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Chef to Watch: Han Li Guang Breaks The Mould

Labyrinth banker-turned-chef owner ready to surprise jaded palates at new Esplanade Mall location.

A local breakfast of soft-boiled eggs conjures up to mind two wobbly whites to be speared and muddled with a dash of dark soya sauce and a sprinkle of pepper. But what if the pepper turns out to be ground almond, and the dark soya’s sweetened balsamic cream?

At Restaurant Labyrinth, chef-owner Han Li Guang challenges preconceived notions. It’s hard to believe he once put a Scotch egg in the microwave and saw it explode in his face. Or that the accounting and finance graduate from The London School of Economics and Political Science gave up a high-paying job in the banking industry to become a chef.

Swipe left/right to view Han’s innovations.

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The 31-year-old initially baulked when he realised the salary cut he would have to take in order to venture into F&B. Han recalls his encounter with the former general manager of Mandarin Oriental, Singapore, where he applied to be a management trainee after spending a year at investment company Goldman Sachs. “He told me I would be on rotation doing the laundry, room clean-ups, and working in the kitchen. But, when he told me what my starting pay would be (less than half of what Han earned at Goldman Sachs), I decided not to take the job,” says Han.

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Local flavours come packed in different forms, like these kaya macarons and rojak parcels, at Restaurant Labyrinth.

Instead, he took up a position at Citibank, and started working in the kitchen of fine-dining Italian establishment Garibaldi for free over the weekends. “I thought that if I stayed in a bank longer and earned more money, I could start my own restaurant after that,” says Han. This burning desire to climb to the top fast is how he got to experience prepping and cooking over a hot stove at Garibaldi. “I have a really good memory, so if I taste or see something, I can remember it really well,” says the chef, who worked with chef Mauro Colagreco of two-Michelin-star Mirazur in France and Alvin Leung of three-Michelin-star Bo Innovation in Hong Kong.

It’s also how he mastered food science quickly. “When you freeze something, its taste changes – spice and salt levels go up, sweetness comes down,” shares Han, who taught himself how to use different powders and equipment to create the right textures and flavours. His bold experimentations have been well-received. When Restaurant Labyrinth opened in Neil Road in 2013, he was lauded for his innovations like chendol xiao long bao (soup dumplings) and chilli crab ice cream. His recent move to a bigger 60-seater space in Esplanade Mall solves the issue of having to turn away guests at his former Tanjong Pagar outlet, which could only seat 20 at one time.

The bigger kitchen in the Esplanade restaurant also allows Han to whip up new creations. For instance, a bowl of century egg porridge, served complete with a “raw yolk” in the middle to be stirred in as an extra treat. But the first spoonful of Han’s version defies all expectations of the savoury congee. Instead, what you get is a dessert where the porridge is really tau huay (soya beancurd), with grass jelly resembling pieces of century egg and salted egg custard being the raw yolk in the middle. Time for a Home Run Banker-turned-chef Han Li Guang is ready to surprise even the most cynical palates at his new space in Esplanade Mall.

He is also on version 11 of his signature chilli crab ice cream, which was conceived during the planning stages of his initial idea – a dining-in-the-dark concept – some years back. “I wanted familiar flavours that still deliver an element of surprise,” he says.

Labyrinth_Chilli Crab_Credit John Heng

A quenelle of chilli crab ice cream.

“I couldn’t just serve chicken rice or chilli crab pasta straight up. Otherwise, what’s stopping you from going home, switching offthe lights and eating takeaway chicken rice in darkness?”

No surprise, then, that the next dish on the menu is likely to be his take on the treasured heritage dish. Rather than going fusion and doing chicken rice sushi or stuffed chicken, Han is stretching his limits and working on a dish that uses neither the meat nor rice.

And this is exactly why Han shines. In a time when chefs celebrate local by using home-grown produce, he stands out by teasing out surprises from familiar favourites that add a new dimension to our food memories.

Check out our other chefs to watch: Kirk Westaway | Andrew Walsh | Bryan Chia & Petrina Loh | Ivan Brehm

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Food Picture credit: John Heng for Labyrinth