Why is fine dining more expensive in Singapore?

Labyrinth's Kaya + Rojak.
Labyrinth's Kaya + Rojak. PHOTO: LABYRINTH / JOHN HENG

Think eating in a fancy restaurant in Singapore is getting unaffordable? Restaurateurs, chefs and foodies weigh in on the question

SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - If you have been feeling out of pocket a lot more these days after an evening out wining and dining in Singapore, it is not your imagination. According to the Julius Baer's Lifestyle Index 2017, Singapore is the second most expensive city in Asia for fine dining, beaten only by Hong Kong.

But by how much? A rough check shows that a tasting menu at the two-starred Caprice in Hong Kong sets you back HK1720 (S$300) for a six course dinner. Pierre, also with two stars, charges HK$1998 (S$348) for a six course meal, and HK$1398 (S$244) for four courses. Compare that to Odette and Les Amis, both two-starred Michelin restaurants in Singapore. At Odette, a six course menu costs S$248, and S$288 for eight courses. At Les Amis, its five course classic dinner menu clocks in at S$195, while its no-holds-barred, Autumn menu goes for S$340 for eight courses.

Which puts Singapore at a slight advantage, but to put the prices in perspective, the two-starred L'Effervescence in Tokyo gives you a full-on, 12-course dinner for ¥20,000 (S$240), while the also two-starred Ledbury in London serves a four course dinner for £120 (S$215).

Whichever way you slice it, the good life just keeps getting more expensive in Singapore, which is not good for us in the long run, feels restaurateur-entrepreneur Cynthia Chua. The CEO of the spa esprit group which runs restaurants and cafes such as Tippling Club, BoChinche and Open Farm Community, says, "It's damaging for Singapore which has only just started to gain momentum in the gastronomy scene. It is creating such a reputation for being an expensive city that it's deterring talents from coming in. I have seen players in the market that have stopped coming up with new dining concepts."

The avid diner who travels extensively feels "prices are 20 per cent to 30 per cent cheaper in cities I often visit, such as Paris, London, New York and Tokyo". In fact, "I had a meal recently in Singapore that cost close to S$1200 for two people, with wine. It was a two-star restaurant compared to Michel Bras in Aubrac (France) which is three-star and my meal cost about 500 euros (S$790) with wine."

Restaurateur/hotelier Loh Lik Peng agrees that Singapore dining prices "have gone up in recent years, well above the rate of inflation". There are no doubt exceptions, but "the average cheque per person for a meal in a nice mid-high restaurant is well above S$100, without drinks and taxes".

He says, "That means, going out twice a week, which is quite common for my generation, will set me back at least S$300. In London, I might spend the equivalent of S$200 or a little more for the same type of meal. I can easily have a two or three star meal for £200 without wines. In Sydney, Automata charges A$88(S$92) for a five course menu and it's a two-hat restaurant. And you can have a nice meal at Quay for A$150 to A$180. You would struggle to find that kind of pricing in our higher end restaurants."

WHY IS FINE DINING MORE EXPENSIVE IN SINGAPORE?

"Restaurant prices are a composite of various costs and the margin they can command," says Mr Loh. "Rent is a major factor, as it is in Hong Kong. The better known a restaurant and the stronger its patronage, the larger margin it can command above its costs.

"In Singapore, the main costs are rental, manpower and food/drink costs. Most 'fine dining' restaurants have margins of 10 per cent or less, so it is an exceedingly hard business to make decent money. The competition is strong and the risk of failure is high because fixed costs are high.

"For fine dining, ingredient cost is a lot higher," says Ms Chua. "Tippling Club sources for unique products around the world, so you need to pay more for this. So an operator would accept a smaller margin running a fine dining restaurant compared to a bistro. The level of expertise in the staff team in a fine dining restaurant is also more demanding - the maitre 'd, sommelier, head chef are all usually expatriates who need housing allowances, so it all adds up. But having said that, even if the margin is thinner, if you run your business well, you will still be able to make money."

Labour pricing and foreign worker restrictions are the major bugbears of a restaurateur's life and more so in fine dining, says Edina Hong, co-owner of the Emmanuel Stroobant Group which owns the one-starred Saint Pierre and two-starred Japanese restaurant Shoukouwa.


Crab with oscietra caviar by Saint Pierre. PHOTO: SAINT PIERRE

"Recently, one of our staff was up for renewal of his employment pass. We were told that in order to renew his pass, we had to increase his salary by 22 per cent. Short of changing jobs or a massive promotion, I can safely say no one in recent history has seen a 22 per cent pay rise. When such things happen, restaurants have no choice but to pay or lose a good staff. And the cost is passed on to diners."

She adds, "It's no secret that working in a restaurant is not a Singaporean's first choice. They can play truant or be tardy but employers have to put up with it as they need the numbers to be eligible to hire foreign staff. It makes the industry very inefficient."

CAUGHT BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

While diners see only the price of the menu and how expensive they perceive it to be, they do not see how chefs crack their heads to manage expenses, says Han Li Guang of the one Michelin-starred Labyrinth. The margins just keep getting smaller as he grapples with rising alcohol taxes, beef prices and the like. "But I can't do anything about it - I can't raise prices." This is in spite of his tasting menu costing just S$115. Even with a star, he has not raised his prices.

While sourcing for ingredients locally or from as close to Singapore as possible is increasingly popular, it does not mean it is less expensive, says chef Han. "Because everything is done on such a small scale, it's not cost-effective when you factor in the processing and transportation. And for a small restaurant like mine, I don't buy large quantities so it can be even more expensive than buying imported ingredients from a supplier."

Even so, Ms Chua is one of those championing local farmers with her Open Farm Community concept, which tries to persuade consumers that "local can be good, but this will take time".

One restaurant that seems to have found a sweet spot in pricing and viability is the one-starred Cheek by Jowl, whose chef Rishi Naleendra has earned a reputation for one of the cheapest fine dining menus, with excellent value.

"We had to be affordable when we first opened because no one knew us and there was a big gap in the market for middle range restaurants," says chef Naleendra. "My main goal was to create an experience that doesn't cost a fortune." His dinner menu starts from S$68 and tasting menu from S$88, and eventually "I will have to raise them but not a lot because longevity is very important to me. It's a big challenge because of crazy costs and the number of customers willing to pay a lot for a meal is getting smaller."

On the higher end of the spectrum, higher costs of ingredients is eating into Les Amis' bottom line, but chef Sebastian Lepinoy feels it's worth it in his pursuit of a third Michelin star.

Vanilla, French butter, cream, foie gras - not to mention truffle - are going through the roof in price, says chef Lepinoy. "Only 10 restaurants at most in Singapore will be able to afford white truffle," he muses. He started using more expensive ingredients when the restaurant won two Michelin stars, so he has increased prices a little, but still maintains that it's good value for the money. "We use the same fisherman who supplies the three stars in Paris, the same butter and even some ingredients we use are better than in Paris but we charge less."


Brittany blue lobster salad topped with caviar from Les Amis. PHOTO: LES AMIS

With Les Amis' food cost of almost 50 per cent, he reckons that it's one of the highest in town, "because I really want my three stars and to give the best to our customers at a reasonable price". For that reason, he projects that the restaurant will not make money, but it will not lose any either.

FUTURE OF FINE DINING

Chef Lepinoy is not optimistic for the future as "prices increase every month". But that said, "all the small restaurants with talented chefs will work with different ingredients that are less expensive".

While most may carp about high prices, fine dining is not going to go away anytime soon because of rising affluence. Even as the definition of fine dining changes, there will always be a demand for old school restaurants by stalwarts Joel Robuchon and Alain Ducasse because "it's an aspirational lifestyle goal", says Ms Hong.

In Singapore, there are rare exceptions to the 'fine dining makes no money' notion. According to Mr Loh, "Restaurant Andre has been successful both critically and as a business, but it's because Andre has a strong competitive advantage as a chef and restaurateur. We have always had more demand to supply, but of course, this is more the exception than the rule. " Mr Loh says that Restaurant Andre's farewell dinners now being served until it closes next February are seeing "a very long waiting list" despite its S$800 cost, inclusive of wine pairing.

WHAT DO FOODIES SAY?

Ong YiXin, managing partner of KOT Selections, an independent wine import, distribution and advisory service, feels that food, labour and rent aside, "Wine costs are a big part of the problem, because most restaurants still depend on beverage sales to drive profitability. The mark-ups on an already expensive item are high, and contribute significantly to the high ticket values we see."

In comparing Singapore and Hong Kong, "Singapore has a wider spread across cuisines, but Hong Kong is far stronger in Cantonese food and more interesting for Japanese. But I would argue that's a reflection of our cosmopolitan background." While he feels London and Japan (apart from some very expensive places in Tokyo) are cheaper for similar experiences, New York and San Francisco are more expensive and poorer value.

Engineer and foodie Lennard Yeong reckons that "for all the restaurants which have increased their prices, there have been new ones opening to fill the void (in terms of price point) that they have left." Still, the definition of fine dining is more blurred now, "but ultimately there are good restaurants in every price bracket".

As he is not a big drinker, he is not likely to stomach shelling out S$800 for a meal at Andre, even though "he's one of the most important chefs in Singapore and he's leaving an incredible legacy". But "it would be very difficult for me to justify paying that amount on a meal. I wouldn't pay the prices in Singapore for Robuchon either because there are Robuchons in other countries where I believe you can get better value."

Still, "F&B in general is not a lucrative business and the staff involved have to work really hard, so if a chef wants to raise his prices, he's earned the right to do so. At the end of the day, the customer ultimately decides where he should eat."

Khai Shin, also an engineer and avid gourmet, says that he would still return to restaurants that have raised their prices if he likes their food. As his fine dining experience in Singapore is limited to Japanese food, he counts Sushi Kimura, Kisho and Waku Ghin among the eateries he's happy to pay high prices at. He also likes Cheek by Jowl for its "best value and they cook what I like to eat" but will not pay S$800 for a meal at Andre despite having eaten there four times, because "I'm not a wine drinker".

He is a firm believer in market forces and that restaurants will survive so long as customers are willing to pay the prices. For him, "fine European dining in Singapore feels like dining in other countries such as the UK, Spain, Italy, France or Japan (where I can get similar or better quality food) except that I have to pay a premium for it. I won't talk about dining in the US because it can be even more expensive than Singapore!"

But perhaps what is more telling is that he echoes a similar refrain that most foodies in Singapore think in their minds: "I only dine out now on special occasions and social gatherings. I don't have to cook because my mom does all the cooking at home. I would rather save up and spend the money overseas."


House Specials

By David Yip

Yes you pay for it, but it’s hard to resist the special ingredients expat chefs import from home to share with their Singapore guests

1) Kirk Westaway

Chef de Cuisine of Jaan

Michelin-starred chef Kirk Westaway hails from Exmouth in southwest England, known for its mild climate and beautiful landscape. "It is also famous for its dairy products, especially its crumbly Devonshire Cheddar Cheese", says chef Westaway. When made by the true artisans, the cheese has a fantastically rich and smooth crumbly texture. The version he serves at the restaurant "takes almost two years of passion and precision to create". Made using techniques dating back to the 12th century, "it took me a long time to source from the best producers in the region, and endless conversations with suppliers and farmers before bringing it into Singapore," he adds. Currently, the 7-kg chunk sits permanently on the cheese trolley, along with some canapés for diners.

2) Daniel Chavez

Owner and Chef of OLA Cocina Del Mar

Daniel Chavez hails from Peru and remembers eating Canchita Chulpi since he was a kid. "In our country, potatoes and corn are the main staples and we have more than 50 different varieties of corn," says chef Chavez. "There are many ways to cook it too -- boiled, fried, fermented and so on."

Since Singapore does not have much variety of corn to choose from, chef Chavez works with a Peruvian friend who imports dried goods from his country, and he would prepare the corn like he remembers: deep-fried, sprinkled with salt then served immediately. At OLA Cocina Del Mar the chef offers Canchita as a side dish; he also uses it as a garnish in "Ceviche Clasico" which is made with Wild Fish, White Tiger's Milk and Sweet Potato Puree.

3) Markus Dybwad

Executive Chef of FiSK Seafood Bar & Market

"Growing up in Norway, I have a strong affinity with the sea," says chef Dybwad. Inevitably, the pristine cold seawater of Norway, especially its renowned fjords, is also one of the main sources of fresh produce that the Norwegian cuisine is based on.

"Norway has the best scallops and it is popular with the chefs as well as diners," chef Dybwad explains, "and I'm lucky to be trained by the chefs who recognize its quality and versatility." There are many varieties of scallops available in Singapore but they are mainly frozen. The chef explains that fresh 'live' scallops have a subtle flavour that is best enjoyed with as little preparation as possible. "My favourite is Raw Hand-Dived Scallop dressed in a juniper and calamansi gastrique with shaved fennel, shallots, green apple and a slice of Japanese cucumber."

4) Jack Allibone

Chef de Cuisine of Bayswater Kitchen

The head chef of the newly opened Bayswater Kitchen grew up in Kent, in South East England. This new arrival to Singapore brought along a new ingredient for his cooking -- lovage, a tall perennial plant that grows widely in the United Kingdom and Europe. Chef Allibone was introduced to lovage in the early days of his career: "It has an unique flavour, somewhere between parsley and celery. The closest ingredient to it in Singapore is Chinese celery; yet somehow it is not the same to me," says the chef.

"Here at Bayswater Kitchen I will finish mussels with lovage. For me, it is more aromatic than parsley yet lifts up the flavour of the mussels without overpowering it."

5) Ricky Leung

Executive Chef of Empress

As a Cantonese from Hong Kong, chef Leung was raised in the tradition where preserved sausages or lachang were a must-eat in autumn and winter. The finest preserved meat and sausages could only be sun-dried and wind-blown during a short period in autumn, when the northeast wind was extremely cold and dry. The meat is then marinated and hung in the open for days before it is ready for consumption.

Chef Leung imports the meat from Hong Kong even though there is an ample supply in Singapore. But most swear by the Hong Kong version, which is available on the menu at Empress.