For me, the only reason to visit Singapore is the World Gourmet Summit Singapore may be turning into Singabore. What you think of the new Singapore depends largely on who you are and why you are visiting. I’ve been going to Singapore since 1976 and it has changed more during that period than nearly any city I can think of. In some ways, I guess that is only to be expected, but the extent to which the city keeps reinventing itself – in not very interesting ways – always surprises me.
For instance, the Singapore of the late Nineties, when Orchard Road was the centre of everything, has vanished. In those days you went on the night safari, took the cable car to Sentosa, ate and drank at Boat Quay and Clarke Quay and pretty much walked everywhere. Now Orchard Road is the centre of town only to the extent that Connaught Place is the centre of Delhi; nobody goes to either of the Quays, the zoo and night safari are tiresome, and Sentosa is a full-fledged suburb of Singapore with many hotels, casinos and fancy residential blocks.
We can argue about the factors that brought about the change but my guess is that the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese by the Brits was the key event. Singapore offered itself up to the global financial community and all the multinational corporations functioning in Asia as the new Hong Kong: cleaner, safer, English-speaking and entirely free of nasty Communist influence or – and this may be more important – Communist corruption.
So , the new Singapore is booming. There is more money on display than ever before. The hotels are even fancier. New restaurants open every week. And the old-style expatriate manager with a love of the tropics has been replaced by financial whiz-kids of the kind we used to call yuppies in the old days.But just as financial Singapore has changed after the handover, so has everything else. Eager to capitalise on mainland China’s new prosperity, Singapore actively courts Chinese tourists, invites them to shop for designer goods and directs them to the new casinos. Those mainland Chinese who are too poor to be of tourist value are shipped in and given jobs as menials.The changes trouble Singapore’s essentially Chinese middle class. For a start, everything is ridiculously expensive (you will find that New York is much cheaper), including housing. For another, the balance of the city has been affected. The middle class resents the expats with their fancy salaries. There are now many prosperous Indian Indians (as distinct from ethnic Singapore Indians) and they make more money than the locals because of high salaries in the financial and IT sectors. But the Singapore Chinese are especially resentful of the new imports from the mainland who they regard as bumpkins who are willing to work at low wages.
All this makes today’s Singapore a pretty useless place for an Indian tourist. There is nothing very interesting to do. There is no natural beauty. And if you like tall buildings you can go to Gurgaon, which is roughly as charming. Plus Singapore is just too expensive to be worth it. I realised with a start, when I arrived at Changi (still the world’s best airport, by the way) that it had been a full year since I had seen any cause to visit Singapore. And then too, I had come to Singapore for just one reason: Peter Knipp.
Knipp is the former chef who put Singapore on the world foodie map by organising (initially with the Singapore Tourism Board) the World Gourmet Summit, an annual event that brings together some of the world’s best chefs. Peter had difficulty dragging the top chefs to Singapore in the early years but the Summit is now 17 years old and I can’t think of a single chef anywhere in the world who regards it as beneath him.
This year, I ate at Song of India where our very own Sanjeev Kapoor was cooking. (Vikas Khanna did the same gig last year.) Such is the power of Sanjeev’s name that the restaurant was sold out for his very first lunch service and even local Chinese guests asked to be photographed with him.
If Sanjeev delighted fans of the Indian MasterChef, then there was enough to please fans of the Australian version: Matt Moran was cooking at The Prime Society, a well-regarded steakhouse. Matt did his classics, including the Peking Duck Consomme which was actually better than the version I ate at Aria, his signature restaurant in Sydney. How, I asked Matt, could he reach such standards in an unfamiliar kitchen? The answer was simple: he made the soup in Sydney and brought it to Singapore!
Matt has now left MasterChef Australia, he told me, as the ratings have plummeted. I assured him that Indian viewers of Star World were still to tire of the show and when he does make it to India (for the first time!) later this year, he can expect to be treated like a rock star. One of Peter Knipp’s talents lies in picking chefs who are trendy in their own countries but lesser-known abroad. This year, he brought William Ledeuil from Paris. Ledeuil is a controversial chef in French foodie circles because his cuisine uses so many southeast Asian spices and it took him years to get his first Michelin star. On the other hand, he is a hero to the Le Fooding movement which is a reaction to what some see as the stuffiness of Michelin.
I ate his food at My Humble House, one of the 26 restaurants owned by Andrew Tjioe of the Tung Lok group, the king of Singapore’s restaurant scene. Andrew collaborates with ITC on the Delhi Humble House but his empire is really exploding in China and Indonesia. Also at dinner was Susur Lee (you may have seen him on Top Chef Masters) the North American-based Chinese chef who most American food writers regard as the inventor of modern Chinese cuisine. Susur hopes to head out to India this year and perhaps Andrew will persuade him to cook at the Delhi Humble House.
Among the most popular chefs at the Gourmet Summit was Gabriele Ferron, a passionate, expressive Italian chef straight out of central casting. Ferron runs a famous restaurant in Verona but is best known as the Ambassador of Italian rice. He cooked at the tiny Forlino and though his star dish was meant to be a delicate pistachio risotto (which was great), I was more impressed by his use of Italian black rice. William Ledeuil had used purple southeast Asian rice to great effect and their dishes made me wonder: why are we so hung up in North India on basmati? India has some of the best rice varieties in the world and we don’t make enough of them.
Ferron also gave me a masterclass in the art of risotto but I think I’ll save that for another piece.
There were two stars (for me at least) at the Summit. One was Dario Cecchini who you will not have heard of, unless you have read Bill Bruford’s experiences of working with him in The New Yorker. Dario is not a chef. He is a butcher. But he comes from a long line of artisanal butchers and is – by any standards – a character. Enormously charismatic, fiery and volatile, he speaks no English but can still hold an entire room in his thrall.
The Gourmet Summit organises demonstrations (called Jam Sessions) and I went to Dario’s. He brought along a whole leg of beef and cut it into chunks in front of the audience to explain what the cuts were and how they must be cooked. Most of us get our meat in packets so it was fascinating to see a master butcher at work with his hands.
The other star was the ubiquitous Jean-François Piège, France’s Chef of the Year, Paris’s chef of the moment and the only man to get two Michelin stars within three months of opening his restaurant. I’ve eaten Piège’s food before but one of the great things about the Gourmet Summit is the opportunity it gives ordinary people like us, the chance to eat food that has actually been cooked and plated by the chef himself. There were about 10 people at our table and Piège went from guest to guest pouring the sauce onto each plate.
As expected, the food was delicious. But what interested me was that Piège had created dishes just for the Summit. He only cooks in Paris with the best fresh ingredients so the Singapore trip meant that he had to invent new dishes with ingredients he would not normally use. Given some US Prime to work with, he produced an astonishing variation on steak and chips with béarnaise sauce. Other dishes were as inventive.
Afterwards, I asked him what his favourite dish in the world was. He gave me an answer only a Frenchman could give: fresh petit pois, the small peas that are in season for only three weeks of the year. “Just petit pois,” he said. “Good ingredients are more important than good cooking.”
But good cooking matters too. That’s why I’m such a Gourmet Summit regular. And that is the only reason left to visit Singapore: to eat.
Everything in Singapore is so ridiculously expensive that you’ll find New York cheaper
From HT Brunch, April 28
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