[dropcap size=small]L[/dropcap]abyrinth is not just a restaurant, it’s a showroom for farmers.
It’s a bold statement by chef Han Li Guang, given that barely 1 per cent of the land in Singapore is used for agriculture. But he makes that statement with confidence. It’s a confidence that is rightfully earned, as four-fifths of the produce used in the current menu at his restaurant, Labyrinth, comes from Singaporean farmers and food artisans.
Fine dining challenges
It’s no mean feat for a fine-dining restaurant whose customers expect innovation and luxury, but Han has managed with ingredients farmed in Singapore. Just a small portion of a long list includes herbs from farmers Edible Garden City; water spinach grown at Nippon Koi Farm; and even surprisingly luscious strawberries, grown hydroponically by Sustenir Agriculture. Besides vegetables, Han also uses locally farmed seafood supplied by Ah Hua Kelong, oysters from Sea Farmers @ Ubin, and goat’s milk from Hay Dairies.
For the menu, he puts these ingredients front and centre. There are sweet, briny “lala” clams from Ah Hua Kelong set in clam liquor jelly, and served in a crispy wonton skin tart alongside homemade XO sambal. There is also sorbet, churned from bean-to-bar chocolate by local artisan Fossa. His signature chilli crab ice cream has also got an update, with hand-picked meat from local, wild-caught flower crabs.
The latest version of Han’s chilli crab ice cream features hand-picked flower crab meat, ribbons of egg white, ice plants and mantou “croutons”.
It all started from an encounter with said crabs and mussels from Ah Hua Kelong, a local fish farm that has drawn a loyal following thanks to a combination of attentive farming and tech-savvy marketing by two of its owners, Wong Jing Kai and Bryan Ang.
“I was like, this is really good. I realised then that the ingredients you can find in Singapore can measure up to whatever that is being imported. That was when I wanted to know more, I wanted to see what else was out there.”
Hungry for knowledge, he spent over two years searching for all that the land and sea here have to offer, meeting farmers, and artisans making everything from soya sauce to sesame oil and even chocolate. One of those farmers was William Ho.
Besides farming quail, Ho is also actively involved in the Kranji farming community, and often conducts educational tours where he talks about the importance of having an agricultural industry in Singapore – for food security and safety, and as a matter of national pride. It’s this that heightens the importance of Han’s work. He says: “Not a lot of chefs are garang like Han. I say this because he came to us, despite knowing that his overheads would be higher, and never tried to bargain with us. It’s so easy to import anything these days, and it’s hard for local farmers to compete because our costs are very high. If Labyrinth does well, we’ll also get more exposure.” (Garang is a Malay word meaning courageous, maybe to the point of impulsiveness.)
What started out as a culinary exercise eventually became much more personal for Han. “I like working with (the farmers) because they care about what they’re doing. These are all very passionate, knowledgeable people that could be doing so much more, if given the resources. I feel like we’re all in the same situation.”
Building relationships with the farmers also gave him unique insights into the produce, which has helped him improve as a chef. He shares some interesting discoveries — shellfish, including oysters, mussels and clams, bred in Singapore’s warmer, saltier waters are more flavourful, and are on a par with their cold-climate counterparts.
DIG INTO LOCAL CLAMS
The bivalves from Ah Hua Kelong are served in clam liquor jelly in a wonton skin tart.
Corn, too, has the potential to taste much better. “With things like corn, it’s really about the supply chain. The farmers taught me that corn continues to consume its own sugars after it’s harvested. If you eat it right off the stalk, it’s actually sweet,” explains Han. To showcase corn at its best, he contracted a local farm to grow it, in order to minimise the time between harvesting and it reaching the restaurant.
The chops to pull it off
Of course, all the quality produce in Singapore means nothing in a fine-dining space like Labyrinth, if Han doesn’t have the technique to translate them into dishes. Enter local food scholar and restaurateur David Yip, whom Han credits for enlightening him on the culinary possibilities of forgotten, traditional techniques.
He says: “(David) let me try oyster sauce prepared from scratch by cooking down actual oysters… That changed my life. I was blown away. I thought to myself, ‘Is this what oyster sauce is supposed to be like?’ It had so much more umami and depth, compared to the commercial versions.” Said oyster sauce is now made at Labyrinth from oysters grown in the waters of north-eastern Singapore.
Yip, who witnessed much of the conception of Labyrinth’s new menu, says: “I like the idea of Han doing that menu. Many people wouldn’t think there was enough local produce to create a full degustation menu, but Li Guang managed to pull it off. I believe that restaurants at that level should really be able to show off their heritage or very good technique, and Han has done both.”
“We’ve got to measure up to the other starred restaurants out there, while using local produce.”
CHEF HAN LI GUANG
To talk about fine dining, by extension, is to discuss accolades, something Han has no shortage of – a Michelin star for two years running; a listing on the World’s 50 Best Discovery Series 2016; and three consecutive G Restaurant Awards of Excellence, among many others. The topic of Michelin stars inevitably comes up, and it’s clearly something Han feels strongly about. He says: “We’ve got to measure up to the other starred restaurants out there, while using local produce. If we fail while claiming to showcase Singaporean produce, no one’s going to believe that the local farmers are doing a good job.”
In some ways, it almost feels as if he has taken up the heavy mantle of championing local produce. For him, the goal is to have the farmers and artisans enter the national consciousness in a big way. He declares: “I don’t want Singaporean produce to just be a novelty. I want chefs to come here, and know there’s local produce, and actually be interested in using it because of its good quality.”