OCTOBER 4 — Singapore has a talent problem or so we are often told. There isn’t enough local talent particularly for some highly skilled and specialised executive positions.
For years there’ve been concerns that given the nation’s relentless focus on education, we just aren’t producing our share of global CEOs, Nobel Laureates, major artists, etc.
Whatever the reality of the talent shortage, there is one field in which it’s quite clear Singapore is capable of producing serious talent. Talent capable of competing with the absolute best in the world — and that is food.
I mean, we’ve always known our food is good but the world is now beginning to acknowledge our world-class chefs.
Earlier this week, Kenneth Foong was appointed the head chef of Noma — the three Michelin starred restaurant in Denmark has consistently been rated as among the best in the world for the last few years.
Food and gastronomy is one of the most competitive fields in the world. Thirty-one-year-old Kenneth’s success at this level is in some ways comparable to Joseph Schooling’s Olympic gold medal.
It’s a remarkable underdog feat but the truth is where Schooling has remained an outlier, an exceptional Singaporean talent in the field, Foong seems to represent something broader.
As a Singaporean chef working in a world leading restaurant, he is not alone. You find Singaporean chefs in leading restaurants around the world and celebrated local chefs like Cheryl Koh and Jereme Leung have brought their experience from leading restaurants overseas to their restaurants in Singapore.
And as they rise globally, they are also transforming food locally. We have chefs returning, refining and re-inventing local dishes.
No longer do leading chefs aspire to just produce versions of European cuisine. Today we see fusion, re-inventions and refinements of local classics dominating menus at high-end restaurants.
All this effort and invention has led to the birth of Mod Sin or modern Singaporean cuisine.
I am not going to attempt a comprehensive definition but Mod Sin is basically the idea of taking essentially local dishes and elevating/adapting them with new combinations, techniques and an unprecedented focus on ingredients and sourcing.
This has to be achieved while preserving the “essence” of the original. So we get say chili crab ice cream, or buak keluak burgers, Iberico pork satay and even bak chor mee reimagined and recreated as a dessert.
This is perhaps the most promising creative movement to have taken place in Singapore for a while.
With more and more Mod Sin-inspired restaurants opening all the time, this emphasis on local flavours is changing our culinary landscape with people now willing to pay a premium for gourmet nasi lemak, or even fancy angku kuehs.
Where once spending more than S$3.50 (RM10.70) for a bowl of laksa was considered heresy, today people actively seek out new renditions of hawker classics and this process, far from threatening old school hawkers, means there is a new focus on hawker cuisine and culture and an understanding that these dishes require real artistry and skill.
What this means in a larger sense is that Singapore which has always been known as a centre for great hawker food is increasingly being seen as a centre for serious gastronomy.
Just as modern Scandinavian food emerged over the last few years to challenge the more established cuisines of France and Italy, the rise of local chefs and a broader Singapore movement gives us a chance to assert ourselves not just as a regional but global player in the world of food.
It is also interesting that Singaporeans are shining in a field that is perhaps the most far away from our traditional education.
There are no rigorous paper exams, no academic streaming and tuition in the world of cooking.
It is all about practical experience learning on the job — craft and creativity.
Being a cook was long considered a lowly alternative to the path offered by academic success and yet Singaporeans seem to be succeeding more in this field than anywhere else?
What can we learn from this? How do we capture the drive and determination of our chefs and apply it to other fields?
Now we have modern Singaporean food, how do we get to modern Singaporean architecture, design or even management?
It is definitely possible. Perhaps best to mull this over a Mod Sin meal.
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.