Singapore – Chef LG Han is known for his “new expressions of Singaporean cuisine”, combining modern inventiveness with an element of nostalgia. His reinvention of Singapore signatures such as Chilli Crab, kaya toast, and Bak Cho Mee (to name a few) had garnered Labyrinth a Michelin star in 2017.
Always up for a quest, in 2018, Chef LG Han pivoted Labyrinth’s philosophy to showcase produce sourced from local farms around Singapore and soon, 80% of their menu was made from locally sourced ingredients. “It was purely accidental, venturing into local produce. I was doing a TV shoot on offshore fish farming and then the owner of the fish farm allowed me to sample the produce he was breeding. It was highly impressive. I was thinking to myself, we actually do have very good ingredients in Singapore! Why aren’t people promoting these farmers and their produce?”
“We started to dig deep into a new presentation format on how we want to showcase a truly Singaporean cuisine – as a Singaporean, cooking Singaporean food using Singaporean produce – this would only be possible through relationship building with local farmers. And as a result, we could begin to address sustainability (this would complete the whole cycle).
Restaurants and media these days always talk about sustainability. True sustainability – what is it?
It’s hard to be truly 100 per cent sustainable. As a restaurant, the challenges in becoming a sustainable restaurant goes beyond going local.
Sustainability is not just about sourcing locally and doing away with single-use plastics like removing plastic straws from the premises. It is an end-to-end process. From farm-to-plate. In the kitchen, we still use cling film.
I’ve never once called Labyrinth sustainable because I’m well aware that we are not. We believe in it, but we are not 100 per cent sustainable. We use plastic bags to vacuum-seal our ingredients to maintain its freshness for longer. How can you cost-in sustainability? And then there’s the waste – what do we do with the waste? The organic waste needs to be composted for sustainability. Local farmers deliver their ingredients in plastic bags. We can’t demand them to deliver products in an organic way, I mean, there’ll be added costs on their part.
There’s a lot of greenwashing going around because a lot of sources do not seem to understand. For Singapore at least. A restaurant that uses local herbs as a garnish for their dishes should not be labelled as sustainable. Even I am not calling myself sustainable even though Labyrinth is at the forefront. We as chefs can still share our beliefs and raise awareness but don’t label yourself as something you are not.
Never take it at face value when a restaurant says they are sustainable, go deeper and question their daily practices.
The challenge in calling yourself sustainable is that it’s near impossible to achieve. Sourcing for local produce is just one of the many aspects of sustainability.
We try our best. We did away with plastic straws, plastic spoons in the kitchen, and we try our best to use paper boxes for takeaways. A large part of our sustainability is in the sourcing of local produce – it’s just one of many aspects in a bigger picture.
Let’s talk about your local suppliers. What’s the relationship dynamic with the local farmers and how did you work out a workable system with them?
Working with local producers is not straightforward. It took us almost a year to build the relationship, the integrity, the network. I make sure that it goes beyond supplier and customer relationship.
I bring my team down to the farms to have a look at the facility itself and to make sure that the farmers are as passionate in what they’re doing as we ourselves are. Ultimately, it comes down to building trust – I’m going to trust you as much as you’ve got to trust me.
It really has to be a mutual understanding with an open sharing of knowledge. To have open communication and understand how things grow, trusting that they’re not selling your crops to someone else because they may pay a higher price. I’d rather pay more for quality and pay less for a mass production, you know, a crop that’s inundated with fertilizer.
In Singapore, the cost of running a business is an uphill battle:
- Rental is expensive.
- Scalability: Farming in Singapore is not something that can be done in thousands of square footage or in large spaces.
- Manpower: Local labour is not cheap, and there’s no supply of foreign workers due to tough foreign manpower laws in Singapore
It’s probably on par or even a little more expensive than imported produce, but of course, the trade-off is that the quality is superior. It’s fresher. Its flavours are more vibrant.
It is one thing to say “our restaurant supports local”, and another thing to actually walk the talk. Tell us more about that.
- Having a relationship with the farmers is important. To understand them and for them to trust you, having that open communication channel with them and the flexibility to change the menu or change the dishes quickly when produce is not available is important.
- Convincing customers that going local is worth the dollar value that they are paying for, because they’re just so used to buying or paying for imported produce which is perceived to be superior.
- Having that passion and belief. You have to be committed. It’s not a marketing game. It’s not a gimmick. It’s okay to use local produce for a couple of dishes without committing to going all-the-way local, but it brings it back to my point: don’t call yourself sustainable.
I think it’s good that restaurants are slowly picking up on the local movement but you’ve got to be committed to actually living with these challenges, working around them and paying for the cost of going local.
What is your biggest challenge in this journey towards sustainability?
Scaling and consistency. If you are doing an event for 200 covers in a night and need local produce, the farm can’t keep up. There is a limit to their production output. You have to understand the cycle and how much they can grow for us. So, scaling is one issue.
First and foremost, we do the R&D and calculate how much we need. The farmers need to start cultivating to grow the volume that we need. The volume that we commit to is a fine balance between the least amount of wastage at our restaurant, and enough so that the farmer doesn’t sacrifice land that he could sell to other people. Working with the farmers is not that straightforward when it comes to planning your inventory and what you need. We also need to calculate the yield.
How do you raise awareness about sustainability and the work that goes behind your dishes?
We had a map on the table detailing the farmers that we worked with, presenting the produce on a tray to let diners experience the ingredients with their senses – smell, touch, feel. We bring customers through this walkthrough using informational postcards served with every dish.
We are very much focused on keeping costs under control, we’ve actually trimmed a little. We removed the postcards and the map, so my staff have to be really articulate in their speech. Education goes a long way in raising awareness.
Sustainability is a very big word to shoulder. It’s an end-to-end cycle. Sustainability begins right from the start with the farming methods, the breeding methods, and the butchering method right up to the packaging materials. Sustainability talks about environmental health also.
Going sustainable seems like a tough road to take. How do you find a balance between the business and the passion?
It’s a tussle every day finding the balance in your philosophy against cost efficiency.
We have to be smarter with the business. As much as I don’t like to compromise on our philosophy, we still try to maintain our integrity. Furthermore, tourists consist of 50% of my customer base which has been wiped out completely due to Covid-19.
When it comes to local cuisine, fine dining and local produce, the concept of sustainability is easier for the tourists to accept. My customers are now locals and expats in Singapore. We have to understand the local market – they want their caviar, uni, truffles. A customer who saves up to celebrate a special occasion or wants to impress a client or a date with a meal. It is the value perception that you place on it and we have to deliver that to the customer. So, we brought back our old dishes such as Bak Cho Mee with scallops to cater to our current customers.
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To all friends and supporters, of Labyrinth, its been 3 long months but …. we are back! Not only are we reopening our Michelin starred flagship, Labyrinth, for dinner service (for now) starting this Fri, 3 July, we are back with a brand new price point to cater to the COVID period ($128 for 6 courses and $178 for 9 courses), we are back with brand new dishes, and….we are back with our hits from the past few years! Making a comeback onto our menu are 1. Labyrinth Signature Chili Crab on the Beach with Tempura Local Soft Shell Crab and Chili Ice Cream (ver 2014) 📷 @daphotographer 2. Bak Chor Mee “no Bak Chor no Mee” with Squid Meepok, Scallops and Ikan Bilis Powder, 3. Rojak Garden with Locally Farmed Herbs, Jackfruit Sorbet and Stingless Bee Honey Rojak Sauce 4. My grandma’s “Angmoh” Claypot Chicken Rice with Chap Chye and Lala Clam Soup 📷 @justinfoodprints Joining the line up of historical hits are new dishes such as: 1. Quail Murtabak with Russian Caviar and Sour Cream 2. Har Cheong Ngoh Hiang (imagine Ngoh Hiang stuffed in Har Cheong Gai) 3. Manjimup Black Truffle Kueh Lapis with “Teh C” Ice Cream 4. “Ice Kachang” with Shaved Coconut Ice, Fresh Market Coconut Milk and Baby “Ice Cream” Mango 📷 @diyatangugu And many more dishes on top of the above! Thank you all of you for your support of @missvandasg in June, we hope to welcome you back into our Labyrinth home going forward! For deliveries and takeaways lunch and dinner, Miss Vanda will still be available online for orders! For those wanting to dine in for Miss Vanda, don’t worry we might be popping up again real soon!
There are still aspects that I do not compromise on when it comes to cost versus my philosophy. We have established a reputation as pioneers and leaders in going local. The farmers respect us and trust us for it.
We are around 70- to 80% local right now as we speak. I might use a scallop here, some caviar or truffles there, but I try my best to keep it local when it comes to the main item on each plate. I’m still going to support our farmers as much as I can, giving my best efforts to champion their produce.
What is your vision as an individual and how do you sustain your own beliefs?
The vision has always been to change the value perception of all things local in Singapore. As a local chef, I cook local food and increase its value by using local produce, and this is worth so much more. Beyond food, we have local designers, local shoemakers, local athletes, local artists, and so on.
Hopefully one day as a nation, we will be proud of not just our identity as Singaporeans but that we can also recognize that we have great local talents that we can respect and support in a way that is sustainable for them to make a good living.
The sum of all parts is always greater than what it is as a singular. At least there is a growing interest now. Whether it develops into something more tangible, and when we can actually see success in what we do, only time will tell.
(Chef LG mused) We are not doing a shabby job. It could be a lot worse.
Images credit: Labyrinth Singapore. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Interview and written by Theri B. Edited by Lim Aileen.