LO­CA­VORE IN A CON­CRETE JUN­GLE

Chefs in Sin­ga­pore face chal­lenges from many sides when cham­pi­oning lo­cal pro­duce in their dishes. Will our lo­ca­vore move­ment be more than just a pass­ing culi­nary fad?

Wine & Dine - - CONTENTS - WORDS MICHELLE YEE

Find out why chefs in Sin­ga­pore are cham­pi­oning lo­cal pro­duce

Con­sider the world’s most sto­ried farm-to-ta­ble restau­rants: Chez Panisse (Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia), L’Arôme (Provence, France) and Fäviken (Jär­pen, Swe­den). They’re all lo­cated close to agri­cul­tural lands that are rich not just in quan­tity, but also in qual­ity and va­ri­ety. Menus vary with the sea­sons. At one-Miche­lin-starred L’Arôme, for in­stance, chef Thomas Boul­lault serves two “sur­prise starters” on his de­gus­ta­tion menu based on the sea­sonal pro­duce avail­able at the lo­cal mar­ket each day.

Even though Sin­ga­pore has no ac­tual sea­son to speak of, there’s a grow­ing cadre of chefs helm­ing restau­rants that tout farm-totable—or lo­ca­vore—cui­sine.

“Many chefs have be­gun sourc­ing lo­cal plants, flowers, herbs and leaves, and I, too, have also started sourc­ing lo­cal or­ganic flowers, which are the jew­els of my dishes. How­ever, it is very dif­fi­cult to source all in­gre­di­ents lo­cally. I com­pletely sup­port and re­spect my peers in Eng­land who source every­thing from no more than a five-mile ra­dius from their restau­rant, and if I could do the same, I would as it sup­ports the lo­cal com­mu­nity and en­sures the best qual­ity,” shares Kirk West­away, chef de cui­sine of modern Bri­tish restau­rant Jaan.

Cli­mate aside, dis­cern­ing din­ers might be tempted to think that such talk is merely hot air. Af­ter all, the city-state has lit­tle land de­voted to agri­cul­tural ven­tures, and it cur­rently im­ports 92 per cent of its veg­eta­bles and fish, ac­cord­ing to the Agri-Food & Vet­eri­nary Au­thor­ity of Sin­ga­pore.

Chef Tan Ken Loon of The Naked Finn and Nekkid Bar echoes this view. He says that while the lo­ca­vore move­ment here has it mer­its, “sup­port­ing lo­cal pro­duce might be seen as do­ing so more for the pur­poses of mar­ket­ing or pub­lic­ity”, as op­posed to a purely culi­nary phi­los­o­phy de­void of pre­ten­sion.

HARDER THAN IT LOOKS

The task of el­e­vat­ing Sin­ga­porean farm-totable cui­sine from mere mar­ket­ing gim­mick is one that some pas­sion­ate chefs are rel­ish­ing. At Open Farm Com­mu­nity (OFC), re­cently ap­pointed head chef Oliver Trues­dale-Ju­tras and sous chef Phoebe Oviedo main­tain the restau­rant’s farm-to-ta­ble phi­los­o­phy by us­ing only in­gre­di­ents sourced in Sin­ga­pore and neigh­bour­ing states of Penin­su­lar Malaysia, with the ex­cep­tion of cer­tain meats like pork and beef (which they get from Canada and Aus­tralia).

Chefs Trues­dale-Ju­tras and Oviedo pre­vi­ously ran Stovetrot­ter, a rov­ing pop-up culi­nary con­cept that in­volved tak­ing over restau­rants lo­cated around the world— in­clud­ing France, Den­mark, Morocco and

Sri Lanka—and us­ing only in­gre­di­ents sourced from the coun­try they were in. In tiny Sin­ga­pore, the duo is fac­ing an en­tirely unique chal­lenge.

On us­ing lo­cal pro­duce, chef Trues­daleJu­tras confesses that a con­sis­tent sup­ply is hard to come by. “We have to use many dif­fer­ent sup­pli­ers for dif­fer­ent things, which is an or­gan­i­sa­tional chal­lenge,” he says. A case in point: While most restau­rants in Sin­ga­pore or­der from two or three large sup­ply com­pa­nies, OFC calls on over 20 sup­pli­ers, each with their own quirks, re­quire­ments and sched­ules.

The lo­gis­ti­cal chal­lenge, how­ever, doesn’t faze the chefs, thanks to their culi­nary ap­proach. In­stead of hav­ing a dish in mind and sourc­ing in­gre­di­ents for it, the duo does things dif­fer­ently—in a more flex­i­ble way. Chef Trues­dale-Ju­tras ex­plains, “Rather than con­ceiv­ing a dish and then be­ing dis­ap­pointed at not be­ing able to find the nec­es­sary in­gre­di­ents, we go out and visit farms, such as those in Kranji, to see what is good, and then build the dish from there.

It’s a sub­tle dis­tinc­tion but it makes all the dif­fer­ence in per­cep­tion,” he adds. “In­stead of feel­ing lim­ited, we feel in­spired by what is around us.”

Over at The Guild, ex­ec­u­tive chef Vin­cent “Vinny” Lau­ria also ad­vo­cates the use of lo­cally sourced in­gre­di­ent at his restau­rant.

“We source every­thing we can lo­cally. That to me, how­ever, doesn’t mean only from Sin­ga­pore. It means close enough to our door that can be reached in less than a day. ‘Lo­cal’ isn’t a buzz­word. It’s about the prox­im­ity to the cut­ting board it is go­ing to be pre­pared on and the ta­ble at which it will be served.

Our chicken, mush­rooms, pea ten­drils, corn, eggs, pork, oys­ters, goat’s milk, frogs, toma­toes, greens, egg­plant, and many other in­gre­di­ents, are all sourced lo­cally. One of the rea­sons for choos­ing to use lo­cally sourced in­gre­di­ents is the as­sur­ance we get

“MANY CHEFS HAVE BE­GUN SOURC­ING LO­CAL PLANTS, FLOWERS, HERBS AND LEAVES, AND I, TOO, HAVE ALSO STARTED SOURC­ING LO­CAL OR­GANIC FLOWERS, WHICH ARE THE JEW­ELS ON MY DISHES.”

from know­ing where the in­gre­di­ents are from and how they are grown. On any given day we can go to the farm and wit­ness the cul­ti­va­tion process, and con­nect with the farm­ers that are grow­ing or rear­ing the pro­duce. When there is care and at­ten­tion put into some­thing, you can re­ally taste the dif­fer­ence,” Lau­ria shares.

GET­TING LO­CAL DIN­ERS TO BITE

Sourc­ing isn’t the only chal­lenge for chefs who cham­pion the lo­ca­vore phi­los­o­phy. An­other up­hill bat­tle that’s much harder for them to over­come: Con­sumer bias. “It’s quite com­mon in Sin­ga­pore to en­counter the per­cep­tion that lo­cal pro­duce and har­vests are of poorer qual­ity,” says Cyn­thia Chua, CEO and founder of Spa Esprit Group, which man­ages OFC. “Din­ers are mostly quick to as­sume that kale is bet­ter than sweet potato leaf, and that for­eign is bet­ter.”

Echo­ing sim­i­lar sen­ti­ments, Lau­ria adds, “Some din­ers think that if an in­gre­di­ent is grown here it can’t be tasty. I faced sim­i­lar is­sues when I was work­ing in Hong Kong. But I did an ex­per­i­ment with a few hun­dred kinder­garten chil­dren—I placed a lo­cal tomato next to an im­ported tomato from Europe, and asked the chil­dren to taste them and let me know which one tastes bet­ter, and nearly all of them said the lo­cal vari­ant.”

But there could be a very good rea­son for this, chef Tan points out. “When din­ers say that lo­cal pro­duce is in­fe­rior to pro­duce from Ja­pan, Aus­tralia and Europe, they’re not wrong as there are many bad pro­duc­ers in Sin­ga­pore.”

While poor lo­cal pro­duce is some­times due to grow­ing con­di­tions be­yond the farmer’s con­trol (such as wa­ter con­di­tions for farmed fishes), a hand­ful of pro­duc­ers could be tak­ing dan­ger­ous short­cuts. “You have chem­i­cal fer­tilis­ers, an­tibi­otics, growth stim­u­lants [in some lo­cal pro­duce],” Tan notes.

Faced with these er­rant pro­duc­ers in the lo­cal mar­ket, he cau­tions fel­low chefs on the pit­falls of the lo­ca­vore trend. “We can­not fol­low this trend blindly,” he states in no un­cer­tain terms. “As chefs, we must per­son­ally visit the farms and ask the right ques­tions to sep­a­rate the facts from the mar­ket­ing spin.”

“Farm-to-ta­ble gives the im­pres­sion of qual­ity. But with­out know­ing more about the farms them­selves, chefs run the risk of sup­port­ing er­rant farm­ers and im­pact­ing the con­fi­dence of din­ers and con­sumers,” he adds.

THE CHEF AS LO­CA­VORE GATEKEEPER

From vis­it­ing farms to per­son­ally tast­ing the in­gre­di­ents, chefs who pride them­selves on ex­e­cut­ing farm-to-ta­ble cui­sine must act as gate­keep­ers. Lo­ca­vore-minded chefs need to be dis­cern­ing with breeds, va­ri­eties and seed se­lec­tions for meats and veg­eta­bles, know the proper en­vi­ron­ment and con­di­tions these in­gre­di­ents should be farmed in, and whether the pro­duc­ers are ad­her­ing to best prac­tices. Knowl­edge of proper har­vest­ing, pro­cess­ing and pack­ag­ing of pro­duce also comes into play.

The chef dou­bles up as an agri­cul­tur­ist, on top of be­ing a culi­nar­ian. But this is ex­actly the type of role chef Tan feels that lo­ca­vore chefs must play, es­pe­cially in Sin­ga­pore.

At his two es­tab­lish­ments, he has built a rap­port with his reg­u­lars, who recog­nise his restau­rant’s low profit mar­gin ap­proach and com­mit­ment to top qual­ity lo­cal pro­duce. The key, he says, is to “com­mu­ni­cate the prove­nance of the lo­cal pro­duce sourced specif­i­cally by the restau­rant.”

The 43-year-old self-taught culi­nar­ian also counts him­self lucky to have found “a hand­ful of re­ally good lo­cal pro­duc­ers” he re­lies on for his dishes at the seafood-cen­tric The Naked Finn. The bar­ra­mundi he uses, for in­stance, is grown and har­vested not in its na­tive Aus­tralia, but from a fish farm lo­cated on Se­makau island off the south­ern shores of Sin­ga­pore.

“The fish farm’s cold chain process keeps the fish, es­pe­cially the all-im­por­tant skin, in top con­di­tion for pan-fry­ing,” de­scribes chef Tan. “If the fish isn’t fresh enough, the skin breaks eas­ily from the fil­let, mak­ing it much harder to cook right.”

For chefs like Trues­dale-Ju­tras and Oviedo who are just get­ting started on their jour­ney of dis­cov­ery, there have been more pleas­ant sur­prises than un­der­whelm­ing ones. See­ing lo­cal in­gre­di­ents with a rel­a­tively new eye al­lows the duo to con­jure creative in­ter­pre­ta­tions of in­ter­na­tional clas­sics us­ing lo­cal in­gre­di­ents.

One such dish on OFC’s menu is the black bean stroz­za­preti, a pasta dish fea­tur­ing home-grown mush­rooms (from a farm in Kranji), lo­cally-pro­duced silken tofu, and ox­alis leaves from the work­ing farm at the restau­rant. Else­where, Gen­eral Tao’s Toad is a play on a much-joked about ori­en­tal chicken dish, this time fea­tur­ing frog legs from a frog farm in Jurong.

GROW­ING THE MOVE­MENT

Cu­ri­ous and dis­cern­ing minds aside, the lo­ca­vore ex­pe­ri­ence of chefs such as Trues­dale-Ju­tras and Oviedo can help the lo­ca­vore move­ment take off in Sin­ga­pore by bring­ing new ideas to the ta­ble. The Cana­dian duo is spear­head­ing a Farm­ers and Heal­ers Mar­ket at OFC in Au­gust this year—a get­to­gether of lo­cals, chefs and grow­ers that’s a reg­u­lar fix­ture in cities with a strong farm-to-ta­ble cul­ture.

Chef Tan views these ini­tia­tives favourably. “Ul­ti­mately, restau­rants, farms and din­ers are in a sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship when it comes to lo­ca­vore cui­sine,” he says. “When din­ers ask for bet­ter qual­ity from restau­rants, and restau­rants push lo­cal farms to pro­duce bet­ter qual­ity in­gre­di­ents for them to buy, the farms will do just that.”

As of now, chef Trues­dale-Ju­tras feels that the restau­rants here that seem to pride them­selves on the chef-farmer con­nec­tion, as op­posed to a chef­sup­plier con­nec­tion, is still few and far be­tween. In the cut­throat lo­cal culi­nary scene, prac­ti­cal­ity still reigns supreme. But, with more and more lo­cal farms step­ping up and prov­ing their worth, per­haps the next three-star Miche­lin joint in Sin­ga­pore will be one who’d be proudly fly­ing the lo­ca­vore ban­ner.

Lo­ca­vore-lah, per­haps?

Lo­ca­vore vibes at The Guild Op­po­site page Chefs Oliver Trues­daleJu­tras and Phoebe Oviedo; Ed­i­ble gar­den at OFC; Farm to ta­ble

Left and right Fresh baby squid and In­dian hal­ibut sourced from Jurong Fish Port

The Guild’s brawn ter­rine, spicy pick­led veg­eta­bles, charred bread

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