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?
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-to-table—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-to-table 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 Truesdale-Jutras 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 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 a 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 get together 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 chef-supplier 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.
This story was first published in Wine & Dine’s Sep/Oct 2018 issue – Behind The Scenes At Singapore’s Top Restaurants.