The way to a Singaporean’s heart is through his stomach. Raini Hamdi looks at Singapore as a source of and a destination for gourmands, both factors feeding on each other and fuelling growth
Artisanal and mouth-watering: Matt Moran and Jean-Francois Piege’s (top right) masterpieces
When a survey reveals Singapore has overtaken Japan as having the region’s top diners, Singaporeans are probably the least surprised, since their obsession with food is as endemic and conspicuous as the smell of cheese.
MasterCard’s latest survey of the dining-out habits of 7,678 respondents from 16 markets in Asia-Pacific shows that Singaporeans are prepared to fork out twice as much (US$262) as the overall average monthly dining spend of US$130 for the whole Asia-Pacific. Japanese and Chinese follow closely with an average monthly dining spend of U$225 and US$203 respectively. In contrast, the region’s smallest spenders – India and Indonesia – spend US$17 and US$19, or three and four per cent of their monthly household income, respectively, on dining.
According to the survey, Singaporeans’ spending on dining grew by nearly 25 per cent from US$212 in June 2011.
The findings came just as the curtains came down on the 17th World Gourmet Summit in Singapore where, for 11 days, the city’s F&B scene burst like a ripe apricot with 45 special dinners and workshops in 13 host venues, 18 partner restaurants and eight wineries.
Top chefs, including Italy’s Gabriele Ferron (famed for his risotto), France’s “slow food” Jean-Francois Piege and Spain’s chocolate and sugar-pulling artisans Paco & Jacob Torreblanca, partnered the head chefs of their host venues in presenting menus that showed their artisanal skills.
An Italian hands-on culinary workshop featuring masterchefs Corrado Assenza and Lino Sauro was priced S$148+ (US$119), while a Chateau de Beaucastel wine dinner featuring Chef Jean-Francois and Christopher Millar at Stellar at 1-Altitude was sold out, even at S$448+. Food was paired with fashion (an edible catwalk showcasing diamonds had models wearing chocolate dresses), and with arts (a meet-the-cast of Othello with cocktails prepared by five restaurants).
Events such as this put Singapore on the world culinary map, while Singaporeans’ willingness to spend on dining ensures a steady stream of new F&B establishments in the city, said Olivier Bendel, CEO and owner of Déliciae Hospitality Management.
The F&B scene is so sizzling that entrepreneurs such as Paris-born Bendel and top-gun chefs like Bruno Menard – the only three Michelin star chef in Singapore – now call the city home.
Said Bendel: “I’ve opened nine restaurants here in 2.5 years. We’ll open our second L’Entrecôte in the new Suntec Singapore (which is undergoing modernisation) in September and probably one or two more restaurants by the end of this year or beginning 2014. Then we’ll explore opening in the rest of South-east Asia.
“Singapore customers know their food and always want to discover new things, which is good as it keeps us on our toes. They go for both affordable and ultra-fine food.”
Which is why Bendel’s restaurants range from fine-dining such as Forlino, to the funkier and affordable &Made by Bruno Menard, which sells handmade burgers. The majority of customers are Singaporeans, said Bendel. “I’m proud of that, as Singapore is my home now and I want to bring something to the community. I actually did not come here to open restaurants.”
2am:dessertbar’s owner and founder Janice Wong agreed that Singaporeans always want something new. She said: “The challenge is sustain interest and create new consumer experiences.”
Her latest experiment involves techniques with skins and seeds. “Mangosteen, melon and cantaloupe seeds are full of antioxidants and proteins. We’re turning edible stuff that are commonly thrown away into tasty sauces or for inclusions in breads and salads. So eating becomes meaningful and a social education as well,” she said.
Matt Moran, known for his successful Aria restaurant in Sydney aside from being a judge on MasterChef Australia (Season 3), said Singapore’s culinary scene kept getting better each year in the past 11 years he had been visiting. “You can tell by how many chefs are coming here from around the world, by how many great restaurants there are here – Singapore has become a food mecca,” he said. His favourite restaurant in Singapore is André, which he thinks is “top 10 in the world at the moment”. Asked why he had not opened a restaurant here, Moran said: “May be one day.”
India’s celebrity chef and restaurant owner Sanjeev Kapoor, judge of MasterChef India (Season 3), described such reality TV shows as “a theatre of food” – designed to entertain, not educate – and Singapore as “the biggest theatre we have in this part of the world”. But, like Moran, he too was non-committal about opening a restaurant in Singapore. “Let’s see,” said Kapoor.
The fact is, while F&B has become big and Singaporeans are appreciating more good food, operating a restaurant in the city is a challenge even to the best of them. Menard said: “I thought I knew Singapore quite well, as I had been coming here (before moving to Singapore) most of the time. I’ve been here for over a year now and the experience has been challenging, to be honest.
“The biggest frustration is finding people to work in this business and I would not be the only to tell you that. We’re all struggling to find staff who want to spend their lives as a chef, waiter, maitre ’d or sommelier, which in Europe are real professions. It is also difficult to hire foreign talent.
“There’s also the challenge of getting fresh produce. We import of course but you can’t talk ‘fresh’ if you import. Fresh fish for me is fish caught overnight. Here, the freshest and nicest fish you get is five days old. Fortunately, the companies which import are trying to make it faster and better all the time.
“But it’s also exciting to live here, build up the F&B business and create something new from scratch. When I came here 15 years ago, there was nothing in terms of French or European food. Today this is well-represented and there are lots of outstanding restaurants.”
Thailand: Where’s the beef?
THAILAND’s chefs and restaurants continue to build on the kingdom’s reputation as a destination for food lovers, but the country boasts few marquee gourmet events.
Innovative venues continue to spring up across Bangkok, ranging from Water Library, which boasts the city’s most expensive tasting menu, to smaller dining houses such as Opposite, Paste and Supanniga Eating Room.
Two Bangkok restaurants, Nahm and Gaggan, made The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2013 list. Another two venues, Eat Me Restaurant and Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin, joined them in Asia’s Top 50 Restaurants 2013.
Despite the groundswell of culinary creativity and local restaurants winning international plaudits, Thailand still has few major events or festivals that put it on the global gourmet map.
Last year, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and Visa International teamed up to launch Thailand Splash and Spice in Bangkok, a three-month campaign targeting Visa cardholders and international and domestic tourists (see list). “There are about 127 restaurants in this programme,” said a TAT spokesperson. “The programme is open to all restaurants interested in participating. These include hotel restaurants, dining venues at malls and authentic, must-visit local restaurants.”
The campaign is promoted through the media but has no dedicated sales agencies.
Thomas Kinsperger, F&B manager, Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, said Thailand Splash and Spice had not worked well for the hotel last year.
In general, Mandarin Oriental, like many high-end establishments, relies on its own activities and organises five or more events with Michelin-starred chefs each year.
“We always target chefs that cook a similar cuisine to what we do in a particular outlet (we host the event in),” Kinsperger said. “It is important to us that the chefs are all established and known worldwide and have not been to Bangkok previously.”
Despite bringing in some of the best chefs in the world, a majority of diners at these events are local Thais or expatriates, with only one in 10 bookings into the hotel for the experience.
Of the handful gourmet events Thailand has, the pinnacle is the Annual World Gourmet Festival hosted by Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok, a week-long extravaganza which has built its reputation over the past 13 years. But tour operators still tend to focus on Thai food as more of a cultural experience when putting together packages, rather than emphasising high-end cuisine.
“We’re not really influenced by food festivals or visiting chefs,” explained Michael Lynden-Bell, Thailand general manager, Exotissimo Travel.
A concerted effort from the public and private sectors is needed to promote the country as the foody destination in South-east Asia, said Kinsperger. “Both sectors should drive this, but particularly the TAT,” he added. – Greg Lowe
Key F&B events in Thailand
Thailand Splash and Spice, March 15 – May 31 This campaign by TAT and Visa International was launched last year. This year’s event went beyond Bangkok to include Chiang Mai, Pattaya and Phuket. Prices start at 749++ baht (US$25) for lunch and 1,499++ baht for dinner.
14th Annual World Gourmet Festival 2013, September 2-8 Hosted by Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok, this event has grown over the years into Bangkok’s premier culinary event. Last year, eight top chefs from around the world were flown in with each showcasing their cuisine for two nights.
Samui Fine Dining Festival Now in its second year, this biannual two-month long event focuses on Thai and international chefs based on the island rather than flying in culinary superstars for one-off events. Each night, 16 restaurants create special six-course menus priced from 1,800 baht to 4,900 baht per head. More than 2,500 menus were created in March and April during the event earlier this year. The next takes place in June.
This article was first published in TTG Asia, May 31 - June 6, 2013 issue, on page 14. To read more, please view our digital edition or click here to subscribe.