Sing A Great Food Song

Singapore offers the best food in Asia. And that is a direct consequence of the World Gourmet Summit and the global foodie culture it has encouraged, writes Vir Sanghvi.

brunch Updated: May 12, 2012 16:14 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Singapore,Chinese,hawker food

I have been going to Singapore fairly regularly since 1976 and have always loved the food. At first, it was the Chinese cuisine but soon I came to subsist on the hawker food. As a general rule, you can eat well and relatively reasonably if you stick to the hawker centres.

A decade or so ago, there were also the newly-opened fun places by the water: Clarke Quay and Boat Quay. There was always a slight theme-park element to them (but then, if you hate theme parks, you don’t go to Singapore, anyway). But you couldn’t go wrong with a few skewers of satay at Clarke Quay or fish and chips at Boat Quay. (Time has not been kind; I wouldn’t recommend either place today.)

However, I never thought of Singapore as a fine dining destination. That distinction went to Hong Kong and Tokyo, cities full of haute cuisine restaurants run by great chefs. (Tokyo has more Michelin stars than Paris or London.)

A few years ago, Singapore’s dining scene began to transform itself. On a visit to the city two years ago, I was so startled by the calibre of the restaurants that I wrote, in this column, that Singapore was now the gourmet capital of Asia, offering quality dining at all levels. Since then, things have got even fancier and celebrity chefs have invaded the city-state. Joël Robuchon has both, a proper restaurant and the more casual L’Atelier.

A decade or so ago, there were newly-opened fun places by the water: Clarke Quay (above) and Boat Quay

Mario Batali has a pizzeria. Wolfgang Puck has a steakhouse. Daniel Boulud has a bistro. Guy Savoy runs a branch of his main (three-star) restaurant. The sushi chef, Shinji Kanesaka, has opened his first restaurant outside of Japan. Tetsuya, Susur Lee, Bruno Menard, Singapore’s own Justin Quek (now back home) and many others have either opened in Singapore or plan to.No doubt, more superchefs are on their way (Nobu? Alain Ducasse? Jean-Georges? They can’t be far behind.)

What’s made the difference? How has formerly cheap and cheerful Singapore now become the gourmet hub of Asia?

One reason, I would think, is the success of the World Gourmet Summit, now a centrepiece of the global culinary scene.The summit started in 1997, after Peter Knipp, the former executive chef of the Raffles Hotel, went to a food event in Switzerland, spoke to chefs and thought about creating something big in Singapore.

At the time, this seemed like a far-fetched idea. Most great chefs only overflew Singapore on their way to Hong Kong or Tokyo.But because of Knipp’s don’t-take-no-for-an-answer style and support from the ruthlessly efficient Singapore Tourism Board, the first summit attracted some interest. Knipp persuaded the great Raymond Blanc to travel to Singapore and attracted the famous San Francisco chef, Michael Mina.

The following year, Knipp got the chef from Paris’ Tour D’Argent; the third year, the summit drew Jean-Georges; and by the fourth year, Knipp was set; he had Tetsuya, Pierre Hermé, Charlie Trotter and Santi Santamaria.Since then, the summit has not looked back. Many of the world’s most famous chefs have turned up: Ferran Adrià; Marcus Samuelsson; Alain Passard; Heinz Beck; Anne Sophie Pic; Greg Doyle; David Thompson; Michel Rostang; Klaus Erfort; Laurent Tourondel; and Wylie Dufresne.

It is a mystery to me how Peter Knipp (second from right, seen with participating chefs at the summit) manages to persuade famous chefs to come to Singapore and to hold themselves up to public scrutiny

The chefs take over the kitchens of local Singapore restaurants for several days and cook their best dishes. They also run cooking masterclasses and explain their secrets. They discuss their techniques with other chefs, including those at Singapore’s restaurants, and make themselves available for interactions with the media. Along with the chefs come the winemakers.

Though everyone talks about the food, Knipp also draws some of the world’s best wines: Mouton Rothschild; Opus One; Ornellaia; Palmer; Cos d’Estournel; both branches of Pichon; Beaucastel; Vega Sicilia; and Angelus.The winemakers work alongside the chefs on dinners where the great wines are paired with superior food. They offer tastings of their best vintages and they talk about their wines at public forums.

The wonderful thing about the summit is that every event is open to the public. Tickets are not cheap but much cheaper than it would be to eat at the famous restaurants that the chefs run in their own countries. And you can eat and drink what you like. Anybody who buys a ticket can learn from the chefs or chat to the winemakers.

At previous summits, I have attended small, intimate masterclasses where 12 people sit around a kitchen table and watch such Michelin-starred chefs as Michel Rostang cook. I have gone for smallish vertical tastings of such wines as Sassicaia and discussed the wine with the man who made it. Most great chefs no longer cook with their own hands at their own restaurants

But in Singapore, they nearly always do. Two years ago, I watched David Thompson cook an a la carte menu for scores of guests at Mezza9 at the Hyatt, where he was guest chef. And I’ve heard Ferran Adrià defend himself from charges of being a scientist rather than a chef to a packed audience.

It’s hard to quantify how much the summit has done for Singapore but it has certainly turned it into the sort of city that every foodie in the world has heard of. Moreover, the summit has raised the level of food awareness in Singapore. Local diners have eaten the best and will accept nothing less from their own restaurants. Singapore chefs have worked alongside the world’s greatest chefs and have learnt how to benchmark themselves internationally.

I went to the summit for the fourth (or perhaps it was the fifth) time this year and it was even better than ever. I learnt how to cook a perfect steak from the Australian/British chef Ian Curley. I saw our own Vikas Khanna bowling guests over. I had Peking duck cooked by one of the most famous Peking duck chefs in Beijing. I chatted to Fergus Henderson (whose Saint John restaurant is among the world’s top 15 restaurants in that famous but slightly silly list) and I discussed the Japanese approach to food with Bruno Menard, who ran the top French restaurant in Tokyo (three Michelin stars) for many years.

Our own Vikas Khanna bowled the guests over in Singapore

And I saw the summit star Marco Pierre White in action. Marco is the original Bad Boy of the kitchen, the first celebrity chef in Britain, and has employed Mario Batali, Heston Blumenthal and Gordon Ramsay in their early years. Then, he returned his three Michelin stars, announced that he was giving up cooking and made a new career out of featuring in gossip columns where his love life and his divorces were dissected in great detail. All this has been financed by the fortune he makes as a pitchman for Knorr stock cubes.

Marco was a great performer but he phoned in his demo, making a rubbish pepper steak. Even the hordes of Singaporeans who had lined up to be photographed with the great man before he started cooking, slunk away once they had tried his steak.

It is a mystery to me how Peter Knipp manages to persuade famous chefs to make the trek to Singapore and to hold themselves up to public scrutiny.

Knipp is tight-lipped about his techniques but rumour suggests that he does not pay them particularly well. Most chefs get only an air ticket, a hotel room, and 5,000 dollars. Two-star chefs get 10,000 dollars and three-star chefs get 15,000 dollars. It is not a lot of money for the best chefs in the world when you consider how hard Peter works them once they get to Singapore.

I imagine that Knipp’s task is easier these days because such is the reputation of the Gourmet Summit that chefs long to be invited. They enjoy the prestige, the break from their routines and the chance to meet other chefs from all around the world. Moreover, Peter always seems to know who to invite.

His Indian guest chefs have included the big names: Ananda Solomon, Hemant Oberoi; London’s Vivek Singh; and New York’s Floyd Cardoz. But he has also invited lesser-known chefs: Manish Mehrotra (before he became one of India’s best-known chefs); and the brilliant but low-profile Naren Thimmaiah.

Singapore is now an expensive destination: cheaper than Tokyo but twice the price of Bangkok and on par with Hong Kong. Nor is there much to do once you get there unless you want to jostle with the hordes of tourists from the Chinese mainland at the casino. Even the shopping, once Singapore’s biggest attraction, lacks the variety of Bombay or Delhi and is more expensive.

So, why on earth would any tourist from India want to go there? There is only one good reason: to eat. It offers the best food in Asia. And that is a direct consequence of the Gourmet Summit and the global foodie culture it has encouraged.

If you are a foodie, then you should go next year.

From HT Brunch, May 13

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First Published: May 11, 2012 15:25 IST