Michelin first- and second-timers: Labyrinth's Han Liguang and Corner House's Jason Tan
The Sunday Times talks to two Singapore chefs who each head one-Michelin-starred restaurants. One chef runs a new entrant in this year's Michelin Guide and prides himself on creating modern takes on Singapore food; the other has maintained a star for his contemporary fine-dining restaurant in spite of challenges on the personal front
Price: From $48++ for lunch, from $88++ for dinner
Chef-owner Han Liguang runs a restaurant that he says is constantly evolving.
The chef, who opened Labyrinth 3.5 years ago, is better known in the local food and beverage scene as one who has been pushing the envelope with his avant-garde interpretations on Singapore cuisine.
These days, however, not only does he continue to champion modern Singaporean fare, but he is also injecting a little more tradition into his cooking, with a focus on using more local produce.
The restaurant was one of 11 that received one Michelin star for the first time this year.
A total of 38 restaurants were given stars in the second edition of the Michelin Guide Singapore, which was launched at a gala event at The Fullerton Hotel Singapore last Thursday night.
For more depth of flavour and umami, the chef now makes traditional oyster sauce from scratch, which he uses on his caramelised abalone tart and in his char siew.
The three-day sauce-making process involves cooking a blend of fresh and dried oysters in pork oil and flavouring it with aromatics.
He has also been experimenting with making sugarcane vinegar.
The 32-year-old says he draws inspiration for his cuisine from Singapore hawkers.
In fact, one of his signature dishes is based on Singapore chilli crab and has already had 14 iterations since it was first created in 2014. Elements in the dish have included ice cream made with chilli-crab sauce, crispy soft-shell crab and mantou sand.
Ask him about his fascination with chilli crab and he replies with a laugh: "It was one of the head-turners that made people sit up when I started the restaurant. I like chilli crab - it's one of my favourite dishes - but I'm not obsessed with it. I think the dish represents a bridge between tradition and modernity."
He now also uses produce such as flower crabs and shellfish from local fish farm Ah Hua Kelong as well as locally grown herbs and vegetables, including nasturtiums and pea tendrils.
The accounting and finance graduate, whose passion for cooking was ignited during his university days at the London School of Economics and Political Science, learnt the ins and outs of the kitchen at Italian restaurant Garibaldi in Purvis Street. He worked there on weekends for six months from 2009 to 2010, while working full-time in a bank, first as a management associate, then as a corporate relationship manager.
In 2012, after three years in the finance industry, he decided to leave to pursue a career as a chef. He took a course at culinary school At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy, worked as a private chef, an assistant to guest chefs from overseas and as a chef-consultant for Tanuki Raw at Orchard Central.
Han, who is in a relationship, opened his own restaurant two years later in 2014. It relocated from Neil Road to Esplanade Mall about 11/2 years ago because of roadworks in the original location.
Two weeks ago, when he received the e-mail invitation to the Michelin gala event, he was so overwhelmed that he teared up.
Walking on stage to collect his award last Thursday night was the "longest walk" of his life, says the confident chef, adding that he was a little nervous at the time.
He says: "At the end of the day, receiving the star shouldn't and doesn't change anything. It is a form of validation and affirmation of our consistency and quality. I want to continue to spread the gospel of Singapore cuisine. We don't work for the star, but the star is a form of recognition."
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Price: From $58++ a person for lunch, from $158++ a person for dinner
Change has been afoot at contemporary fine-dining restaurant Corner House at the Singapore Botanic Gardens.
Its head chef and co-owner Jason Tan, who turns 35 next month, now has a little bit more spring in his step, more energy and a sharper palate.
Why? Well, he has shed 36kg and, in the process, also reset his palate because he has had to stop drinking and smoking socially.
To be a good chef, you need to have good health. If you can't work properly or do things well, it will be the end of your career.
''CORNER HOUSE HEAD CHEF AND CO-OWNER JASON TAN
In March, chef Tan, who used to weigh 196kg, underwent bariatric surgery to remove 80 per cent of his stomach, in a procedure known as laparoscopic sleeve gastrectomy or gastric sleeve surgery.
He talks about it openly when asked about it.
"To be a good chef, you need to have good health. If you can't work properly or do things well, it will be the end of your career," he says.
He had weighed the pros and cons of the surgery for about a year. After subsidies and claims from his personal insurance policy, it cost him $400. It can cost more than $20,000.
He says he was hesitant about the surgery initially. He was afraid his sense of taste and smell - vital for chefs - and his creativity would be affected. He was also worried about not being able to eat as freely as before, a nightmare for the self-confessed foodie, who loves everything from hawker food to fine-dining.
In fact, he says there was no real push factor for him to do the surgery - he felt fine, had no backaches or knee pains. He has a medical check-up every year and says that, aside from borderline high blood pressure, he was in the pink of health. "I wasn't on any medication. But I'll be turning 40 soon and I should do something while I'm still healthy. I needed to be responsible," he says.
The usually jovial chef then goes a little quiet. In a more serious tone, he says: "I don't want to have a stroke or suffer kidney problems. I did it for me, for my family and loved ones."
He says he was at his slimmest - 110kg - after national service. However, the stress of kitchen life and the irregular dining habits of a chef, coupled with his love of food, led to weight gain over the years.
After the surgery, he was limited to a liquid diet for two weeks. He then graduated to soft foods.
The two months post-op were almost unbearable, he says. What he craved most was a cafe latte or a flat white, which he started drinking again only recently. He also used to drink 11/2 to two litres of milk a day, but now drinks a glass a day at most.
Gone are the days when he would tuck into five prata for breakfast. These days, it is an accomplishment if he finishes one. He also no longer indulges in sweet and cold beverages, opting for room-temperature water and green tea instead. However, on his cheat days, he might take a sip or two of a soft drink.
When he returned to the kitchen, he found his palate heightened - he attributes this to his clean diet and healthier lifestyle.
"In the past, I always made excuses about being too busy and tired to exercise or take care of myself, but I am disciplined about changing my lifestyle."
He now briskwalks after work, at about midnight, five times a week - something he had never done. "I feel refreshed after the walk. And while I'm walking, I think about the day that just passed, new menus, ingredients." His clothes are a little looser and he is happy.
Last year, French chef Julien Bompard of the now-defunct French fine-dining restaurant Le Saint Julien at The Fullerton Waterboat House, whom Tan counts as a mentor, bought him a pack of sessions with a personal trainer at a boutique gym as a birthday present.
Bompard, 48, who now runs food- manufacturing firm Cuisine Service, says: "I went through this same experience of being overweight and I wanted to encourage him to do something about it. Sometimes, when you are so committed to gastronomy, you forget to take care of yourself. I wanted to remind him about striking a balance in his life."
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