Photo: John Marsland

Chefs in Singapore have no shortage of opportunities. Restaurant kitchens of every ilk across the island are constantly in search of talent. Yet these Singaporeans chose to establish their culinary careers abroad. One moved for love but went on to start her fine-dining restaurant in Sweden. Another left to intern in San Francisco and stayed for the career opportunities. And another ventured away to find the recognition he deserves.

Despite living their best lives in their adopted homes, the trio agree on a single home truth: Singapore will always be home in their hearts. In the first of this three-part series, we spotlight Singaporean chefs who have made their mark overseas.

Related: These Singapore chefs are opening a new chapter for Southeast Asian cuisine

Chef Akmal Anuar

Chef-owner of one-Michelin-starred 11 Woodfire in Dubai and founder of hospitality consultancy group White Rice Co.

chef akmal anuar
Photo: John Marsland

His credentials would be the envy of many chefs in Singapore: A World’s 50 Best Discovery award for his former restaurant 3 Fils in 2016, a Michelin star for his international grill restaurant 11 Woodfire in Dubai in 2022 and 2023, and a thriving F&B consultancy firm with six restaurants spread across the United Arab Emirates and New York.

That’s not to mention his eight years working at Iggy’s, three of which as head chef, and more notably, at a time when the contemporary European restaurant sat at the top of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2012 and ranked 26th on the World’s 50 Best list. Yet, mention the name Akmal Anuar to Singapore’s avid foodie community, and few would be familiar with it. 

“I definitely felt like I was underappreciated during those years in Singapore,” Akmal admits. “Even though I was cooking in one of the country’s best restaurants, I was always ignored. I’ve cooked for the late Lee Kuan Yew five times with Iggy’s — I had all the skills and was out there, but I was always overlooked.”

Related: Chef Willin Low creates a sake to pair with Singapore food

chef akmal anuar
Photo: John Marsland

By the time his first daughter was born in 2010, Akmal had loftier career aspirations. Job offers came in thick and fast from all over the world: “London, Moscow… all the big (hospitality) brands got in touch with me. But then Dubai popped up,” he says.

The only thing Akmal knew about Dubai at the time was that it was home to the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. After visiting Singapore and sampling his food, the bigwigs at a hospitality company invited him to spend three nights in the Middle Eastern city.

“There was someone to carry our bags and the balcony faced The Palm (Islands) and Atlantis where I saw people skydiving,” the 40-year-old says with a laugh. “In Singapore, I only took the bus and the MRT. I’d never seen anything like this before. It felt good to be treated so well.”

Suffice it to say, Dubai proved to be the land of opportunity for Akmal, whose career blossomed in his new home. He accepted the offer to join Richard Sandoval Hospitality as a chef collaborator at pan-Asian restaurant Zengo in 2014. He eventually left to establish 3 Fils before moving on to start his hospitality consultancy, White Rice Co., in 2020.

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Photo: John Marsland

“There are so many opportunities in Dubai. After the pandemic, I received many offers, but I’d promised myself that I would not work for anyone or go into business with other people. So I started White Rice Co. to do consultancies or joint ventures,” he says.

Under White Rice’s stable are 11 Woodfire, Goldfish Sushi and Yakitori, and patisserie Sam Tarts in Dubai; modern Japanese concept Otoro in Abu Dhabi; Mavia Cafe & Restaurant in the Al Faya desert; contemporary dining experience Chie in Sharjah; and contemporary Asian restaurant 53 in New York City.

The Michelin-starred 11 Woodfire is particularly popular thanks to its menu of top-notch produce grilled over oak, hickory, or hay and its plush setting in a refurbished villa. Its signature dishes include wagyu kebabs, sea bass in a hay-salted crust, and Australian T-bone steak. 

“Singapore still feels like home,” says Akmal, even if he hasn’t lived here for the past nine years. “My family keeps me connected to Singapore, and we want our kids to have a link to them. I know that I won’t live in Dubai forever, but I will continue to live here for now.”