HAN LI GUANG
Han Li Guang fancies himself a free spirit. A headstrong individual who, while not quite embracing of the rebel label, concedes to being stubborn.
“It’s who I am: stubborn on philosophy, stubborn on techniques,” acknowledges the chef-owner of one-Michelin-starred Labyrinth restaurant at the Esplanade Mall. The philosophy in question? A culinary lexicon that continuously challenges and reimagines the notion of Singapore cuisine—one that places the locavore in focus, as up to 90 per cent of Labyrinth’s menu features produce sourced from local farmers and fishermen.
Labyrinth serves up a “new expression of Singapore cuisine” inspired by Han’s childhood memories and in which familiar Singaporean flavours are elevated and interpreted as edible art guaranteed to jolt jaded palates.
“I named the restaurant Labyrinth because, like a maze, it’s designed to have a surprise element at every corner,” Han explains.
Creative presentation is the name of the game, while preserving the emotional connection people have to the dishes’ traditional form remains a priority. “Never boring or classical,” he insists. And with a little personality and colloquial humour, we might add. On Labyrinth’s current Chef’s Tasting Menu, for instance, there is a Bak Chor Mee, No Bak Chor, No Mee dish, a tongue-in-cheek reference to a local noodle favourite and the uniquely Singaporean way of requesting to hold certain ingredients— but extravagantly garnished with Hokkaido scallop and squid from Jurong Fishery.
Under the Tribute to my Gong Gong & Popo section of the menu, you will find an Ang Moh Chicken Rice, or an expat’s version of the dish. Then, there’s Kaya, Teh Tarik & Eggs to end the meal rather than start your day, topped with Russian caviar.
Judging from the yearly Michelin nods earned since 2017 and Labyrinth’s six years on the scene, Han has been hailed as a culinary hero who has clearly gotten the recipe right. Persuading patrons to fork out fine dining prices for local flavours, however, had posed a challenge.
“There’s always a misconception that local produce is inferior and cheaper than imported produce,” he notes. “The challenge has been to change the perception of Singapore food; to convince Singaporeans that our cuisine is worth a Michelin Star with local produce flavours.”
That challenge got even greater this year. With up to 60 per cent of Labyrinth’s clientele typically comprising tourists, the restaurant suffered a bigger blow than most when Covid-19 hit.
“We lost the tourist market, we lost the corporates, we lost the events market,” he says. The former banker did the math and made the tough decision to shut the restaurant during the circuit breaker. The “magic” of Labyrinth lies in its signature artful plating, which wouldn’t travel nor translate well at home, anyway. Instead, he used the opportunity to beta test a new brand concept—Miss Vanda by Labyrinth—converting the existing kitchen to roll out a new selection of hawker-type fare that is still elevated, but a tad more affordable.
For those curious as to the name, it’s a tribute to Singapore’s national flower, the Vanda Miss Joaquim. “I’m not a drag queen,” he quips. But now that Labyrinth has reopened for business, Miss Vanda has taken a sabbatical but will make a return when it officially launches in its own dedicated space possibly sometime after Chinese New Year next year, Han says.
In the meantime, he is going back to basics and focusing on the two core elements that sustain any business: the product and the customer.
“I knew that this was not the year for my inner artist to express itself. It’s not the year to dream. It’s the year of being practical. Most importantly, it’s the year of being smart about our menu.”
Once upon a time, there lived a little Indian girl in Malaysia whose grandfather was a gifted storyteller. She would sit eagerly at his feet as he regaled her with Asian folktales, fables and legends from his fatherland. And she, the eldest grandchild, would soak up the stories as his spirited words carried her to other realms and realities. That little girl inadvertently grew into the role of “young apprentice”, and the inevitability of her vocation was apparent even then.
In the decades since, Kamini Ramachandran has carved a niche for her craft so inimitable that veteran diplomat Tommy Koh has hailed her “Singapore’s most mesmerising storyteller”, and whose rich repertoire of Asian stories has taken her to castles in Belgium, ruins in Italy, greenfield festivals in England and Wales, sacred forests in India, Scotland and Australia, to name a few.
It was motherhood, however, that compelled Ramachandran to first pioneer the art of professional storytelling. After completing her degree in English and Literature from the University of Reading in the UK, she worked as an editor and by then, a mum of two boys, would tell stories at their preschool.
“Other parents would ask me where I learnt this skill and where did I find these Asian folk tales because they were only aware of western fairy tales. That’s when I realised I was responsible for carrying on this tradition that I was blessed to have been brought up in,” she recounts.
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