Gourmet soup from a pouch? That's sad

With more restaurants using pre-packed food, will future chefs still know how to actually cook?


Debriefs in the newsroom are pretty much cut and dried. Reporter and supervisor discuss the information collected, the angle of the story, its structure and what else goes into it.

Rarely do they cause despair.

But there I am, in a deep blue funk after debriefing my colleague Rebecca Lynne Tan on her story, published on Sunday, about hotels, restaurants and cafes turning to outsourcing.

Instead of making stocks, sauces, soups, bread, cakes and other food in-house, many food and beverage establishments are buying them from manufacturers.

This has been going on for years, but demand for these products has spiked recently.

Experienced chefs who have run successful food businesses have set up shop turning out food for other businesses.

From gourmet chefs creating artisanal food, they have turned their hand to creating food that is probably still delicious and good but made in huge quantities. They include Mr Daniel Tay, who founded the Bakerzin chain of patisserie-cafes and then sold it off, and Mr Julien Bompard, who used to run the upscale Saint Julien.

Having grappled with the labour headache that is the bane of almost every restaurateur and chef here, they know exactly what their former counterparts need.

The food is made in factory premises. Mr Bompard, for one, says he does not use preservatives. The food is cooked, va-cuum-packed, then pasteurised and blast-chilled.

In the last two years, The Straits Times' food team has written reams about the food and beverage industry grappling with the foreign worker restrictions.

Restaurants have coped by getting diners to order using tablets, opening self-serve eateries and automating where they can.

Now, more are not making some of the food themselves. They are turning to food made in factories and by manufacturers.

But this isn't a cost-saving measure to protect profits eaten away by rising rent, since it may actually cost more to buy this ready-made food than making it in-house.

Doing this solves two problems for restaurateurs.

One, they do not need to hire as many skilled staff. In many cases, the food pouches go into a water bath to heat up to a certain temperature before the contents are plated, with perhaps a side salad and some fries.

Two, this frees skilled staff from doing food preparation like chopping onions or making stock so they can cook other, presumably, more value-added food.

These are practical solutions for a practical country like Singapore. The folks encouraging productivity are probably very pleased.

To me, however, outsourcing is a slippery slope.

Chopping onions and making stock might be mundane, but these are the fundamentals that budding chefs need to get right before they move on to other things. Chefs who are worth anything today started out learning to break down carcasses, gut and fillet fish, and yes, chop onions and make stock. One does not become a Rene Redzepi, Ferran Adria, Thomas Keller or Anne-Sophie Pic by cooking with stock from a pouch.

Still, who can blame those who seek easier solutions to putting out food for customers? What else can a restaurateur do when he has to cut two or three staff to meet the Government's quota on how many foreigners can work in the restaurant?

If diners do not know that the lobster bisque or pasta sauce in front of them was made in a factory far from the restaurant, what is the harm if it tastes good?

This has already happened with hawker food. The fishballs in Teochew fishball noodles are likely to be from a factory, as are the rice cakes and preserved radish topping in chwee kueh.

These ingredients used to be made from scratch decades ago, when street food tasted vibrant.

With the Government unlikely to lift restrictions on foreign workers, outsourcing is going to be more common, even if restaurants will not admit to doing it.

Will there also be generations of chefs in future who do not have the basic skills they ought to have but who will nonetheless find jobs easily? Any Singaporean hire in the food and beverage industry is pretty much worth his weight in gold, even if he cannot fillet a fish to save his life.

Despite this gloomy scenario, I hope there will be enough budding talents who will step out of their comfort zones and leave Singapore in search of kitchens that will train them from ground up. There are some chefs here who are bucking the trend and they give me some hope.

Mr Bjorn Shen from Artichoke in Middle Road turns out gutsy, from-scratch food with a Middle Eastern vibe. His menu is exciting, filled with things I want to order. The dishes are not chi-chi or plated with tweezers. He has a sense of humour and a sort of irreverence - one of his signature dishes is called Lambgasm - that I wish more chefs would have. But he is also dead serious about turning out good food.

At Dibs in Duxton Hill, Mr Leong Khai Git has created a menu comprising ingredients I do not often see in new restaurants. These include lamb spare ribs, oxtail and cockles in bacon dashi, the last cooked perfectly so they are bloody and yummy.

Then there are Ms Petrina Loh and Mr Bryan Chia of Morsels in Mayo Street, who have gone to cooking schools abroad and worked in serious kitchens. They use their skill and memories of childhood meals to create dishes that connect with me. Salted egg yolk and dried figs usually used in Chinese double-boiled soups are used in new, interesting ways.

They take pride in making all their stocks and sauces from scratch, even if they sometimes look worn out when I see them.

But they, and a handful of other chefs, are fighting the good fight against homogenisation and they know it is not easy.

The least I can do is support and encourage them, and to hope there will be more renegades out there.