Chefs without borders

HOT AND COLD: At chef Han's restaurant, Labyrinth, you can try avant-garde interpretations of Singaporean classics, like chilli crab ice cream served with soft shell crab and seaweed fronds on a bed of mantou sand.
Chefs without borders

GLOBETROTTER: Han, 28, left his corporate banking job to travel the world and apprentice under Michelin-starred chefs.


    Feb 17, 2014

    Chefs without borders

    Mod Sin cuisine, European with Asian accents or - that dirty word - fusion? A new breed of young, Singaporean chefs are looking East rather than West in their mission to create category-defying, progressive cooking. Debbie Yong of The Business Times reports.


    5 Neil Road

    Hours: 7pm-11pm (Tuesday-Sunday)

    Tel: 6223-4098

    IT'S been almost a decade since chef Willin Low first coined the term "Mod Sin" to describe his style of fusion cooking. Even the definition of the modern Singaporean, it seems, has been slowly evolving in that time.

    Chef Han Li Guang says: "The new modern Singaporean is highly globalised.

    "He didn't just grow up on hawker food, but on burgers and fries, too. He is more knowledgeable about food and has been to the top restaurants around the world.

    "He's probably tried the bacon ice cream at The Fat Duck, and is far more receptive to new ideas than the Singaporean diner of 10 years ago."

    Han should know - he's checked off all these boxes. The 28-year-old left his corporate banking job two years ago and, after a stint of eating around the world and apprenticing under Michelin-starred chefs, he's now head chef and owner of week-old modern experimental restaurant Labyrinth in Neil Road.

    On his menu: avant-garde interpretations of Singaporean classics, such as a piquant chilli crab ice cream served with soft shell crab and seaweed fronds on a bed of mantou sand, and siew yoke fan manifested as roasted pork belly on a bed of risotto cooked in ramen broth and topped with pork scratchings and a sous vide quail egg.

    The initial plan was to open a dessert bar, reveals Han, an avid baker since his university days, "because I enjoy the technical, scientific approach that making pastry requires".

    That idea soon morphed into a dining-in-the-dark concept, which was eventually scrapped - though the goal to do familiar Singapore flavours with a novel twist stuck.

    Named for the "adventure through a gastronomical maze that we will lead you through", the menu at Labyrinth is, aptly, degustation-only.

    Dinners cost $78 for five courses and $118 for the eight-course option. Lunch, to be introduced in a month, will be priced at $35 and $45 for three and four courses respectively.

    The open-kitchen, 14-seat

    counter concept (there's a regular table for six by the entrance for bigger groups) was born out of a lack of staff, he readily admits.

    But the upside is that Han's thoughtfully designed creations are best appreciated with direct explanation from the chef.

    And that's when the fun kicks in. In line with what Han calls "DNA cooking", or cooking based on cultural relevance that goes beyond mere appearances, dishes are crafted with not just local ingredients, but also Singaporean eating rituals in mind.

    A chendol xiaolongbao, for instance, contains grass-jelly cubes and red bean and coconut spheres encased in a thin, green pandan skin. You eat it by going through the traditional motion of first dipping it in a dish of gula melaka syrup, which you tip out of a vinegar bottle.

    "Fusion is only confusion when it is not well thought out. A lot of restaurants out there are mere copycats. You have to first understand your ingredients to put them together in a reflective way," he says.

    Rather than bank on pricey imported meats, Han prefers to work with local produce, ones that he personally handpicks every morning from a local butcher and a chicken supplier in Shunfu market that his grandmother has been patronising for the last three decades.

    "Sure, we can use Iberico pork from Spain, but it tastes better in Spain - not after a 20-hour flight to Singapore," he explains.`