How Singapore became Asia's culinary capital

How Singapore became Asia's culinary capital

Step aside street food, no other city hosts as many world-class restaurants per gullet
Forest Singapore Sam Leong
Chef Sam Leong makes his way through the open concept kitchen at Forest, the latest addition to Singapore's Resorts World Sentosa.

When it comes to eating, Singapore is famous for two things. First and foremost, delicious street food.

Secondly, contention. The city's cuisine has long been the subject of spicy debates with northern neighbor Malaysia over the ownership of certain famed dishes. (Don't dare try to tell a Malaysian that chili crab is Singaporean.)

But close followers of Singapore’s dining scene might have noticed this city-state has morphed from a paradise for wallet-friendly hawker food to a culinary center heaving with award-winning fine dining restaurants and celebrity chef outposts. 

Lobster bisque at Balzac Brasserie, famed for its rustic take on French fine dining. So has Singapore finally arrived as an Asian culinary capital?

According to research by Richard Florida, an author and urban studies theorist, the answer is a resounding yes.

In his article on "Geography of Great Restaurants," Florida analyzed the number of "best restaurants" per capita using data mined from San Pellegrino’s annual ranking of the world’s 100 top restaurants.

In his overview of countries with real "culinary firepower," Singapore scoops top honors with six world-class restaurants per 10 million people in 2011. Compare this to scores of 4.28 in Hong Kong and 1.83 in Australia.

'Chefs are pushing new boundaries'

Aun Koh, founder of The Miele Guide, an annual roundup of Asia's best restaurants, says Singapore has satisfied the key criteria for a city to be considered a leading food capital.

“By the same standards that people might say that New York, Paris, London and Tokyo are culinary capitals, Singapore has definitely become one,” he says. “It is the culinary capital of Southeast Asia.”

“We have local chefs like Willin Low and imported talents such as André Chiang whose technical skills are on par with the best of the best anywhere in the world,” says Koh. “These chefs are pushing new boundaries and influencing peers in their city and around the world.

“Not only that, we have restaurateurs like Iggy’s whose concepts are likewise setting standards regionally and internationally.”

Wealthy residents fuelling Singapore's culinary rise

Forest Singaporean chef Sam Leong's newest restaurant, Forest, at dusk. This supply of fine culinary talents would have been in vain if not matched by demand, which is inextricably linked to the city’s economic well-being.

“Singapore’s economy has grown and, with it, the number of wealthy locals and well-heeled expatriates who are willing to pay top dollars for great gastronomic experiences,” explains Koh.

Makes sense. After all, Singapore now ranks amongst the International Monetary Fund’s top three economies in the world with a GDP per capita (PPP) of US$59,936 in 2011.

“With greater demand, restaurateurs and hotels are seeking better quality chefs and paying top dollar for top talent,” adds Koh.

Swissôtel The Stamford, in particular, is pulling out all the stops to recruit big culinary talents.

Not one but two imported chefs recently landed top jobs at the hotel’s towering Equinox Complex.

Julien Royer, who was lured to Singapore armed with stints at Michelin-starred institutions including Michael Bras and Greenhouse, was recently crowned Chef de Cuisine at Jaan.

Lee Bennett, the all-time youngest winner of the United Kingdom’s Craft Guild of Chefs’ "Restaurant Chef of the Year" award, wasted no time in accepting a similar position at Equinox Restaurant.

How do they come up with this stuff? Esquina's baked bone marrow with snails, parsley and horseradish pesto.“Many of our top culinary stars like Gunther Hubrechsen and André Chiang, who now own their own restaurants, first arrived on our shores as employees,” says Koh, “Two decades ago, no local restaurateur would ever have paid for or even sought out chefs with such credentials.”

A handful of these big name chefs have, in recent years, spun successful careers as chef-proprietors dishing out lip-smacking modernist cuisine with wallet-denting prices to boot.

And then there's the raft of imported culinary talents including Balzac Brasserie owner Jean Charles Dubois -- the former Chef de Cuisine of Raffles Grill -- that have opted to go all rustic and casual in their new culinary startups.

A city of stars. But no Michelin-starred restaurants

Meanwhile, the city is witnessing a second wave of culinary outposts by a trail of overseas-based Michelin-starred restaurant owners and celebrity chefs. 

Most recently, Jason Atherton of London’s Pollen Street Social fame, debuted his cosmopolitan-inspired tapas menu at the 15-seater Esquina Tapas Bar.

And right this very moment, Australia’s biggest celebrity chef sensation, Luke Mangan, is putting finishing touches to his second restaurant, Salt Tapas, due to open the end of March.

“Singapore has great energy when it comes to food,” says Mangan, “Salt Grill has been doing extremely well thus far, so there was definitely an opportunity to open our Salt Tapas Bar here.”

But as we celebrate the frisson of culinary excitement in Singapore, Koh says some praise should be directed at the publicity-hungry marketers at the Singapore Tourism Board (“STB”), who have methodically crafted Singapore’s rise to culinary greatness.

JaanSwissôtel The Stamford recently recruited Julien Royer as chef de cuisine at Jaan.“Having celebrity chef restaurants was requisite in the Integrated Resorts tender requirement,” says Koh, “At the end of the day, due credit should go to the STB.”

Koh is referring to the darlings of the Singapore tourism industry, Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa, which are now the city's hottest attractions and credited with Singapore's massive jump in visitor arrivals. A full list of the resorts' celebrity chefs can be found at Yoursingapore.com.  

So with all these talents, why doesn't Singapore have a single Michelin-starred restaurant? It's not because they aren't worthy. 

Chef Joël Robuchon, for instance, has acquired 26 Michelin stars, more than any other chef in the world. Last year, the superstar chef opened L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon and Joël Robuchon Restaurant at Resorts World Sentosa –- his first restaurants in Southeast Asia. 

More on CNNGo:  Joël Robuchon explains what he's doing differently in Singapore

The problem is, Michelin hasn't yet put out a Singapore "red" guide, which many global travelers view as the authority on fine dining.  

That might change given Singapore's ongoing culinary rise. Back in 2008, Jean-Luc Naret, former director of the Michelin guide, said the city is definitely in line to get its own "red" book as it has a sufficient number of top restaurants to warrant its own edition

Four years on, still no book. So could 2013 be Singapore's year?  Michelin isn't saying, though we wouldn't be surprised if its secretive inspectors are prowling around the island right now. 

Singapore's newest fine dining additions

Hungry yet? Here are some of the new Singapore restaurants elevating the city's fine dining scene. 

Balzac Brasserie

Jean Charles Dubois first arrived in the lion city as Chef de Cuisine of the iconic Raffles Grill and now joins the ranks of hotel chefs-turned-proprietors serving up unpretentious French classics such as steamed European blue lip mussels in garlic, shallot and white wine at his newly debuted Balzac Brasserie.

#01-01 Rendezvous Gallery, 9 Bras Basah Road; +65 6336 0797. www.balzacbrasserie.com

Forest SingaporeThai yellow pumpkin filled with California rice and sautéed foie gras at Forest. Esquina Tapas Bar

Aptly named Esquina (meaning corner in Spanish) for the narrow strip of corner space it occupies, this cramped 15-seater tapas bar by Briton Jason Atherton debuted to a packed house -- thanks in no small part to the no-reservations policy.

They all come for Atherton’s cosmopolitan-inspired menu of scallop ceviche with radish salsa and aged rib eye with chimichurri sauce served counter-style via an open kitchen.

16 Jiak Chuan Lane; +65 6222 1616. www.esquina.com.sg

Jaan

Newly crowned French Chef de Cuisine, Julien Royer, serves his rendition of haute artisan cuisine in the 14-table Jaan –- perched on the 70th floor of Swissôtel -- where the sweeping views play second fiddle only to his sublime 10-course degustation dinner which includes stellar creations like the confit of Arctic char and bread and butter langoustine.

Level 70, Equinox Complex Swissôtel The Stamford; +65 6837 3322. www.swissotel.com

Forest

After a two-year break from the culinary scene, local celebrity chef, Sam Leong, has made a comeback by way of Forest, a Thai-accented modern Chinese restaurant at the ground level of the newly debuted Equarius Hotel.

Open for dinner only, Leong’s Discovery Menu wows with haute Chinese creations like pan-seared foie gras with smoked duck breast on homemade crispy bean curd skin.

16 Sentosa GateWay Equarius Hotel; +65 6577 7788. www.rwsentosa.com

Salt Tapas & Bar

Luke Mangan’s second outpost in Singapore is also the feted chef’s first ever tapas bar concept that showcases Mangan signatures like the kingfish crudo with ginger, shallots and Persian feta and a parade of exotic zen plates like oysters in chickpea cumin butter, Moroccan steak tartare and roasted pumpkin with dukkah – many of which bear splashes of Mangan’s favourite Middle Eastern spices.

#01-22A Raffles City Shopping Centre

Evelyn Chen traded her frequent flyer miles from her jet-setting corporate days for a critic's pen, and has been eating and drinking on the job ever since. She is a former Time Out food critic and current editor of Zagat Guide; her food and travel features have published in Destin Asian, Travel + Leisure SEA and Conde Nast Traveller. For a collection of her gourmet jaunts, visit www.bibikgourmand.com.

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