Singapore may be a tiny red dot but there’s no shortage of food stories to share here. In Southeast Asia’s garden city-state, chef and restaurateurs are paving the way for a brand new set of values—think greater sustainability choices, anti-trends, responsible consumerism—that are slowly steering the direction today’s consumers take.

In recent years, this ideal has extended beyond cultural norms with projects led by individuals bent on making this new normal closer to reality. For some, it could mean a celebration of local produce or a pure expression of imagination. To others still, it could simply be about reclaiming the charms of heritage and tradition.

Singapore has always had the core ingredients of a great food city—diversity, sustainability, a forward-thinking mindset, pockets of gorgeous gastronomy sandwiched between its beautiful neighborhoods (one Michelin star Peranakan favorite Candlenut and modern izakaya Adrift by David Myers come to mind), unique dining experiences (like the new private cruise The Floating Donut), and even a consistently game-changing jewel of an airport that complements Singapore’s minuscule footprint.

Now with more global talents and events descending on the Garden City such as The World’s 50 Best Restaurants—a first for Asia—and homegrown events like the Singapore Food Festival marking its 26th edition this year, Singapore is doing a fantastic job of repositioning itself as a city defined by more than just its chili crab and chicken rice.

Now with more global talents and events descending on the Garden City such as The World’s 50 Best Restaurants—a first for Asia—and homegrown events like the Singapore Food Festival marking its 26th edition this year, Singapore is doing a fantastic job of repositioning itself as a city defined by more than just its chili crab and chicken rice.

During the preview of the Singapore Food Festival, which culminates at the end of July, local chefs and restaurants are also responding to the new realities shaping the industry today with food that aren’t overtly political or serve an ambiguous purpose but rather affirm the gravity of keeping one eye out into the world while staying true to their roots.

But while major food events are skewed to amplify interest on a seasonal basis, many chefs and restaurateurs now intend to keep the community and travelers engaged throughout the year. It would be almost impossible to not think of Violet Oon and Paul Liew of Keng Eng Kee Seafood, two prominent food figures who do it better—and in a more effective and universal way—owing to their rich history within the cultural microcosm of Singapore. Oon has just launched her fifth and largest venture to date, Violet Oon Singapore, at Jewel in Changi Airport in April 2019 while Liew has also ventured into wok-style burgers via Wok In Burger to invite a younger crowd into the joys of modern zi char cuisine.

Violet Oon

Here, we spoke with Oon and Liew about the future of the food industry, Singapore’s place at the global culinary table, and the challenges everyone will be facing moving forward. And there was a lot to discuss.

How would you define the current state of Singapore’s food industry?

Paul Liew (PL): In Singapore, the food industry is never a [idea] for occupation by locals, especially for our zi char (wok-styled) cuisine as there is a gap of available local wok-trained chefs. In the ‘50s to early ’70s, there were many local wok-trained chefs and many chose this line as they were uneducated and meals were provided. But in the 80s until now, the young are well-educated and are trained to be professionals in many fields but not culinary. We do have culinary schools, but many emphasize ion Western cuisine or hotel-style culinary operation.

But in recent years, the emphasis and attention on local cuisine have been increasing, putting the spotlight on regular street food and modern Singapore cuisine. Now, the schools have created new modules such as Asian Culinary, creating opportunities to know more about our local cuisine. Two years ago, we took in culinary students for internships, which we had never done before. The students’ interest in local wok cuisine gave me the impression on the possibility of a new breed of wok-trained chefs.

Has the experience of running a restaurant differed now compared to when you first started?

Violet Oon (VO): The experience today is quite different from when we first started. We were a single restaurant called Violet Oon’s Kitchen, as tribute to my first restaurant in the ’90s. Our 2012 Violet Oon’s Kitchen seated and still seats less than 50 people and my two children Tay Su-Lyn, 42, and Tay Yiming, 37, were the ones who had this idea of sharing Singapore food heritage in particular Nyonya food to a wider audience.

Violet Oon Singapore’s chicken rice
Nasi goreng Nyonya at Violet Oon Singapore

As our restaurants have grown organically, so has the running of the restaurants. Our operations have become streamlined and professionally run with clear standard operating procedures regarding recipes, culinary practices, and foodservice quality in the front of house. We have ensured reliability and a similar food and hospitality experience yet have kept a warm, personal, and welcoming character that represents the Singapore style of service in which where our frontline staff are hosts rather than servers.

What’s so special about this city from your perspective as a chef? What’s so interesting about Singapore’s food and creative scene?

VO: Food in the Singapore context is unique in that we are a perfect storm of a confluence of the greatest of Asian culinary traditions—China, India, and the whole of Melanesia (Malaysia and the Indonesian archipelago)—coupled with an inclusive society where all cultures enjoy each other’s cuisines. These foreign injections allowed Singapore to be installed firmly on the culinary map and Singaporean talents to be part of the limelight. This is married by a relatively well off population and where sharing of food has become an integral part of our social makeup.

“I think being on-trend is dangerous because by its very definition and nature, it changes to the next trend, perhaps within a season or within a year and it goes out of fashion. Being on pointe—to get that exact formula of exquisite deliciousness correct, being able to gauge the soul of the dining public, that timelessness of experiential desire—is more important,” says Violet Oon.

I also think Singapore’s UNESCO bid for our hawker way of life is at an ideal time as we are celebrating our hawker way of dining in this age when there is so much divisiveness. Singapore’s message of inclusion will have great resonance in the soul of dining in the international milieu.

Violet Oon Singapore at Jewel in Changi Airport also features their food boutique

Add to this the layer of international chefs who have launched restaurants in Singapore to bring the dining scene up a few notches to be among the best of the culinary cities of the world. There’s Cut and Spago by Wolfgang Puck as well as Bread Street Kitchen by Gordon Ramsay in Marina Bay Sands. At Resorts World in Sentosa, there was Joel Rubichon. Independently, Marco Pierre White has opened the English House and Tetsuya Wakuda of Waku Ghin.

PL: Like many big cities, Singapore is a melting pot of immigrants where many of them brought along their native cuisine. But in such a small country, starting a food business that sells authentic cuisine may only attract people from the same culture, and not the majority. And that is how the evolution of Singapore food begins. For instance, the Hainanese chicken rice in Hainan Island and Singapore are totally different, and the local peppery version of bak kut teh is different from Malaysia’s herbal version. We create our own unique Singapore food identity. 

“The challenges will be that chefs will be seen too much on the glamorous part of media, many times burying the learning process and sacrifices made by chefs before they become successful. And with everyone seeking to be a rockstar of the industry, forgetting the real reason of their existence, which is to do [great] dishes and dining experiences that customers will enjoy,” says Paul Liew.

Paul, Wok In Burger was just recently rolled out and being one of your newest ventures, how does it complement Keng Eng Kee’s zi char cuisine?

PL: Our zi char cuisine had always been viewed as a dining option when the family are bringing the elderly [to restaurants]; our cuisine will not be a priority by the younger generation. The birth of Wok In Burger is to change the way we appreciate zi char cuisine, reach out to the younger generation, and give them an introduction to it.

Keng Eng Kee Seafood’s cereal prawns

Violet, what trend is a big waste of time? And what’s something that stands out to you right now in the food industry?

VO: I am unfortunately not a trendy person and our mantra in the Violet Oon Singapore Group celebrates original Singapore cuisine and recipes. My own quest has always been to curate, collate, chronicle, and celebrate authentic Singapore cuisine and culinary techniques.

I do not know which trend is a big waste of time but I do know that what seems to stand out today is sustainability with some restaurants trying to plant their own vegetables finding meat replacements. Whether this makes a great impact on the dining public remains to be seen. I think being on-trend is dangerous because by its very definition and nature, it changes to the next trend, perhaps within a season or within a year and it goes out of fashion. Being on pointe—to get that exact formula of exquisite deliciousness correct, being able to gauge the soul of the dining public, that timelessness of experiential desire—is more important. 

Keng Eng Kee Seafood’s Moonlight Horfun

What challenges will chefs, restaurateurs, and the food industry face in the future?

PL: In Singapore, the challenges will be that chefs will be seen too much on the glamorous part of media, many times burying the learning process and sacrifices made by chefs before they become successful. And with everyone seeking to be a rockstar of the industry, forgetting the real reason of their existence, which is to do [great] dishes and dining experiences that customers will enjoy.

What are you most excited about when it comes to Singapore’s future in food?

PL: With our first generation hawkers slowly stepping out of the industry, new players are constantly stepping in. We have seen these aspiring food warriors coming in strongly but also leaving before the seats are warm. It seems disappointing, but those who have stayed on and improved have proven their worth. The increased numbers that stepped into our industry—be it for passion, fame or survival—will create new concepts, change the food scene, and put up new challenges for us who have been in the industry for so long. We need to keep on improving on our heritage cuisine in order to keep running on this track. So my excitement will be what is in for us, and the challenges for us to overcome. I believe all this will benefit our industry.

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