kita food festival

Photos: Kita Food Festival, Kenneth SZ Goh

Foodies at this year’s Kita Food Festival, which recently concluded its month-long tour in Kuala Lumpur with dining events and industry talks, can look forward to a stronger Singapore presence when the annual festival returns next year. This year marks the first time that the gastronomy festival — which brings together chefs and F&B thought leaders in Southeast Asia — expanded its reach to Singapore. 

Speaking to The Peak Singapore, Leisa Tyler, the festival’s co-founder, shared that this year’s festival attracted about 3,000 visitors across its four stops, which includes Kuching and Penang. However, there has been a decline in this year’s attendance, as compared to previous years, where events were all sold out.

The reasons, she shared, include the current weakened economic landscape in Singapore and Malaysia, and strong competition from other dining events. She says: “It is due to the slump in the state of the economy — people aren’t spending as much as what they normally would.”

The festival’s expansion to Singapore is a significant step towards widening its reach. The Singapore leg of the festival, which ran from October 26 to 30, saw many chef collaboration events and its signature TED Talk-style symposium, Kita Conversations, that delved on a wide range of topics such as sustainability and food history and identity. The Singapore events were curated by chef Ivan Brehm of one-Michelin-starred restaurant Nouri, which specialises in crossroads cooking. 

Tyler shared that they were approached by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) last year to bring part of the festival to Singapore and the partnership was too enticing to pass up. The festival’s approach for both countries remains identical, emphasising the use of local produce and creating a platform for culinary exchange.

Championing local ingredients

Kita Food Festival
Chefs at the Big Sunday Barbecue event at the Singapore leg of this year’s Kita Food Festival. (Photo: Kita Food Festival)

Kita Food Festival was born out of one of Tyler’s “beefs” with the industry — having lived in Malaysia for the past 13 years, she noticed that a large portion of ingredients were imported overseas. Tyler, who is an Australian-born food and travel journalist and used to work at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants organisation says: “Having lived in Thailand for 10 years, the locavore movement was very strong and people were proud of their farmers and integrated local produce well into restaurants. But in Malaysia, there was a big disconnect between what was grown locally and used in restaurants.”

In 2014, Tyler, founder of Weeds & More, a farm that grows European heirloom vegetables in Cameron Highlands, met chef Darren Teoh of one-Michelin-starred restaurant Dewakan and the pair hit it off, sharing the same food values and beliefs.

She explains: “One of the biggest things we wanted was to bring the F&B community together, with people influencing each other for movements to start becoming stronger. If you have chefs champion local products, it rubs off on the consumers and that’s when farmers come in.” They registered Kita Food Festival in 2019, and got events organiser Adrian Yap onboard before launching the festival in 2020.

kita food festival
Kita Food Festival Sunday BBQ Event. (Photo: Kita Food Festival)

Over the years, Kita Food Festival has taken on a broader Southeast Asian focus, aside from its original Malaysian focus. She observes: “We feel that the region needs this, and not just Malaysia. I’ve seen quite big changes in the Malaysian F&B industry, and things like Kita give it a nudge along the way to develop. We feel that the festival promotes issues that are valuable to the region, such as documenting and promoting endemic ingredients that the region shares, lost recipes, food knowledge, artisanal ingredients to issues that would appeal to a younger crowd such as using social media and tweezer work.”

A thought leadership platform for the F&B community

Kita Food Festival
One of the many panel discussions at Kita Food Festival. (Photo: Kita Food Festival)

This year’s Kita Conversations addressed pressing issues such as the tangible benefits of reducing food waste from a financial point of view and the impact of celebrity chef culture on the culinary world and its psychological implications, fronted by acclaimed chef David Thompson. 

Tyler also shares the festival’s Horizons program, a mentorship initiative that imparts knowledge and skills to young chefs in Malaysia. The program takes them on a journey of discovery, immersing them in various aspects of the culinary world, from sustainable agriculture to cooking with surplus ingredients. It’s a practical way of instilling values and skills that can reshape the industry from the grassroots.

kita food festival
Kita co-founders: (left to right) Darren Teoh, Leisa Tyler, and Adrian Yap. (Photo: Kita Food Festival)

Looking ahead, Kita Food Festival intends to fine-tune its expansion into Singapore next year and explore a more financially viable model for its Singapore leg. The festival’s key events such as the Big Sunday Barbecue (which will be done on a bigger scale), Horizons mentorship programme, and Kita Conversations will remain, while there might not be a strong emphasis on four-hands dinners next year, which need to have a stronger pull factor. Tyler says: “The goal is to make the festival more accessible to a wider audience, offering a more inclusive culinary experience.”