SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Singapore restaurateurs look back at the highlights of the past year, give their observations on industry trends and share their plans for the year ahead.
Loh Lik Peng
Director of Unlisted Collection
IT has been a busy 2015 for hotelier and restaurateur Loh Lik Peng. The opening of the Old Clare Hotel in Sydney ranks high on his list, and its much-praised restaurants Automata headed by chef Clayton Wells - previously of Momofuku Seiobo - and Silvereye by Noma veteran Sam Miller. Back in Singapore, he also opened Gallery&Co at the National Gallery, 5th Quarter at Vagabond Hotel in collaboration with hotelier Satinder Garcha, and Sorrel earlier in the year. He says: "That is all behind me now so I think 2016 will be a little more relaxing I hope!"
Looking forward, "2016 is going to be more about consolidation" for the Unlisted Collection. One of his priorities will be Sorrel - head chef Johnston Teo left suddenly a few months ago - where they are "looking to refresh the concept". Industry-wise, he picks the National Gallery's opening as one of last year's biggest milestones, while "2016 is the year for the Michelin Guide to have a large impact", and it might even spark "a revival of fine dining or at least sophisticated dining".
In the meantime, the tapas trend, to him, is "like burgers, if done well it will always have a place", and the same goes for the growing popularity of using sustainable ingredients which is "a large mega trend". While he has enjoyed most of 2015's food trends, "perhaps there were too many churros and trendy wonton noodles". He also hopes "to see the trendy gourmet burger trend slowing down" in the year ahead.
Wee Teng Wen
Co-founder of The Lo & Behold Group
A MAJOR highlight of The Lo & Behold Group's 10th anniversary in 2015 was the launch of Odette - one of the hottest fine-dining restaurants of the year - in partnership with chef Julien Royer at the National Gallery. That was their contribution to what co-founder Wee Teng Wen feels was the biggest milestone of the year - the opening of the National Gallery - as "it brought together some of the nation's best F&B talents housed in one venue". The coming year's big project will be the opening of Warehouse Hotel in the fourth quarter, as well as launching an alfresco area for The Black Swan.
For him, 2015 was "a celebration of all things local" and there were more Singaporean influences across the industry. "In fact, all around the world we're starting to see a global ascension of Asian cuisine, from Korean influences on food truck fare, to Vietnamese influences on bistros, and I'm excited to see the same happen for Singaporean cuisine," he says.
He observes that the industry is shifting away from "just being food-focused to shining a spotlight on the people behind the food as well as the experience". Consumers are more concerned with the "holistic experience of dining out", while establishments "populate the kitchen and front-of-house with top talent".
Down the road, he predicts that industry collaborations are going to become more popular, such as Singapore Cocktail Week and the recent charity drive to raise funds for the head chef at Stranger's Reunion. Other trends include the "rise of the humble chicken as a celebrated modern casual dining staple", and "a wave of diners seeking simple, unpretentious and unadulterated dishes".
Beppe de Vito
Restaurateur of ilLido Group
IF there's one thing Beppe de Vito appreciates when it comes to food, it's authenticity. So he's particularly glad that "classic cuisines" made a comeback in 2015 as "diners are placing more emphasis on quality of food and dining experience". The restaurateur opened four dining establishments last year - ilLido Bali, Osteria Art, Aura, and ilLido At The Cliff - all serving Italian cuisine.
For the coming year, he believes that "everyday and simple foods like pizzas will be taken to a whole new level, and given a new spin through the emphasis of the ingredients and origins", and his plans involve expanding their variety of concepts by introducing "trendy bars focused on restaurant-quality food".
As for what's in and what's out? Healthy things like superfoods and vegetables, as well as "forgotten age-old ingredients and recipes" will be in, while molecular gastronomy slowly makes an exit.
Founder and CEO of Spa Esprit Group
2015 was the year Cynthia Chua got her hands dirty and teamed up with Tippling Club's Ryan Clift as well as local urban farming community Edible Gardens to launch Open Farm Community in Dempsey. "To see how a local farm can be set up in an urban surrounding is interesting for me and I have a long way to go. It is challenging to keep pushing the farmers to see how the crops can be acclimatised, and pushing the chefs to be creative in interpreting the local crops," she reflects.
It continues to be a source of great pride and excitement for her, especially the farm-to-beauty element which will see further development in 2016, when they start "working closely with a certified herbalist to develop a range of beauty products and treatments using the herbs and plants grown in our urban gardens", with the hopes of giving their beauty brands' customers an "all-rounded experience from origins to end products".
Observing the industry overall, Ms Chua appreciates the creativity that has been going into recent new concepts, and how a "small cosy set-up rather than big-format restaurant works well now", such as Naked Finn, Bird Bird, Grain Traders, Maggie Joans, and Lazy Susan, to name a few. "I think they are original, intimate, and add diversity," she says, adding that such concepts will likely grow this coming year as well. "Casual and fun dining is still what people want these days. We call it FBA - food beverage and ambience."
Chef-owner of Odette
IT comes as no surprise that Julien Royer's top moments of 2015 revolved around the opening of his restaurant Odette at the new National Gallery Singapore, where the "response has been truly outstanding" and customers have "enjoyed the overall dining experience". That's where he is focusing all his energies now, and is busy working on new dishes plus a vegetarian tasting menu.
Other highs include JAAN ranking 11th on the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list for 2015 when he was chef de cuisine, having a memorable meal at Ultraviolet in Shanghai with his wife and friend, and cooking for the first time in Tokyo.
He is unconcerned about the latest trendy cafe, and believes "what works best is honest, genuine food" because "whether they pay S$5 or S$500, diners look for dining experiences that offer good value". Which is why in the coming year, he predicts that fine dining will be in again, along with vegetarian food and quality produce, while cocktail pairings, small bite-concepts and overly complicated menu concepts are on their way out.
Head chef of Bacchanalia
IVAN Brehm has always believed in the importance of provenance, so his hope for the coming year is that people will continue to question that as well as the quality of every ingredient. "At Bacchanalia, we have been heavily committed to showcasing products like caviar and truffles in equal footing to things perceived as more mundane or even trivial," he explains.
This was made even more possible last year after the award-winning restaurant moved from its 100-over-seat space at Coleman Street to a cosy 36-seater at Hongkong Street where staff can easily engage with customers to explain the thought processes behind each dish.
He cites Michelin's launch in Singapore and the relocation of Asia's 50 Best as two of the most significant events of 2015, and hopes this will bring "greater objectivity and understanding of quality, outside of marketing budgets".
As for predictions on where the industry is headed, he believes the scene will be "casual chic in style, highly competitive, but also more universal in styles of cuisine" and there will be a "greater focus on artisan craft like fermentation, brewing and ageing", which are examples of an "international trend that is deeply rooted in the exchange of information and technique".
Chef-owner of Cure
AFTER what he called a 16-year "apprenticeship" working for other people, 2015 was the year Andrew Walsh finally got to helm his own restaurant - Cure - at Keong Saik. It was the highest point of 2015 for the 32-year-old who earlier in the year was working as the head chef of Spanish tapas bar Esquina (by Jason Atherton and Loh Lik Peng), before helping to design the menu at the Latin American cocktail bar Vasco.
Despite the challenges of running his restaurant last year, chef Walsh looks ahead with the belief that "you will always have issues in terms of manpower, rentals, costs of produce etc as it's part of the DNA of a good restaurant - if it was easy then everyone would be doing it". One of his upcoming projects next year is "Cure at home", which will involve "cooking in people's homes with the Cure experience".
Industry-wise, he hopes to see more casual fine-dining restaurants "where food is amazing and very good pricing for value", and thinks the focus will be on "sustainable ingredients and working as one to respect them as it affects us all."
Han Li Guang
Chef-owner of Labyrinth
CHEFS are not a rational breed of people, and that includes himself, says Han Li Guang of Labyrinth. With this train of thought, he predicts that more fine dining restaurants will open in Singapore this coming year, despite the current state of the economy. "To receive a Michelin star is a huge honour for any chef," he explains. "It might be the nudge that some people need to open restaurants next year, and it might also attract chefs from nearby countries that don't have the Michelin guide to open in Singapore in hopes of winning a star."
For him, he is just thankful that the year of SG50 has put a spotlight on local chefs like himself, as well as a greater emphasis on the need to protect our hawker heritage - a cause he champions at his own restaurant. In fact, one of his most memorable moments in 2015 was presenting Singapore cuisine at the San Sebastian Gastronomika in Spain, alongside other big names in the industry. "I would say 2015 was the year the world came to know Singapore food a lot more than in previous years," he says.
For 2016, Labyrinth will remain on its path of going "deeper into tradition while pushing the boundaries in the modernist cooking style, without losing the essence of Singapore cuisine".
Chef-owner of Hashida Sushi and Hashida Garo
SINGAPOREANS are no stranger to Japanese food, and in 2016, it seems more of their food trends just might hit our shores once more. According to Kenjiro Hashida, some of the trends to look out for include the cruffin (cross between a croissant and a muffin), healthy soups with no noodles or MSG, healthy cooking oils, and a renewed focus on the use of vegetables in dishes.
He reflects on his opening of Japanese tea gallery Hashida Garo last year (just upstairs from his first restaurant Hashida Sushi) and says: "In hindsight, I feel I might have been a little too early to start this concept, but hopefully tea drinking (as opposed to coffee) will continue to gain in popularity and appreciation."
Going forward, he expresses excitement at the industry's development as a whole - with things such as the Michelin guide coming to Singapore - and hopes it will create "a new stage for restaurants and chefs to show what they are capable of".
Owner of Immanuel French Kitchen, By The Fire, and Garcons
THE food of SG50 was one of the biggest milestones for Immanuel Tee, who observed the way people were being creative about local food and hopes it will "inspire the younger generation to take pride in our cuisine".
For him personally, 2015 was the year he opened two new concepts - By The Fire at East Coast Road, and Garcons at The Pinnacle@Duxton - in addition to his first French hawker stall Immanuel French Kitchen which opened in 2014. So far, Garcons has been better received as its location gives it "a strong lunch and dinner crowd", while plans are in the works to revamp By The Fire into another Garcons outlet.
In fact, he has plans to open another Garcons outlet in the first quarter of this coming year, as he hopes his affordable French grill concept will appeal to customers as "comfort, straightforward and fuss-free food (comes) back in demand", and "the next trend will be good old classic cuisine".
Founder & executive chef of The Disgruntled Chef
DANIEL Sia is a huge fan of coffee and burgers, so he's especially glad that places such as London's MeatLiquor and Hong Kong's The Butchers Club opened in Singapore last year. Not to mention how "cafes and coffee joints are always popping up throughout the year - there's always a new brew to sip," he says.
He started his restaurant about five years ago, when the "small plate-big plate concept of dining was almost unheard of in Singapore" but is glad to see that it has become mainstream since then. Last year, he opened a fine dining version of The Disgruntled Chef at the luxury boutique hotel The Club. While there was concern at first about having to split himself "between two kitchens and create distinct menus for each restaurant", it eventually worked well as each eatery has attracted their own distinct customer base.
Designing new menus twice a year is likely to keep him busy in 2016 along with a few other projects that he intends to reveal in the next few months.