Chef Woo Wai Leong of Restaurant Ibid in Singapore declared, “No one wants to use the ‘F’ word. But there’s no other word that best describes the food of all the chefs in this room.” “Fusion,” it’s the “F” word in the culinary universe. In the 1980s, fusion was the bold style. Desired, emulated. Then it went too far and any chef that touched it was looked upon with disdain. For three decades, it was the “F” word.
Today’s food evolution creates modern cuisine that knows no boundaries. Ingredients are sourced wherever the best can be found. French culinary techniques are applied to Cantonese cooking; new flavors are introduced to traditional dishes. Nowhere is global more apparent than in the food that we eat.
At the recent Asian Culinary Exchange 2018 held at the Samsung Hall of SM Aura in Bonifacio Global City, a two-day event consisting of a forum on Day 1 and collaboration dinners on Day 2, seven chefs from around Asia flew in to Manila to participate in panel conversations during the forum and to cook at collaborative pop-up dinners. Discussions centered on issues of sustainability, food waste, trends, and discrimination.
Collaborative dinners were with renowned Filipino chefs: Sun Kim of Meta in Singapore with Nicco Santos at Hey Handsome; Rishi Naleendra of Cheek by Jowl in Singapore with Josh Boutwood at Helm; Keirin Buck of Le Bon Funk in Singapore with Chele Gonzalez at Gallery by Chele; Thi Tid Tassannakajohn of Le Du in Bangkok with Jordy Navarra at Toyo Eatery; Woo Wai Leong of Restaurant Ibid in Singapore and Vicky Cheng of VEA in Hong Kong with Luis Chikiamco and Margarita Forés at Flame, Discovery Primea; and Pinoy mixologist Joe Villanueva of The Wise King in Hong Kong at Coconut Club. They all represent a new generation of professional chefs that embody today’s dining evolution—where crossing culinary boundaries is par for the course, as exemplified by these collaborative dinners.
Four of the chefs are from Singapore, a country that is putting itself right in the center of this modern food evolution. From hawker food to fine dining, Singapore is embracing its diversity. It puts its foodie foot forward, pushing its “Mod-Sin” face. Mod-Sin refers to modern Singaporean cuisine, a term coined by Chef Willin Low of Wild Rocket whose menu offerings are innovative dishes that mix local with Thai, Japanese, and Italian. Pastas featured include Rendang Oxtail Pappardelle and Spanner Crab as well as Daun Kesom Ravioli in Laksa Broth.
The next generation of family-run eateries and restaurants are tweaking their menus, updating flavors, and opening themselves up to the use of new ingredients. At the Amoy Street Food Centre on Maxwell Road, hawker stall A Noodle Story serves Singapore-style ramen, a bowl of sous vide char siew, Hong Kong style wontons, lava egg, and potato-wrapped prawn with noodles. Opened in 2013 by partners Gwern Khoo and Ben Tham, it was awarded their first Bib Gourmand in the Michelin Guide Singapore 2017.
Currently, there are 34 one-star Michelin restaurants in the city, many of which somehow fall under this “fusion” moniker, blending culinary traditions and cultures in new ways. Among them are Cheek by Jowl of Sri-Lankan chef Rishi Naleendra, which identifies as Modern Australian, a cuisine that is inherently multi-cultural; and Meta by Chef Sun Kim who infuses his European dishes with Korean and Asian notes. Imagine a mouthful of Irish Oyster Ginger/Lemon with Gochujang.
Hong Kong mirrors Singapore’s restaurant scene, albeit in a bigger way. Hong Kong’s restaurant population is dense, with as many as three or four establishments housed in one small office building. And we’re not even counting the myriad of dai pai dong found in upscale Central or the working class neighborhood of Sham Shui Po. While the predominant local cuisine is Cantonese, its status as a major trade hub and tourist port of call makes the food scene vibrant and diverse. Chef Vicky Cheng of one-star Michelin restaurant VEA, returned to his roots in Hong Kong after growing up in Canada and starting his culinary career in New York. VEA has the largest open kitchen in Hong Kong and 80% of its seating is on a counter facing the kitchen, the longest chef’s table available in the city. Cheng describes his food as Chinese x French, using French classic and modern techniques to create Chinese flavors. He says, “My food reminds you of Hong Kong,” even if it does look like refined French food on the plate.
Three of the visiting chefs cook at one-star Michelin restaurants— Sun Kim of Meta, Rishi Naleendra of Cheek by Jowl, and Vicky Cheng of VEA. While winning a Michelin star is desirable, none of them cook to win a star. They single-mindedly focus on the diner, considering it their obligation to serve a delicious meal and provide a pleasant dining experience. Kim, Naleendra, and Cheng admit to wanting the star, but winning it brings on even bigger pressure—keeping it. The fear of losing the star is bad and it keeps them creative, innovative, and committed to their craft. All the chefs display a practical outlook in running their restaurants and bars, paying close attention to balancing business with creativity, balancing work life with personal life. Chefs hanging out after service, having a drink and dining in dives is an urban myth as far as they are concerned. Chef Naleendra elicits laughter after he declares, “It is not healthy to eat out every day! We go home.”
Fusion has existed in Singapore and Hong Kong for decades and calling it modern cuisine is simply a recognition of a spontaneous culinary evolution that cannot be stopped. No one will still use the “F” word to describe their food, hiding behind semantics. That’s fine. After all, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
Photographs by Deiniel Cuvin