Singapore chef licks competition in Japan cuisine contest

Singaporean chef Li Kwok Wing (centre), popularly known as Santaro, beat nine other chefs from around the world to win the inaugural Washoku World Challenge in Tokyo yesterday. Behind him in black is Singaporean chef Mark Tay Kuan Jin, who was also a
Singaporean chef Li Kwok Wing (centre), popularly known as Santaro, beat nine other chefs from around the world to win the inaugural Washoku World Challenge in Tokyo yesterday. Behind him in black is Singaporean chef Mark Tay Kuan Jin, who was also a finalist. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF WASHOKU WORLD CHALLENGE 2013

Singaporean chef Li Kwok Wing has trumped nine other chefs from around the world to clinch the gold medal in the finals of the inaugural Washoku World Challenge held here yesterday.

Washoku means Japanese cuisine.

A partner and chef at Santaro @ Hinoki restaurant in Cross Street, Mr Li won with his dish, steamed chestnuts and pumpkin with whipped egg whites.

In line with the rules of the competition, no medals were awarded to the other finalists, who included Singaporean Mark Tay Kuan Jin.

The competition attracted 106 entries from 21 countries.

Only last Wednesday, washoku was listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

Japanese cooking is noted for its high nutritional value, abundant use of fresh ingredients and attractive presentation.

The competition was held to identify talented washoku chefs around the world and to popularise Japanese cuisine further.

Mr Li, 60, was born in China but now holds Singapore citizenship. He is also popularly known by the name Santaro.

He told The Straits Times after his victory: "This gold medal strongly affirms my work as a Japanese chef for over 30 years."

He added: "Tonight, I am extremely happy to win. But from tomorrow, I will no doubt feel great pressure to continue cooking Japanese food of a high standard."

He believes his triumph will help raise the status of Japanese restaurants in Singapore.

"The fact that a Singaporean chef can become washoku world champion means that Singapore can potentially have the best Japanese food in the world," he said.

The two Singaporean contestants say their presence in the competition reflects the growing taste for Japanese food in Singapore.

"Over the last 10 years or so, the size of the Japanese food market in Singapore has increased three times or more," Mr Li pointed out.

There are now some 900 Japanese restaurants in Singapore, up from about 600 in 2009 and just 300 in 2000.

He said he hopes the competition will prompt Singaporeans to take a greater interest in washoku and to realise that Japanese food is not just about ramen.

Both he and fellow finalist Tay, 41, believe the appeal of Japanese food lies in its healthy qualities.

It was the benefits and challenge of healthy cooking that led Mr Tay to switch to cooking Japanese food after specialising in French and European fare for almost 20 years.

"Apart from the natural sweetness of fresh Japanese ingredients, the cooking is basically oil-free, relying on the natural oils in meat and fish," said Mr Tay, who has been at the Akane Japanese restaurant at the Japanese Association of Singapore since November last year.

Two chefs each from the United States and South Korea, and one each from China, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Belgium also took part in the finals.

wengkin@sph.com.sg

boonlai@sph.com.sg