Singapore's hottest food trend isn't what you'd expect
From inspired mod-Sin feasts to labour-intensive heritage dishes, private dining kitchens in Singapore are adding serious flavour to an already diverse culinary scene. And with some spots having up to six-month waiting lists, it’s clear foodies are lapping it up.
- November 2018
Every night, diners all over Singapore flock to some of the hottest tables around the island. They tuck into dishes — some exquisitely prepared and inspired, such as cresc’ tajat pasta with braised chicken and peas, and seared golden snapper in white curry; others downright deliciously hearty and homely, like Peranakan pork belly buah keluak (candlenut) biryani and Cantonese steamed prawns with preserved radish.
Patrons wait for months to snag these coveted seats. But the most in-demand dinner reservations in Singapore aren’t for fancy restaurants. They’re in a stranger’s house.
Private dining, public love affair
Welcome to the private dining scene. Already a culinary powerhouse thanks to its hawker fare and Michelin-starred restaurants, Singapore is now getting a name for its home dinners, with waiting lists at several spots eclipsing that of celebrity chef outposts.
“I’ve probably hosted close to 100 meals,” says food writer and editor Annette Tan, who offers modern Peranakan food at her venture, FatFuku opens in new window, which opened in May, 2017.
“Naturally, I was a bit nervous initially. As a food writer who reviews restaurants as part of my work, I was opening myself up to the scrutiny of others. I wasn’t really sure what to expect.”
At that time, there were only a handful of private kitchens — stalwarts such as Uncle Tan Kelong (+65 8356 9547)and Lynette’s Kitchen opens in new window by Singapore Symphony Orchestra violinist Lynnette Seah.
Diners were ready — and hungry — for something new. According to Tan, as soon as locals heard about FatFuku, it was booked out for the next three months.
It was a similar story for self-taught home chef Sam Wong. He found himself cooking up a storm for guests at his house after his home-styled Cantonese cuisine — featuring a signature roast duck dish that takes three days to make — became the talk of the town, with rave reviews appearing in local newspapers and magazines last year.
Wong set up Lucky House Private Cantonese Kitchen (+65 9823 7268) in 2016 as a semi-retirement gig. He was looking for something to occupy his time. “My main shoe business is self-sustaining, so my wife encouraged me to make use of the gardens and space we have in our house. And since I’ve always loved growing vegetables and cooking, I decided, ‘Why not go into private dining?’” Wong may appear casual about his endeavour but take note — Lucky House Private Cantonese Kitchen is booked up until April, 2019. What other restaurant in Singapore can make that claim?
No restaurant, no worries
Professional chefs in Singapore are also turning to private dining. Take Mod-Sin cuisine chef Shen Tan. The one-time caterer has run Ujong at Raffles Hotel, set up her own eatery, Wok and Barrel, and has even been a hawker at Maxwell Food Centre. But these days, she’s kept busy with OwnSelfMakeChef opens in new window where she prepares themed communal dinners, ranging from the seafood-centric to an all-barbecue session, at her cosy apartment.
“It’s precisely because I’ve done everything that I decided it’s time to do private dining,” she says. “I can let my creativity run free, really get to know my diners and tell the stories behind what I serve. I also use quality ingredients, like Wagyu short ribs, and source for local produce without worrying about the other aspects of an F&B [food and beverage] business like rent, labour and keeping food stocks.”
Gan Ming Kiat — who has cooked at Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant Candlenut and the now-defunct Goto, one of the pioneer kaiseki restaurants in Singapore — also prefers the private dining route. After his restaurant stints and spending a year as resident chef at the Singapore High Commission in Australia, he decided to create Mustard Seed opens in new window.
“Starting first as a pop-up, then going into private dining is a way to explore and hone my personal style of cooking and also to get my name out there,” explains Gan.
“Doing private dining requires me to see the bigger picture, as I’m curating the entire dining experience right down to the service. I’m also cooking my own brand of food so I’m sharpening my views on food as well. Restaurant work is more repetitive and specialised, which is good for building hard skills. It’s two different things. Which is better depends on which season you are in as a chef.”
In Gan’s case, he’s in full bloom at Mustard Seed. His point of view as a chef is clear — a finely executed journey through the flavours of his childhood as told through the refined and meticulous lens of his kaiseki training. Beef tartare is piqued with a buah keluak sambal. The iconic chilli crab is reimagined as a rich and heady sauce for pan-fried yellow croaker.
More to come
The private dining scene in Singapore might be in its infancy, but it’s already a reflection of the diversity and sophistication of the local restaurant scene.
At Ben Fatto 95 opens in new window, which is “dedicated to the craft and integrity of pasta making”, former corporate tax accountant Lee Yum Hwa dishes up fresh pasta and has a focus on regional Italian cuisines.
Lee, who worked as a line chef at popular Mediterranean eatery Artichoke, foresees that private dining will go beyond offering a type of cuisine for chefs to showcase the detail and dedication in their process.
“With most Italian restaurants that operate on a scale, it’s challenging to focus on details, and some steps in the process may be disregarded. For instance, the labour-intensive methods of folding tortellini and cresc’ tajat thrive out of home kitchens because the matriarch believes that family and friends are worth the effort. Moreover, making pasta in front of guests is a great way for them to connect with their food — there’s nothing like realising the hand-formed Tortelli di Zucca made fresh minutes ago now sits in your bowl.”
Looking further afield at Hong Kong, where private dining has become entrenched as a beloved part of the local food scene, Lee says it’s likely Singapore will go the same way. Shen Tan suggests the success of private dining is also due to Singaporeans becoming more adventurous in their palates. “There is a real demand from both diners and private dining hosts to taste and showcase a more unique dining experience.”
Freelance travel and food writer Joyce Huang points out that private dining presents a deeply personal and local experience, especially for travellers. “For travellers, experiencing a meal in a local’s house not only provides the opportunity for fare one most probably won’t be able to get in restaurants, it also offers more up-close interaction with the host-chef’s personality and understanding of the local culture. That makes it pretty special in a place like Singapore with its heritage and diverse cultural influences.”
As for Gabriel Neo, a regular restaurant-goer who still makes it a point to check out private dining spots once a month, there’s just nothing quite like it in terms of sheer variety and unique appeal.
“I’ve had everything from eight courses of homely Peranakan food at a highly accessible price point of SGD $50 a head at Nonya Bong The Peranakan opens in new window to a risotto with butter poached lobster from Brittany, complete with a gold leaf, by Atipico opens in new window,” he says.
“I probably wouldn’t be able to enjoy such an intimate and bespoke dining experience at a restaurant as it could be difficult to replicate the volume, speed and cost at conventional eateries.”
And when it comes to eating in Singapore, you just have to trust a local’s word on that.