Award-winning chefs in Singapore 'slumming it' to reach new audiences

SINGAPORE - The world of fine-dining is a universe apart from hawker centres and mass-market eateries - or so many people would think.

But some well-known chefs in Singapore, including those with Michelin-starred restaurants, are straddling both ends of the dining spectrum.

Ang Song Kang, for example, the chef-owner of the one-Michelin-starred Chef Kang's Chinese restaurant in Mackenzie Road, opened a wonton noodle stall in Toa Payoh with two of his proteges last September.

Burnt End's chef David Pynt also started a hawker stall at Makansutra Gluttons Bay at the Esplanade last December selling barbecue items.

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Justin Quek, who owns the fine-dining Chinoiserie and more casual JustIN at Marina Bay Sands, has been collaborating with mid-priced eateries such as Xin Wang and Poulet by creating dishes for them targeted at the masses.

Each has a different reason for going downmarket.

For Ang, 55, selling hawker fare is the road he wants to take when he retires from the restaurant scene.

"I can't keep on doing the heavy frying in my restaurant for long," the veteran chef said. "The fire in the kitchen is very strong because I want the food to have wok hei," he added, referring to the smokey flavour of stir-fried food.

"But it makes me fall sick very often and I have to close the restaurant for days. If I continue doing it long-term, it'll kill me very fast."

So he roped in two of his workers - brothers Benson Moo, 29, and Winson Moo, 25 - to start a wonton noodle stall called Chef Kang's Noodle House in Jackson Square in Toa Payoh. They have been working with him since his Mackenzie Road restaurant opened four years ago.

Ang came up with the recipe and concept and trained the two young men to run the business. Profits are shared.

His plan is to open more stalls, each selling a different dish such as king prawn noodles and congee, and put the brothers in charge of different stalls.

"I don't believe that nobody wants to do hawker food. Maybe it's just that they don't have the opportunity to start something," he said.

"So I give these young men the opportunity and encouragement - to show them that when they work hard, they get something in return."

NEW AUDIENCES

In the case of Pynt, the 34-year-old Australian chef said he was fascinated by the idea of a hawker stall - "a small shop dedicated to the refinement and perfection of a handful of dishes at an affordable price point and accessible to all".

He created the Meatsmith Western Barbecue brand in 2015 to "explore the world of barbecue in its different variations". The brand started with two eateries, in Telok Ayer Street and Little India, and was designed to stand on its own, apart from his award-winning barbecue restaurant, and does not carry either the Burnt Ends or David Pynt branding.

But the hawker stall has a more Asian concept, with dishes such as salted egg chicken chop ($9) and smoked char siew pork ribs ($10). Running it is 28-year-old Nicol Wong, who has been with Meatsmith for four years and is its head chef.

Quek, 57, has a different reason for going mass market. By collaborating with eateries such as Xin Wang, which sells Hong Kong char chan teng or cafe food, he hopes to expose his name to a new market segment.

"With social media, it's become a case of the more places you are at, the more people know you," he said.

He has previously worked only in fine-dining establishments, including as the founder chef of French restaurant Les Amis and as celebrity chef of Sky On 57 on the rooftop of Marina Bay Sands.

For Xin Wang, he created dishes such as sea bass fillet curry ($15.80) and hae mee soup cooked with Nissin noodle ($12.80) for a promotion that ran from December to February. More than 200 of his dishes were sold daily, with the noodle soup being the bestseller.

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Another promotion will kick off next month with dishes such as double-boiled herbal chicken broth and sambal prawn capellini. They will be rolled out in phases at the chain's 15 outlets.

Last month, he also launched three dishes - en papillotes baked seabass ($15.90), rossini Angus beef steak ($28.90) and creme chantilly bitter chocolate tart ($8.90) - for Poulet, a casual French food chain by The Minor Food Group,which also owns Xin Wang. The dishes are available at all the four Poulet outlets.

"These dishes are so simple, what I did 30 years ago when I started but they still taste good," he said.

For Quek, this is a good platform to reach the working class and youngsters who do not patronise his restaurants. His hope is that they would move on to try the food there when they can afford it.

He said: "In our culture, children are not taught to understand fine dining. For the working class and kids, if you ask them to spend $400 a person for fine dining, it's tough. Even at $200, it's only for special occasions like birthdays or Valentine's Day.

"So for Poulet, I do classic French things, focus on quality and not complicated stuff. What the chain serves is not up to my level, but at the price point, it's not bad. I just need to help it upgrade and use better quality ingredients."

QUALITY CONTROL ISSUES

To extend his market reach even further, he is also partnering vending machine operator Kalms to launch a line of ready-to-eat food that combines French cooking with Asian flavours.

Quek said he is not worried about cheapening his name.

"The market knows that if you pay $10, you get $10's worth; if you pay $100, you get $100's worth. If you want to pamper yourself, you go for fine dining and get better food, better service. Of course, you cannot compare."

Not being the resident chef of Xin Wang or Poulet, quality control is not something within his purview. But he does not sound worried.

"The recipe is given to the chefs, plus the training. In mass production, it's the production process itself. Everything is measured by grammage. You cannot expect fine-dining quality where everything is prepared individually."

Pynt, too, is relying on his lieutenants at Meatsmith to maintain standards.

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"This is something that we have to trust our team and our guests to help us control, maintain and improve," he said.

But Kang keeps a close eye on his wonton noodles, which are priced at $5 a bowl and comes with char siew and wontons. A $10 version includes abalone slices.

He gets someone to deliver three packs of the noodles to his restaurant each week, so he can make sure the taste remains consistent.

He has also tweaked the recipe for the char siew since the stall started because he was not happy with the original version. The barbecued pork is now made with slightly fatty meat, which makes it juicier.

NO GUARANTEES

But even star power has limited mileage in this competitive landscape.

Ang says business was very good in the beginning, but has since slowed down . The stall, which opens from 8am to 4pm daily, sells more than 100 bowls a day and makes enough to cover rental and salaries, with some profit each month.

It's the same at Meatsmith, said Pynt. "The business started great but has declined a bit. We were hoping it would be a bit busier, but it is allowing us a bit more time to work on new dishes."

Dishes such as suckling pig and fries, which do not sell well, will be taken off the menu soon. But the char siew pork ribs and pulled pork wontons - the bestsellers - are staying.

He said the stall takes in about $700 to $800 on weeknights and $1,100 to $1,200 a night on weekends. It opens from 5pm to 2.30am daily at the alfresco hawker centre which is patronised mostly by tourists.

There is no guarantee that a famous chef's name assures success.

Chef and restaurateur Willin Low, 47, for example, partnered Roxy Laksa to open a stall selling the spicy noodle dish at Timbre+ in 2016, but that has since closed down due to "a variety of reasons, partly personal and partly business", said the co-owner of the now-defunct Wild Rocket restaurant.

But he has developed a paste from the recipe, which he learnt from Roxy Laksa owner Mike Lim over a six-month period. It is sold under his &Will brand online through Redmart and in Esso petrol stations for $5.80 a pack.

The dish is also found in a Singapore restaurant called Roketto in Niseko, Japan, that Low opened this year. It's based on the same recipe, except he uses Hokkaido snow crab in the broth.

But not all diners are sold on the idea of well-known chefs "slumming it" with mass-market offerings.

Ms Lu Minru, 48, who runs a marketing communications consultancy, said it was "a tad shocking to see Justin Quek featured in the marketing collaterals of a Hong Kong cafe brand".

She sees Quek as a pioneer of Singapore's fine-dining scene and feels his "knowledge and culinary craft aren't optimised or showcased on a complementary platform".

But others are lapping up the chance to have "Michelin-starred" hawker food for a song.

Mr W.K. Ho, 42, was determined to try Chef Kang's wonton noodles when he was in Toa Payoh recently after having read about it online.

The headhunter, who was in the area to meet a client, discovered he was low on cash on reaching the stall and had to hunt down an ATM machine. But it was worth the effort, he said. "The noodles have good texture and the char siew has a good proportion of fat to meat."

As for the wontons, which are filled with crunchy bits of water chestnut, he gave them 7.5 points out of 10.