Food trends that ruled 2017, and a look forward to 2018

Chefs and The Sunday Times food team look at food trends and give their take on what should stay or go

Food wastage struck a chord with chefs and restaurateurs as the biggest food and beverage trend this year.

After all, the average Singapore household throws away about $170 worth of food and beverage a year, according to a survey released in October that was commissioned by appliance maker Electrolux Singapore.

The total amount of food waste generated in Singapore in a year rose from 542,700 tonnes in 2006 to more than 790,000 tonnes last year - equivalent to two bowls of rice a person a day. Only 14 per cent of this food waste is recycled.

And according to a study by the National Environment Agency, food waste accounts for about half of the waste thrown away by each Singapore household every day.

Rice, noodles and bread are the most commonly wasted food items.

Other trends that are likely to continue into the new year include the buzz over natural wine, the rise of vending machines as a hip food option and, hopefully, the scrapping of service charge to encourage better service.

As trends come and go, the chefs, along with The Sunday Times food team, also picked those that they want to see the last of.

Enough bad food and incessant queues already.

•Follow Eunice Quek on Twitter @STEuniceQ


2017 trends – the good, the bad and the dubious

FOOD WASTAGE

Food waste in Singapore is a perennial problem which has increased by about 40 per cent over the last 10 years. The amount of food wasted last year is equivalent to the weight of more than 3,500 MRT trains, said the National Environment Agency in a news release earlier this month.

But the food and beverage industry is stepping up efforts to minimise food wastage.

This is reinforced by the move towards supporting sustainability, says Morsels' chef-owner Petrina Loh, where chefs are introducing responsibly sourced ingredients to the menu.

Chef Julien Royer of French fine-dining restaurant Odette at the National Gallery Singapore says: "Whether it's over-ordering at restaurants or buying too many groceries, I'd love to see more ways that people can conveniently donate their excess food."

YOUNGER CHEFS TO ELEVATE LOCAL CUISINE

Wild Rocket's chef-owner Willin Low is encouraged by more people pursuing the culinary arts, but also hopes they stay "rooted in tradition".

He cites the examples of chef Malcolm Lee of the one-Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant Candlenut in Dempsey, as well as chef-owner Sharon Low of kueh brand Peranakan Khek in Cavan Road.

And not only should young chefs excel in Singapore, but overseas too, says the Prive Group's chairman Yuan Oeij, 48. He adds: "I would love to see more budding Singaporean chefs take steps to enrich themselves further through learning experiences locally or abroad, so that in the near future, they are able to shine and contribute to the Singapore culinary scene."

VENDING MACHINES


Hot food vending machines are one of the biggest trendsetters for this year. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

One of the biggest trendsetters for this year, which is very likely to expand next year, is the vending machine revolution in Singapore, says Mr Ricky Ng, 45, managing director of Blue Lotus Concepts International.

Having ready-to-eat meals from a vending machine suddenly became hip, the result of attractive packaging and a wide variety of food choices.

One can now get from vending machines pastries from bakery chain Polar Puffs & Cakes; chilli crab from House Of Seafood; and salad and granola by Shake Salad.

And the Chef-In-Box VendCafe chain has ventured into shopping malls and has plans to go overseas.

Acknowledging the technology behind the trend - which allows food to stay fresh longer - chef Willin Low says: "Ideally, I'd like my food to be prepared fresh, but sometimes that's not possible. The tide is turning and we have to embrace technology."

FOOD MADE FOR SOCIAL MEDIA

The unspoken rule now is that mobile phones "eat first" when food or a fancy drink is placed on the table. And anything particularly Instagramable - such as oozy cheese or molten chocolate - is sure to get plenty of likes.

Yet, what Prive Group's chairman Yuan Oeij, 48, is particularly conscious about is food made for social media, but "at the expense of common sense".

He gives the examples of the flaming chicken - where a whole roast chicken is brought to the table skewered upright and gets a splash of alcohol before it is set alight - as well as "over-the-top toppings" on milkshakes.

He says of these fads: "Presentation takes priority over function and taste sensibilities."

NATURAL WINE


Mr Yoshiaki Sato makes Sato Wines, a natural wine, in New Zealand. PHOTO: ST FILE

Natural wine has become quite a buzzword in the world of wine. It is made without chemicals and there is minimal technological intervention in the wine-making process.

Mr Henry Hariyono, 46, general manager of Artisan Cellars, which imports and distributes fine wine, champagne and sake, says: "The best examples of natural wine showcase what winemaking without additives can do and all forms of natural wines tout drinkability as their main virtue.

"That their label designs are often catchy and tongue-in-cheek only increase their allure for consumers."

He adds that natural wine is an "easy, non-intimidating option" for amateur wine drinkers and also pairs well with food.

He carries natural wine from France, Australia, Austria, the United States and New Zealand.

Mr Wee Teng Wen, 37, managing partner of The Lo & Behold Group, adds: "The shift towards natural wine is truly exciting because it helps to democratise an industry previously dominated by inflexible winemaking guidelines and encourages consumers to discover new and experimental wines."

He enjoys the wines from the Sato label, run by a Japanese winemaker based in New Zealand.


What we want to see in 2018

BETTER BACON

We can buy the finest uni online. We have a mind-boggling range of jamon Iberico available here. Wagyu? Everywhere you look.

We do not, however, have good bacon. Yet. Isn't it about time we stop having to buy - and reluctantly cook - flabby, pink strips of goodness-knows-what?

TAN HSUEH YUN, LIFE EDITOR

SCRAP THE SERVICE CHARGE

Good workers should be rewarded and bad ones shouldn't.

Which is why I wish more restaurateurs will give up the service charge, which unfairly forces diners to pay equally for good and poor service. Even worse, many eateries do not pass on what they collect to the staff.

There is the argument that one should pay the 10 per cent charge because one is served, regardless of the quality of the service. But what we see instead is a disincentive for servers to go the extra mile.

So I salute restaurateurs, such as Marco Pierre White, whose The English House opens next month, who say: "Reward good service with a tip instead." That may be the answer to better standards.

WONG AH YOKE, FOOD CRITIC

LESS SUGAR

Sugar can be evil. We need some, but too often, we ingest too much of it. It's tough to reduce one's sugar intake when confectioneries, drink stalls and dessert shops sweeten their offerings excessively.

I would like to see more zero-sugar drinks or ones sweetened with sugar alternatives such as Stevia.

Agave syrup may have more calories than sugar per serving, but because it is sweeter, only a drop is needed. It also has a low glycemic index.

Perhaps, there can also be more cakes and confections made with less sugar or with sugar alternatives for those trying to make the change to a healthier lifestyle.

REBECCA LYNNE TAN, FOOD CORRESPONDENT

THE RETURN OF TRADITIONAL DISHES

Many young chefs who enter the scene end up going to Western or fine-dining establishments to forge their careers.

Ask them if they can whip up a good char kway teow or laksa, and you are likely to get a sheepish grin.

Veteran chefs lament that traditional dishes and flavours from Singapore's different races and dialect groups are slowly disappearing.

I hope younger chefs will take up the challenge to champion traditional dishes. And let's not take for granted the traditional establishments that are still around and make it a point to document heirloom recipes.

EUNICE QUEK, FOOD CORRESPONDENT


What we don’t want to see in 2018

RESTAURATEURS TAKING DINERS FOR GRANTED

A successful dining concept from abroad opens in Singapore and you can just imagine the restaurateur sitting back and smiling smugly, watching the crowds descend and the cash register go berserk.

And yet, so many of these foreign imports do not live up to the hype. The food is less-than-stellar, as with some new ramen joints; and the concepts are diluted. Sometimes, the dilution is literal.

Recently, I had a Manhattan cocktail at a new steakhouse, the offshoot of a New York chain. The main ingredient was melted ice cubes. I sent it back and only then did I get a proper Manhattan.

A New York steakhouse that cannot make a decent Manhattan on first try? I am not darkening those doors again.

Singaporeans travel so widely and are likely to have eaten at the original restaurants which open offshoots here. If they do not find satisfaction, they walk. There are plenty of other choices.

So restaurateurs, you take us for granted at your own peril. No ka-ching for you.

TAN HSUEH YUN

STOP FERMENTING EVERYTHING

Fermenting food has caught on not only with home cooks but also restaurant chefs.

It may all seem very fascinating to come up with new flavours and ingredients, but not everything turns out palatable.

I enjoy fermented food such as kimchi and tempeh, but some of the funky smells and strange-looking things I've encountered in the past year at eateries such as the defunct Bistro November seem more like science experiments than food. Still, fermented food is supposed to be good for your gut, so hopefully chefs will make a greater effort to get it to taste good too.

WONG AH YOKE

NOT ANOTHER MEDIOCRE PROTEIN BOWL SHOP


Anyone wanting to open another poke bowl eatery should do it well with quality ingredients – and skip the canned corn. PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

I love that grains such as quinoa and farro have become mainstays on menus here.

But while there is now a sizeable number of healthier food options that include specialist protein and poke bowl eateries, I loathe that many of them are mediocre at best.

Don't get me wrong, the poke trend is great - there are a couple of decent ones - but enough already.

So unless you're going to serve quality, well-executed items to go with the grains, don't bother. Please, skip the canned corn and chickpeas.

And what's with the dry chicken breast and fishy, over-cooked salmon?

Give produce the respect it deserves.

REBECCA LYNNE TAN

BUBBLE TEA WITH MORE FRUIT THAN TEA

A hot trend this year that bothered me greatly is the popularity of fruit teas - those oversized drinks with chunks of fruit that are all the rage in Taiwan and China.

It's quite smart, I guess, to offer bubble tea with fruit floating in it and suddenly everyone is having a so-called healthier drink that costs up to $6.90.

What I'm not keen on is that the slew of new brands - eight and counting - are selling the same old bubble tea, with many of the drinks still too sweet.

Some even ask you the level of sugar you want, which completely goes against the idea of a healthier drink.

I'd also rather have the staff brew a cup of proper tea in front of me, not fill cups with pre-made tea from a dispenser.

With consumers more particular about the kind of tea they are drinking,this fruit tea trend is a bubble waiting to burst if the brands do not up their game.

EUNICE QUEK


What chefs don’t want to see in 2018

CASTELLA CAKES

The entrance of the Taiwan-style castella cakes resulted in snaking queues. Social media also went crazy with videos of the jiggly cakes that are generally baked and sliced in full view of customers.

While the hype has died down somewhat, it was revived this month with the opening of Grand Castella Cake from Taiwan at nex and Raffles City malls.

The obsession baffles Wild Rocket restaurant's chef-owner Willin Low, 45, who says: "I don't understand why people queue for this. Isn't it just kai tan gou (Cantonese for steamed egg cake)?"

SALTED EGG YOLK IN EVERYTHING

What seemed to be just a food fad has seemingly gotten out of control, with salted egg yolk turning up in all sorts of snacks and dishes.

As a sauce, it is drizzled on burgers, fish and chips and even tendon (tempura on Japanese rice).

It is also incorporated into ice cream, croissants and even used in mookata.

And both restaurants and snack brands have rolled out salted egg yolk chips and fish skin.

Fusion restaurant Morsels' chef-owner Petrina Loh, 35, says: "I love salted egg, but it's going into everything."


Maintaining a Michelin star costs too much for some chefs


Chef Jerome Brochot is giving up his Michelin star at his restaurant because of the costs of maintaining high standards. PHOTO: NYTSYN

MONTCEAU-LES-MINES, FRANCE• It is like giving up your Nobel Prize, rejecting your Oscar, pushing back on your Pulitzer: Jerome Brochot, a renowned and refined chef, decided to turn in his Michelin star.

He is renouncing the uniquely French distinction that separates his restaurant from thousands of others, the lifetime dream of hundreds.

But his decision was not a rash one, born of arrogance, ingratitude or spite. Rather, it was for a prosaic, but still important, reason: He could no longer afford it.

It is a drastic step that says everything about the crushing reality of "the other France" - the provinces where on average more than 10 per cent of storefronts are vacant, the old jobs have gone and the cafes are empty on cold mornings.

Even in a region famed for its culinary traditions, this declining old mining town deep in lower Burgundy could not sustain a one-star Michelin restaurant.

Brochot, a youthful-looking 46, had gambled on high-end cuisine in a working-class town and lost.

In November, he wrote to the Guide Michelin, the fat red gastronome's bible in Paris that bestows the honour, to say he wanted out.

He could no longer make ends meet at his bright orange hotel-restaurant Le France, he said. He could no longer pay for the personnel, produce and precision that go into charging one-star prices.

"The economic situation here in the ex-mining basin is a disaster," he wrote to Michelin.

"What I'm doing today, I'm not doing lightly, but because I have no other choice."

Turning in one's stars isn't unprecedented, but it is rare. A handful of three-star chefs have done so over the years, crushed by the expense and pressures of maintaining their temples of gastronomy.

To step out of Brochot's gleaming kitchen and immaculate, angular dining room is to wonder how he got here in the first place.

It seems an extravagance in a faded industrial town whose glory days were 100 years ago, like the reproach perpetually thrown at France itself as a country living beyond its means.

The "for sale" signs on the worn pastel storefronts down Brochot's street are faded with age. The few people hobbling about in the gloom of a chilly December morning are bent over with old age.

"There will never be buyers here," Brochot said outside a shuttered store that was for sale.

Unemployment is 21 per cent in Montceau, according to the government's statistics, more than twice the national average. But the coup de grace for Brochot was the shuttering of four businesses in quick succession.

"I said, 'This is going to be complicated for us, with 200 people out on the street,'" the chef recalled.

The population, around 18,000, has been in steady decline for years and the last coal was pulled out of the earth nearly 20 years ago.

Not much has happened since - except for Brochot.

It was 18 years ago that the chef bet that there was just enough industry in the area to let him exercise his talents close to home.

Six years later, he was awarded his first star by Michelin.

But he is hundreds of thousands of euros in debt from a kitchen renovation, so it was a question of self-preservation. With a top menu at US$130 (S$174), his goal of 60 diners a day was becoming more and more elusive.

"It's been catastrophic for the last three years," said Brochot, a quicksilver whirl of perpetual motion once he is in his chef's whites.

His strategy appears to be working. He has cut his prices and is offering a more down-to-earth cuisine of stews, including the classic blanquette de veau, and serving cod instead of the more expensive sea bass.

It had depressed him deeply, he said, to have to throw away costly bass and turbot, like gold even in France's street markets, at the end of every sitting because his customers couldn't afford it.

"There was a lot of waste," he said. "Since we changed the formula, we've gotten a lot more people," he said.

Above all, the effect has been psychological. "In the heads of people, a one-star, it's the price," he said.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 31, 2017, with the headline 'The good, the bad and the faddish'. Print Edition | Subscribe