SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - The catchphrase dominating the culinary industry world wide has got to be ‘Sustainable Cuisine’. Essentially, it’s about how food lovers can indulge their appetites without damaging the earth. At the same time, chefs relentlessly seek out ingredients that are grown in a responsible way without depleting natural resources or upsetting the ecosystem.
“Farm to table” is a natural solution but in land-scarce, agriculture-challenged Singapore, this is easier said than done.
Florian Ridder – chef of Summerhouse out in the recently gentrified Seletar Airbase – one who feels that it is a challenge worth undertaking. “I don’t want to sound all too hippy, but we really have no other choice – we are destroying our own living conditions on this planet.” He points to how the earth is fast approaching a critical tipping point, with deforestation playing a major role in accelerating global warming, and how over-fishing has decimated seafood stocks.
Meanwhile, Han Liguang, chef-owner of Labyrinth, stresses an approach to cooking that is more than just receiving food supplies and cooking them. Chefs need to understand where their ingredients come from. That means getting to know how meat is bred, caught and slaughtered, in order to have knowledge of the workings of Nature, and understand the principles of flavour optimisation. He adds, “Sustainability forms part of the total equation. We have a duty as chefs to prevent over-fishing, unethical farming and so on. Our jobs put us in a unique position as middlemen who place the orders with the suppliers or farmers, and gives us the licence to create dishes and recommend what customers eat.”
But embarking on the sustainability route could seem an endless challenge. First of all, Singapore does not have many food-producing natural resources. Sourcing for the right produce requires strong partners within the supply chain.
Bjorn Low of Edible Garden, an urban farming social enterprise, admits that “urban farming is challenging as available spaces are small and economies of scale are difficult to achieve on traditional, broad acre type farming practices.”
He adds, “One solution is to go vertical in these small spaces to increase yield per square metre.” But there are more hurdles: these systems require heavy capital investment and the materials used to build these are almost always not very sustainable. “The need to de-centralise the production methods for urban farming is also challenging in itself, as it calls for efficient use of resources to manage small diverse plots in the cities.”
At sea, different challenges crop up: the expensive operating costs of fish farming have compelled Bryan Ang of Ah Hua Kelong to focus on species variety rather than on using big ‘acreage’ to reduce the cost per fish. “The down side is we will have to strike off the chance of doing export, which requires big space and large quantity. Since we focus on farming different varieties of seafood, we can provide a wider range of products to sell wholesale to restaurants and homes.”
Beppe De Vito of the ilLido restaurant group believes the variety (or the lack thereof) of ingredients has been the main challenge. “The selection of produce is still limited,” he says, “and being in this part of the world, the local farmers offer more Asian ingredients – which may not be usable in our style of cuisine.” As a result, most chefs look to local suppliers with strong infrastructure in neighbouring countries, which can yield additional supplies. Alternatively, they use other varieties of produce, or deal directly with farmers and other contacts in Cameron Highlands and Genting Highlands.
Being a small setup with low volume could also be a setback as Chef Han explains, “We are trying to work with mushroom and vegetable farms in Johor Baru and Cameron Highlands, but the only obstacle is that we are a small restaurant which makes it inefficient in terms of logistics for the supplier to deliver the volumes we require on a daily basis.”
Working with local produce also requires a firm grasp on what’s available here. That could be a headache for most foreign chefs but Andrew Walsh of Cure offers some positive insight. “By working closely with my local vendors and being near to Chinatown, I have easy access to the local market.” He believes that having an open enough mind to create menus and change them to achieve sustainable ends also helps.
Chef Ridder, meanwhile, is having fun with the learning process, “Sometimes I ‘find’ a local product that is totally new to me but which could be boring and ‘normal’ for the team because they have known it all their lives. But then we do something with it that takes it out of its usual context, and I hope this can make the team proud to work with their local products but do something different with them.”
Chef Ridder’s vision for his own restaurant casts a poetic eye on the sustainability argument: “My goal for the whole restaurant is for it to function in a permaculture design, meaning every ‘component’ has multiple purposes and functions organically with as little interaction from outside as possible -- just like, for example, how a real forest is just naturally functioning and self-sustaining.”
Chef De Vito believes that keeping to zero waste in the kitchen is as much about sustainability as it is about costs. “We make full use of each raw ingredient. We use fish bones, scampi shells and shrimp heads in the cooking of our sauces and soups, and we use different parts of vegetables to prepare the mirepoix for our stocks.” He further extends this philosophy, using these cooked foods in multiple stages – for instance, after cooking the fish bones for the sauce, he dehydrates the bones, making it into powder for garnishes. Even leftover bread is “recycled” as breadcrumbs for batter or desserts.
In an industry hampered by factors often beyond its control, it will take a long time before chefs in Singapore can find a level of equilibrium on the sustainability issue. As they say, it takes a village, so more chefs will need to come on board before real change can come about.