TASTES OF HOME
Founder of Michelin-starred restaurant in Singapore is still guided by dream of taking Putian cuisine to the world The dishes we showcase from the city of Putian mirror what the farmers there eat on special occasions, such as on the first day of the lunar
In the inaugural, 2016 edition of the Michelin Guide Singapore, Putien on Singapore’s Kitchener Road was awarded a coveted Michelin star.
The prestigious guide described the service as “friendlier than in many similarly simple restaurants”, with food “fresh and tasty”.
For Fong Chi Chung, CEO and founder of Putien Holdings Singapore, the parent company behind the Putien restaurant brand, the accolade is a major pat on the back.
“I was of course very happy to hear the news. This is every chef and restaurateur’s highest ambition,” he said, speaking from his office and headquarters above the flagship restaurant.
What makes the win even more remarkable is that prior to starting Putien, Fong had no experience in the restaurant business.
Fong’s Putien restaurant brand emerged after he moved to Singapore from Putian, a coastal city in East China’s Fujian province, in 2000 with his brothers to launch a factory making electronic parts. Missing the food from his hometown, he opened the Kitchener Road restaurant, guided by a dream of introducing Putian cuisine to the world.
That first outlet is now one of 25 Putien restaurants he owns across Asia, in cities including Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei, Jakarta and Petaling Jaya in Malaysia.
Earlier this year, the Michelin Guide inspectors were so impressed by Fong’s Causeway Bay branch in Hong Kong that they awarded it a Bib Gourmand award — reserved for places serving quality food at affordable prices.
Although Putian cuisine is not one of the renowned eight great regional cuisines of China, Fong and the Michelin awards are helping to introduce the unique flavors to the masses.
“The dishes we showcase from the city of Putian mirror what the farmers there eat on special occasions, such as on the first day of the lunar new year, or when they need to make offerings to the gods,” explained Fong, 47.
“It might not be made from the fanciest ingredients, but they are the freshest from the sea and land. Therefore, the use of seasoning is minimal.”
Naturally, most of the items used on Putien’s menu are imported from the city itself.
One of the signature dishes is lor mee, noodles braised in a thick, flavorful pork broth and served with prawns, clams and slices of pork.
Then there is the bian rou (wonton) soup with vinegar. Bian rou is a specialty dish from Fujian dating back more than 500 years. The delicate wonton wrappers are made by pounding and rolling pork meat for hours until it becomes paper thin.
Another must-order dish is the baked golden shell clams, served on a hot plate, neatly arranged in a row atop a mound of sea salt.
“We import these from Duo Tou village in Putian. The clams are special because they are bred in black mud so you will never find sand inside their shells,” said Fong.
And it is not just the clams that have Chinese origins. The restaurant’s vermicelli, made from nonglutious rice flour, also has an interesting backstory.
The original suppliers were a husband and wife who would rise at 3 am every
CEO and founder of Putien Holdings Singapore
morning to check the weather. If a clear day was expected, they would lay out the noodles to dry in the sun.
As the day progressed, they would move the noodles depending on where the sunlight fell directly.
“The couple has since retired, but not before they passed on their skills to their workers so they can continue supplying to us,” revealed Fong.
The result is vermicelli that is fluffy and fine, but not brittle. Being sundried helps it retain its moisture longer to give it a springy texture.
Fong said that being unfamiliar with the restaurant business and with no local contacts, the learning curve was steep.
His method to search for suppliers was simple but effective. While supervizing the renovations of the unit he was renting, he would stand by the roadside and wait for delivery vans to drive by.
Copying down their phone numbers, he would then call them to inquire if they could supply to him.
“I figured if they are driving by Kitchener Road, they will not mind making a stop at my restaurant to deliver produce.”
He was also very specific about the menu. “I only wanted 30 dishes, all of which are ones I like, and unique to my hometown.”
Fong developed the menu by relying on tastes and flavors from memory, and worked with chefs to adjust the steps and ingredients to his satisfaction.
These recipes, as well as service standards, would later be documented as standard operating procedures, to be replicated as the group expands.
Fong’s first restaurant outside of Singapore opened in Jakarta in 2006, and he shows no signs of retreating from further expansion.
“Many people discouraged me from expanding. They said that Putian is a small area in China and thought a restaurant serving food from there will not be able to compete against other well-established cuisines.
“But I decided to go ahead anyway. I wanted my staff, who have followed me for all those years, to have a development path. I also developed confidence from the support I had from International Enterprise Singapore and Spring Singapore.”
Both are government agencies that help local businesses grow and internationalize.
Fong also encourages informal internal competitions. “Training alone is not enough. Having competitions will bring our standards to the next level.”
For instance, every three months, Putien cooks gather and prepare a set dish to compete on taste. The winner will share his technique so that the others can learn — a creative way of sharing best practices.
Looking to the future, Fong is upbeat on further expansion. “The response from diners in Hong Kong and Shanghai has been very positive,” he revealed, which encourages him to eye further growth in China.
An outlet in Beijing will be established this year, and another in the southern city of Shenzhen in 2017. Come 2018, he intends to launch in secondtier cities, which will include bringing the chain to his home province of Fujian.
Outside of China, Fong is eager to set up in countries with strong Chinese communities, such as Japan, Australia and the United States.
Fong Chi Chung, CEO of Putien Holdings Singapore, is upbeat on further expansion of his restaurant chain .
Dereck Ji says a channel economy can be a solution for many