Today, my boss mentioned watching Anthony Bourdain visiting Singapore in his Layover program and his fiancee going gaga at the sight of teh-tarik. Both announced they would love to visit my home country and smash their faces into pots full of fishhead curry and shit. On a less savoury note, my facebook feed threw up people criticising Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan for being out of touch when his Ministry for Environment and Water Resources was quoted in the Straits Times as: “surveys show that in general, ingredients form about 60 per cent of a hawker’s costs”. Notably, food critic KF Seetoh posted, “If your food cost is 60%, eh, you long long close shop liao la. If you cannot do below 30%, go be a highly paid civil servant better la”. I don’t think the dichotomy of desire and reality not meeting could be summed up so painfully by both parties.
On the one hand, I can be proud that Singapore is famous for it’s great food. Yet, on the other, I can only see the abyss that faces said cuisine. There are many reasons why I have not chosen to start a restaurant in Singapore, weather being one of them, but everything else explains the difficult situation my beloved nation’s food heritage and identity faces today.
First off, most food in Singapore is ridiculously cheap. Some asshat will say that food in Indonesia or Vietnam or Ethiopia or whatever is cheaper. We have long been considered a developing nation and if hotels that look like the ark landed on top or the number of Vuittons per capita (LVPC) are anything to go by, I’d say that the little red dot is very much first world. A first world country that adopted the approach of keeping food cheap through a conscious government effort since the heady days of independence. This policy had two major effects. The first is that it keeps people happy, satisfying a basic need easily and keeping the government in power. The second is that the people developed a complacency and absurdity of expectation. Not only should it remain cheap despite the fact that the country sees affluence aplenty, it should also remain at the status quo in terms of taste. This is world class fare that costs very very little. Fuck inflation, fuck immigration policy, fuck market capitalism, fuck profit margins. We want cheap, hygienic, locally made, authentic and tasty stuff that’s subsidised by a benevolent dictatorship that’s somehow expected to be about face socialists when it comes to thing we eat.
In 1965, my moms was still a child and her experience revolved around 20c plates of noodles and it’s ilk. When I was a similar age in 1990, I remember the same thing would cost $2. So we’re talking a 1000% increase over 25 years. It’s a rough estimate of course but let’s compare it with the next 25 years. When I last went home in April this year, 2015, a relatively extravagant plate of hokkien mee cost $5 and it’s probably meant to be shared. So over the last 25 years, inflation was 250%. In 2040, will I be surprised if my $5 plate became $10? Honestly, I’d rejoice because that same thing runs about $15 here in Sydney here today and it hasn’t been honed by 20+ years of dedication involving long hours in front of a wok burner. And still, the clouds of nostalgia would present the idea that the taste has been going downhill post Planck epoch.
Singaporeans moan way too much. They’ve had it too good for far too long and gone are the tenets that my parents and grandparents’ generations have held so true; hard work and determination. Today’s Singaporean is more attuned towards ranting on a WordPress blog (like myself for no one to read) or a couple of lines on a Facebook comment as if they somehow deserve the $3 plates of god level chicken rice. It’s the entitled attitude that reeks. A dish that today has a few distinct styles, each worthy of merit and each developed through years of tireless innovation and ideas. Roasting garlic and onions to deepen the flavour of a broth, which in turns flavours the pristine rice or refreshing slow poached low temperature chicken in ice water developing additional texture with gelatinisation… I would suggest comparisons with the ramen scene in Japan and yet, these under-appreciated achievements come at a fraction of the cost. You’ll see a blog come up with some stupid list of their own favourite chicken rice stalls and the list is long. This snobbery is made possible only by the quality and quantity on offer.
So what does this low cost mean for me, a chef who is perhaps considering if he should start a F&B business in Singapore? Well, it’s all about competition and the ubiquity of it. There’s too much good food at stupidly low prices in Singapore. I could make great food but I’m no Rene Redzepi, David Chang or the guy who runs Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice or whatever but does that mean that I should not have decent remuneration for my effort and skill? In Singapore, the answer would be no, because you would be happy to go to the next guy since there’s so many. No one can say with any degree of certainty who the best chicken rice in Singapore is. Not fucking hungrygowhere, ieatishootipost or your grandmother’s left toe. There’s just too many candidates and low cost of food combined with high levels of competition means stupid high barrier to entry with little plausible reward.
So don’t do chicken rice or hawker food then, why don’t you run an Italian joint? This brings me to the next point of contention with the food scene in Singapore. We seem to not mind dropping dollars on a aglio olio or “carbonara” with cream or maybe some sushi/ramen/burger etc. Basically, we don’t mind spending more if it’s foreign. Hell, if you slice some truffles or throw on some gold leaf or maybe make soy milk look like camembert (true story), you’d drop $30 or $300. I love fine dining but the best I’ve experienced from L’Astrance in Paris, Central in Lima to Mugaritz in Errenteria are all locally sourced and locally inspired. This is not the case in Singapore, where Restaurant Andre is run by a Taiwanese person, Waku Ghin by Aussiefied Japanese and everything else French, Italian… you name it, anything but Singaporean. Where the real gods of cooking charge you maybe $8 for a sickass bowl of bisquey prawn noodles with massive superfresh premium shellfish. Versus a “seafood aglio olio” for $13.80 involving the privilege of air conditioning and table service.
Foreign food interests me and inspires me as a chef and I love cooking/eating it but I have scant interest in fleecing people with wagyu from Ohmi prefecture followed intensely by otoro from the Southern Antarctic. The ingredients are delicious, there is no doubting that, but the cost is prohibitive and/or otherwise unsustainable. We owe it to our future generations that we don’t live our lives in such excess that there is nothing left. Whilst some dismiss locavorism as just a trend that will surely fade, it is really all about great flavour and in truth, a return to how we ate prior to market capitalism and human greed detaching humanity from it’s food sources. Singapore is epitomy of that, with it’s need to import most of it’s food. I don’t however suggest that local for Singapore, should not include it’s neighbours in South East Asia or even indeed, China or Australia. After all, we did use to be a sleepy fishing village that transformed into one of the major shipping hubs around the globe because of our unique geography. Our importation of food is but another facet of our existence and we ought to celebrate it within reason. Still, the thought to cook expensive food in a foreign style using foreign ingredients or using cheap ingredients to cook in a foreign style at mid-range prices does not intrigue me. Our obsession with kurobuta this or uni that is a noose on our local cuisine. Because of our well travelled, foodie by birth nature, Singaporeans place too much exoticism on shit they can’t pronounce well. This is not cool.
But perhaps I ought to overlook the insane levels of competition and ridiculously small margins that could tempt me. Let me instead consider the “successes” in Singapore. One of the many changing fads perhaps? From franchises shilling the next big trendy little snack to the various hipster cafes pouring shots at $5 a cup to go with $7 rainbow sponge/red velvet cakes topped with shit buttercream. Sure, I oughta jump on that bandwagon. Sure.
I’m not saying that croissant taiyaki or macarons or boba tea isn’t good or there aren’t any good hipster cafes with amazing red velvet cakes made with ultralight microwaved sponge and perhaps flavoured with haw flakes and a custard apple icing. I’m sure there are and their latte art is awesome. I’m not saying that we should only eat local and not consider eating Japanese or Thai or Russian. I’m saying that our perspective is fucked and we ought to look again at poor old Singaporean food and give it the money it deserves.
This leads onto what would possibly change my mind. If people were willing to spend money on great food and appreciate the locality, seasonality and provenance of it, they ought to tip their favourite hawkers beyond the paltry figures imposed by government. If I had the opportunity to do so, I would, although I suspect they might not even allow me to have the privilege. What this dog eat dog world of competitive cooking needs is a conscience and respect from everyone. The government should drop any mandate to try to keep prices at stupid levels. 60% food cost is very high but many high volume/turnover, low price/service outfits rely on that to turn a profit. Hawker stalls have typically been like this and if food cost is really 60%, the problem isn’t your rent or wages or utilities or whatever. It’s the pricing. If food prices were higher in Singapore, there’s way more leeway, more room for creativity and more room for talent to produce what Singaporeans crave. I’ve read about various young people starting great initiatives cooking a variety of cuisines in hawker stalls and cafes and restaurants but how many of these will enjoy success with our expectation that they should not make any money?
But would Singaporeans be willing to pay more to get table service? Or would they rather moan that the hawker is rude? If I put one of the many deific personalities who run hawker stalls in Singapore into a white tablecloth restaurant with waiters and a sommelier, would you be willing to part with your hard earned at a level equivalent to what you would if Joel Robuchon’s name was plastered across the front of the entrance? Maybe we should take a step back a bit. What if I ran a contemporary restaurant in Singapore using locally sourced ingredients from the Asia Pacific region and focused on trying to create a cuisine which fuses the best old and new international cooking methods and ideas with that local identity? Say throwing up an egg yolk cured in gula melaka sitting on a muahchee esque blob of peanut and glutinous rice covered with crispy meringue and it came in a kopitiam saucer? That uniquely Singaporean palette that is willing to balance sweet soy and egg with cockles and Chinese sausage or a curmudgeon of spices blended so expertly you only notice the whole not the sum, would it be willing to countenance such a thing? Or perhaps it is easier to lull it into a dream with whisper of marbled beef and myths of beer addled massages.
Why the hell would you? The risk reward ratio is just weighted against the latter to the point of absurdity. Far easier to just troll people with stuff they’re less inclined to have too much affinity and understanding for. I could throwdown the best Peruvian style cevicheria or Basque tapas bar and you wouldn’t fucking know if it was close to the real deal even if you visited before because you didn’t grow up with that shit. Nah, you just have your fucking snobbish grandstanding pseudo gastronomic tendency to proffer your reviews on shit you have no clue about.
Yes, sign me up for this impossible quest. For what am I but yet another stupid chef who only lives in earnest desire to make tasty shit with some measure of a conscience?
For the record, fuck your fucking shitty rainbow sponge / red velvet / shit pseudo retro anglo slices of frivolousness. That shit needs to die.