Because I tend to eat faster than my memory can register these days, here’s a recap of some of my top food-related experiences in 2016 that are worthy of stories for the grandchildren.
10. Filming in Singapore’s urban farms
Supporting local artisans and producers and the #eatlocal movement has been one of my pet topics for as long as I can remember, so one of the series I devised for the Michelin Guide Singapore that I’m really proud of is our Beyond the Table series of video profiles. The aim of the series is to get diners to appreciate the effort of everyone involved in putting together the perfect dining experience: instead of just grumbling about the price of a meal in a Michelin-starred restaurant, I hoped that through the series, people will gain an understanding of why and how the chef took the effort to work with a poultry farmer who took the effort to raise his brood in a certain way.
And we couldn’t have kicked off the series – and my first attempt at video interviews! – with more game interviewees: the ever-effervescent Uncle William of Lian Wah Hang quail farm and the sweet and obliging Chelsea of Jurong Frog Farm. I highly recommend everyone to meet Uncle William if you can (he can be found at his Farmart retail store or at the Kranji Countryside Association’s quarterly farmers markets). You’ll want to hear his remarkable story about how he grew an oft-overlooked quail trade into a thriving farm that, at its peak, regularly welcomed busses of school children for tours, but also how business has been affected ever since the Avian bird flu set in and the uncertainty that looms over the future of all farming in Singapore thanks to bureaucratic indecisions over land ownership.
9. A Katong Food Tour with Monocle
I used to hate public speaking. I’ve always been more expressive in writing (hence my choice of profession) and I always cringe a little when I playback recordings of myself speaking during interviews. But you know what they say: confront your fears. So when Monocle’s business editor M was passing through town and reached out to see if I wanted to lead them on a food tour for a new radio series they were doing, I said, why not? I’ve been an avid fan of the brand ever since my dear friend KB introduced them to me several years ago, and I’ve even contributed to both their Singapore guidebooks recently.
We had a great time exploring the streets of Katong, from the widely celebrated Chin Mee Chin heritage confectionery to popiah maker Kway Guan Huat to another neighbourhood stalwart, Kim Choo Kueh Chang, known for their Nyonya bak changs (or triangular-shaped glutinous rice dumplings). Listen in on our tour here.
8. Guest Lecturing at the Culinary Institute of America
Just barely weeks after my little radio gig, I also got the chance to give a lecture as part of a friend and Artichoke and Bird Bird restaurant owner Bjorn Shen’s menu-planning class at the Culinary Institute of America in Singapore on one of my pet topics: how to pitch to the media. I’ve always been deeply passionate about supporting foodpreneurs and I’d given a similar talk before as part of Makansutra’s government-sponsored hawker training programme.
Basically, the idea is to give non-PR-savvy business owners an insight into the workings of the media, from our production cycles to newsroom hierarchy and the way we prefer to receive pitches – and even what goes into a media pitch – because you’d be surprised at the number of unsolicited calls and messages I get from clueless chefs who say “please write about me” and then not know how to follow up. This way, I get more targeted news leads and story ideas, and small businesses who are not able to afford well-oiled public relations machinery can also have a shot at being featured. A win-win for all.
7. A South Indian Wedding Feast and Mumbai explorations
In January 2016, on my month-long sabbatical before starting on my new job, I fly out to to Bangalore to attend the wedding of Akshay and Sanjana, the latter a coursemate and close friend from my Masters at the London School of Economics. The amount of warm, lovely hospitality we received from her friends and family was unparallelled and I’m told there is no feast like a South Indian wedding feast! Did you know? Apparently the chlorophyll released when you place piping hot food onto a banana leaf also helps to aid digestion.
Glad I managed to extend my trip for a further few days to explore Mumbai with fellow intrepid traveller Chloe, where I was utterly smitten by the riot of colour on its streets (and especially in its slums), the gorgeous colonial architecture that dotted its old town, and the surprisingly wide array of dining options, from Mangalorean seafood to Parsi cafes and very chic restaurant chains that I could well see in Singapore or Hong Kong or London. Whoever said you’ll be sick of curry when travelling in India obviously doesn’t know where to eat.
6. Getting an insider’s peek into Tsuta Ramen, Japan’s first Michelin-starred ramen shop
I got the chance to revisit Tokyo in the autumn of 2016, because the Tokyo’s first Michelin-starred ramen shop, Tsuta, was about to open an offshoot in Singapore – and would we like to come along to have a look?
Had the pleasure of spending time with owner Yuki Onishi and his Japanese and Singaporean collaborators, Saito-san and Brian over two days of filming and one boisterous dinner at a little izakaya. By observing their meticulous attention to detail and dedication to perfection, I’ve gained so much more respect for the craft of food-making in Japan. It may seem like a simple bowl of comfort food to many, but to Yuki-san, it really is an art that accepts no compromises. (Watch the final video my video crew and I put together here – it’s the second most popular video on the Michelin Guide Singapore website currently.)
5. Discovering top Filipino culinary talent at Madrid Fusion Manila
Just before the pundits called it (here, here, here and here) – I’d already raved about why I’m hedging my bets on Filipino food being the next cuisine to watch. Revisited Manila in March with my favourite foodie-partner-in-crime LG of Restaurant Labyrinth to attend Madrid Fusion Manila. While we enjoyed very much the talks and presentations by visiting top chefs such as Joan Roca, Dani Garcia, Virgilio Martinez, Jungsik Kim and more, what unexpectedly blew me away were the meal sessions between the talks. Each day’s menu had a different theme covering food from different parts of the country’s 7,107 islands, and we met so many young talents doing unconventional things with fascinating indigenous ingredients from chocolates to mangos to fermented fish sauce and the Philippines’ favourite balut (a hard boiled egg with a partially developed bird foetus) – turned into a cracker!
At the end of each day, we also set aside time to discover some of Manila’s most exciting restaurants, from Jordy Navarra’s Toyo (think: dishes inspired by Filipino nursery rhymes!) and Gallery Vask by the excellent Chele Gonzalez, who many credit for helping to spearhead the city’s fine dining growth. At the time of our visit, we even got treated to a 6-hands meal by Virgilio Martinez of one-starred Lima in London, and Central in Peru, and Yoshihiro Narisawa of Tokyo’s two-starred Narisawa, who made a wonderfully subtle Japanese rendition of Filipino lechon that is still very much on my mind!
4. Visiting Singapore’s sustainably run Kuhlbarra fish farm with veteran French chef Raymond Blanc
Thanks to C, an old friend and fellow proponent of local farmers, I got to shadow chef Raymond and his lovely team as they visited two urban farms in Singapore, Kuhlbarra fish farm and Open Farm Community.
What a humbling experience it was – even at 67 years old, chef Raymond was as sprightly as a 20-year-old, poking his nose and asking questions and taking notes of new local terms and flavours with a curiosity and diligence that would put any journalist to shame. I particularly loved how his eyes lit up whenever he talked about sustainability and harvesting and eating from the land around him as a child – decades before the word foraging became ubiquitous to every chef interview.
Watch the video we did here.
3. Celebrating with friends at the inaugural Michelin Guide Singapore launch
It isn’t just marketing spiel when we called it the dining event of the year. On 21 July 2016, Michelin Guide unveiled its first ever Singapore edition and what a momentous affair it was – yes, in all my biased opinion, of course.
It wasn’t always easy being a one-woman editorial and marketing team driving the efforts leading up the launch (the team has since expanded, thank goodness!), but when I saw all the proud faces of chef-friends and their wives and partners at our gala ceremony at Resorts World Sentosa, that was job satisfaction right there.
2. Filming in Tsukiji market with Shinji Kanesaka
Tsukiji market is the world’s biggest fish market and the fascination of chefs from Denmark to Delhi. I’d snuck in to wander around the closed-door inner market without a guide previously but for a recent video project for the Michelin Guide Hong Kong Macau, we enlisted the coordination of the good people at Melco Crown Entertainment to schedule a meet with Shinji Kanesaka to take us through the market. Kanesaka-san has an empire of Michelin-starred sushi restaurants in Tokyo, Singapore and Macau, and despite his busy schedule, he kindly made time for my crew and I to do a little video walkabout together, showing us some of his favourite stops for various types of seafood and some nifty tricks for selecting the best tuna (tip: you swipe a finger through its tail meat.)
Another highlight for me on the same trip was returning in the weekend to queue for a chance to visit the early morning tuna auctions at Tsukiji. To get our spot, we had to show up at the holding room of the Tsukiji tuna auctions area at 3am – and after a night out at the izakayas no less. Only about 60 tourists are permitted to visit the tuna auctions daily and we were the last 5 to get the fluorescent bibs (or entry tickets) for the day.
The auctions start at 5am, but our herd only gets to enter the frozen tuna section of the auctions for about 15 minutes at 6am, before being shuttled out of the premises. We were really lucky, however, to have had a little pep talk from a nakaoroshi gyousha (intermediate wholesaler) who spoke excellent English. Read more of the insights I gleaned from him here.
1. Dining at Sushi Jiro
One of life’s many lessons: when you get offered two seats at Sushi Jiro, you book a flight to Tokyo, pronto.
I had the incredible privilege to be offered seats at the world’s most famous, and probably most coveted sushi restaurant in Tokyo, where bookings come about once in a lifetime because the restaurant has just nine seats that even the city’s top hotel concierges struggle to snag.
The seafood was incredibly fresh: particular standouts for me were the botan ebi, which was sweeter than any version I’d ever tasted, and the grilled anago, which was winsome and melt-in-your-mouth. And the service was factory-like, sternly and efficiently delivered by Jiro-san, his son and a team of three to four nervous-looking young apprentices. A set course of 20 pieces of sushi (19 for me, because I don’t eat akagai and they didn’t offer a replacement) flew by in 30 minutes. At 300 USD a pop, my then-boss was not far from the mark when he joked that it was the most expensive “fast food” he’d eaten in his life. Ha.
Two things I was struck by: 1) why they hurried us to finish our sushi at such a frantic shove-it-down-your-throat pace when we were later adjourned to regular dining tables to enjoy our dessert of Japanese melons for 20 leisurely minutes, and 2) the stark contrast between Jiro-san’s friendly demeanour when it comes to obliging post-meal photos with visitors outside of the restaurant and his no-nonsense attitude when he’s behind the sushi counter. All it took was a subtle grunt from him mid-service to send an apprentice scurrying over to his station with a new tray of fish.
Truly a belly satisfying year. Now let’s see what you have to offer, 2017 😉