Singaporeans live and breathe food, and over the last several years, a serious culture of fine-dining has emerged from this country better known for its hawker stalls and (my longtime favorite) chili crab. When I visited Singapore this past winter for San Pellegrino’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, I made sure to visit the Tekka Market and dig into mud crab. But what I really traveled 24 hours to taste was the country’s booming restaurant scene and what turned out to be some of the best meals I can remember.
A gateway for Asia and the East, Singapore has long been a stopover for travelers and the business community. And as the country’s restaurants have gained stature, those guests can’t help but tack a few days onto their itineraries to dine with world-class chefs. Restaurant professionals are following suit. Singapore imports a great number of its waiters, cooks, bartenders, and somms. Mixologist Michael Callahan moved from San Francisco to open his bar, 28 HongKong Street, which boasts “the Miami Heat” of lineups: Callahan, Joe Alessandroni from San Francisco’s Rickhouse, and Zdenek Kastanek from London’s Quo Vadis. At Restaurant Andre, Chef André Chiang’s staff of 16 hails from12 different nations.
Why do chefs and mixos flock here? For one, creative freedom. Chiang opened his dream restaurant (an intimate 30-seat home) where he cooks with abandon, building dishes from his eight-part cooking philosophy. Pastry Chef Janice Wong blurs the line between desserts and art with brilliant, edible installations: ceilings of marshmallow, a brioche chandelier, gummy panels, and huge spiced-chocolate walls. After building an Australian empire, master chef and businessman Tetsuya Wakuda opened a 20-seat, 10,000-square-foot restaurant. In the Singapore of today, there’s enough money, diners, and allure to support Wakuda’s wonderland, where each table is a separate dining room with its own induction cooking surface and cook.
There’s also a steady buzz of excitement brewing in Asia, in general. For the last decade American chefs have gone slack-jawed at the ingredients and flavors of Asian cuisine. Rising Star Chefs across the country have traveled to Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Singapore to learn local foodways. As Singapore establishes itself as a real culinary destination, there are more opportunities for chefs to stay and become part of the country’s fabric—as was the case for Pastry Chef Andres Lara, who came to Singapore after working all over Europe, the United States, and Asia. Lara is now pastry chef at British Chef Jason Atherton’s Pollen. As Singapore establishes itself as a real culinary destination, there are many opportunities for chefs to dig in and contribute to the developing fabric of an emerging culinary scene. Along with Pollen, Atherton owns comfort-driven Keong Saik Snacks and Spanish Esquina’s Tapas Bar, proving that Singapore is not only a hotbed for chefs who want to expand their brand in a growing economy. Tiny Singapore is truly hungry for what the world has to offer.
What Singapore lacks in farmland and local products, it more than makes up for with foodstuffs coming in from Europe, China, Southeast Asia, and Australia. Why not import your organic button mushrooms from Malaysia as Chef Julien Royer does for his signature mushroom tea? Or source beef like Tetsuya Wakuda who uses Tasmanian Cape beef for one preparation and Japanese Shiga Prefecture Ohmi Gyu wagyu for another?
A tough and expensive distribution network makes it harder to source wine and spirits in Singapore, but the city’s top mixo and somm talent is overcoming the challenges to build formidable drink programs. It’s usually the celebrity chef who finally gets an eponymous restaurant, but in Singapore, it’s owner, sommelier, and visionary Ignatius “Iggy” Chan who gets (and pours) the glory at Iggy’s. And chef-mixo duo Ryan Clift and Zachary Connor de Git of Tippling Club make some of the most successful cocktail and food pairings we’ve tasted (we’d even go for the Kodakara Peak and Foie Muesli combo at breakfast).
Don’t miss out on our travels to other markets—we have trips planned to New England, North Carolina, LA, and DC in the coming months. So send us your chef nominations and get real-time updates on our whereabouts and meals by following us on Twitter and Facebook.