Foodie Confidential

Hotelier Richard Helfer is sweet on farm fare

Chairman of One Farrer Hotel & Spa Richard Helfer's passion for the hotel's farm can be traced to his childhood days

Hotelier Richard Helfer calls himself a bag man.

The chairman of One Farrer Hotel & Spa in Little India says, chuckling: "I don't care if it's gummy bears or potato chips, or anything that comes in bags. I can open the bag and eat its contents in one sitting.

"You can take it away if I've had just a few pieces and I'd be okay with that. But when I've gone past 50 per cent of the bag, then it's just easier to finish it. After all, in this weather, chips get soggy."

Even though he has lost 14kg over the past few months by reducing his sugar and carbohydrate intake, Dr Helfer still has his cheat days. He says: "For one lunch, I just had soup with some bread. Then, I had a scoop of ice cream with gummy bears on top. Yes, I do cheat sometimes."

The 66-year-old American's obsession with gummy bears is the reason there is a jar of the colourful sweets in every room in the hotel. And his foodie experiences have influenced the hotel's offerings too.

His passion for the 11,000 sq ft farm on the hotel's seventh-floor mezzanine stems from his childhood days growing up in Michigan in the United States, on his grandfather's 162ha farm. The family raised animals and grew vegetables.


    My Hawaiian salt-encrusted steak, cooked medium rare, and topped with melted Stilton cheese. 

    It will be served with a baked potato with all the fixings, and fresh asparagus. 

    For dessert, I’ll have durian pancakes and a very good bottle of Burgundy.

The Hawaiian pineapples grown at the hotel and the Hawaiian Luau Feast at its swimming pool on Thursdays are inspired by the 1980s period that he lived in Hawaii. He met his 60-year-old lawyer wife there. She is currently based in Honolulu and they have no children.

After years of setting up hotels in Canada, Hawaii and the US, Dr Helfer arrived in Singapore in October 1986, as the general manager of The Westin Stamford and Westin Plaza hotels. He was the founding chairman and chief executive of Raffles International and Raffles Holdings from 1989 to 2003, where he oversaw the building and operations of Raffles Singapore and grew the business to a stable of 36 hotels and resorts worldwide.

After he left the group, he set up RCH International, a consultancy business focusing on the hospitality and tourism sectors, and in 2007, joined the board of The Farrer Park Company - which owns One Farrer.

Some of his late mother's recipes also feature in the hotel. One example is her Dilly Bread, made with dill from the hotel's farm. It is available at the Escape restaurant.

He says, jokingly: "My mother gave me all her recipes. Back at Ah Teng's Bakery in the Raffles Singapore, she would not attend a ceremony that was held to recognise the cooks. She said she was upset and that the taste wasn't the same. I'm not sure if she ever forgave me, maybe she should have just given me one or two recipes."

What are your thoughts on the urban farming scene in Singapore?

In Singapore, we import a lot of what we consume. But now you can find locally grown kale and eggs. The difficulty is with expenses and space. Many places grow spices and herbs because you can become more self-sufficient faster and it doesn't take much space. Trying to be totally self-sufficient is not possible in the hotel, but we have enough herbs. With papaya and sweet corn, we use what we have. And our durian tree will take a few more years to bear fruit.

What are your childhood memories of food?

My earliest happy memory was eating in our home kitchen during preparation time. I would sneak in to eat unbaked cookie dough.

What are your favourite restaurants in Singapore?

Sky on 57 restaurant at Marina Bay Sands for chef Justin Quek's food and anywhere where chef Otto Weibel is involved. I have known both chefs for a long time and their food is always of high quality. I love people who love their food.

Where do you go for a taste of home?

Cafe chain Dean & Deluca for four-cheese Mac & Cheese; Huber's Butchery in Dempsey Road for hearty Swiss food with housemade sauerkraut; and Local Fresh Seasonal at One Farrer for spam musubi, to pay homage to my days in Hawaii.

What are your favourite local foods?

Pink snapper barbecued on banana leaf with sambal chilli, Sarawak pepper squid and kang kong with belachan from A1 BBQ Fish at Newton Food Centre.

What was the first dish you made?

Mac & Cheese with four cheeses. I always use mild and sharp cheddar, which melt well; and romano and parmesan. When I was in school, I would have Kraft macaroni and cheese mixed with hot dogs. Most Singaporeans would remember Maggi mee instant noodles with the same fondness that I have for Mac & Cheese.

What is always in your fridge?

Celery, carrots, dark chocolate bars and gummy bears.

If you could invite someone, dead or alive, to a meal, who would you choose?

My mum, who died last year at the age of 100. We'd have her Mac & Cheese and fried chicken, with our favourite chaser, single-malt Scotch.

What do you think of the culinary scene in Singapore?

There is too much of the same thing. I don't think we lack creativity, but if I see you doing well with your concept, chances are I would do the same thing. It's like the bubble tea trend.

What do you think can be done?

It is good to have celebrity chefs, but we need to worry more about establishing the young chefs and our unsung hawker heroes. Singapore didn't build its reputation on gourmet food, but on good hawker food that is uniquely Singapore. But somehow, hawker food has become like foodcourt food. I always tell people that there is a major difference between foodcourts and hawker centres - if both come too close, then you lose both.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 04, 2016, with the headline 'Sweet on farm fare'. Print Edition | Subscribe