according to a survey by Google Barometer. National Gallery Singapore and the Singapore Pinacotheque de Paris open, as Singapore moves towards being an art hub.

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Red dragon fruit with passion fruit, and watermelon assam sorbet. Prepared by Malcolm Lee, chef-owner of Candlenut.

#Artofplating.

A quick look through photo- and video-sharing social platform Instagram will reveal over 35,000 posts (and counting) with the hashtag above. And for a food-obsessed nation like Singapore, the development of technology and social media has made it easy for diners to start documenting what they are eating. Instagram, despite the protests of acclaimed chef Michel Roux Jr, who found taking pictures of food disturbing for other diners, has become a direct marketing tool for chefs.

“I had been on Instagram for a long time but I never really uploaded photos,” says Malcolm Lee, chef-owner of Peranakan outfit Candlenut. “Then, I started putting more pictures up on Instagram and more friends started asking questions and wanting to come and try my food,” says Lee, who was named Chef to Watch in 2013 by The Peak Selections: Gourmet & Travel.

This got Lee thinking about how he could leverage on social media to reach a wider crowd, especially one that is more well-travelled and exposed to different cultures. He is working to turn his a-la-carte offerings into a tasting menu, and plans to offer predesserts using local fruit like jackfruit and passion fruit.

“I realised people tend to gravitate towards local flavours jazzed up in a modern way, and our local fruits are very bright in colour so they look good in photos,” says Lee. “Each element must also be focused and distinct, so diners know what is in the dish the minute they see a picture of it.”

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Watch how the plates above were assembled in our exclusive behind-the-scenes video.