I thought it must have been a mis-print on the menu. Chilli crab ice cream, tempura soft shell crab, sturgeon caviar.
Who puts ice cream with crab and caviar?
But there it was on chef LG Han’s Signature menu at Labyrinth restaurant, near the Maxwell Hawker Centre, in Singapore.
It typifies LG’s playful, and at times unconventional, approach to food.
He is not your average chef. LG is an accounting and finance graduate who studied at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
After he graduated, it took him three years to summon the courage to abandon the world of banking and instead put on the chef’s apron.
“It is very common for Singaporeans to go overseas to study banking and then come home and get a banking job, it is what everyone expects of us,’’ LG says.
“I realised I loved cooking more than banking. On my off days I used to work for free in restaurants, learning new recipes. When I came back I worked in two different international banks but still didn’t really like it that much. My passion for banking was just going down so I thought, I am still young, I’m not married, have no kids, no car, no debt, so why not strike out on my own and get some proper training and experience under the right people and see if I can do something on my own that I can be proud of. So I let myself do something that makes me happy.’’
Today he is regarded as one of the wunderkind’s of Singaporean cuisine. His restaurant, which seats about 25 people, is busy, busy busy. His dishes have been described as “outlandish creations” but truth be told, they have their foundations solidly in Singapore’s culinary history.
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“Labyrinth is all about bridging modern and traditional,’’ LG says.
“The name Labyrinth means maze. We don’t serve an la carte menu here; it’s a prefixed menu. So, it’s a gastronomic maze with the focus on our innovation and creativity in bringing local dishes to the forefront of the fine dining environment in a more refined, surprising and fun manner.’’
Hence the chilli crab ice cream that is sweet and salty at the same time, but when it melts it somehow develops a tomato flavour. The dish is served with seaweed and mantou crumbs (shaped like sand). All it all, it looks very much like a beach scene sitting on your plate.
“You won’t find truly authentic local food and flavours here,’’ LG says.
“What we focus on is bringing out the main local flavours in ingredients. We look at traditional cuisine. We take the base flavour and try to present it in the more modern setting with a truly visual look on a plate.
“We are a restaurant that straddles tradition and modern at the same time. We use the same exact ingredients in every traditional dish and then we take it and manipulate it into a different form.’’
Labyrinth is slowly but surely making its way on to the critics’ lists as one of the top 10 places to eat in Singapore beside such favourites as Wild Rocket, &Sons, Izy and Ding Dong and it is part of a food avant garde movement that is trying to steal some of the attention from Singapore’s street food scene.
“Hawker food is comfort food to me,’’ LG says. “It’s something I can eat every day. There is still a lot of jewels to be found around Singapore. People ask me where can I go to get authentic hawker food and there is no one place. If you want chilli crab you go to one place if you want satay you go to another. I think its declining because the new generation is not taking on the old recipes of the older generation, the recipes are being lost to the years.
“We still do have good young hawker food coming up, but not nearly enough. Singapore is not just hawker food (I grew up on hamburgers, pasta, McDonalds etc.) it’s very cosmopolitan. So I like to think that my food has evolved from hawker with the influences I have gained from overseas.’’
LG says he is glad to be back plying his cooking skills in the country office birth.
“Singapore means home to me; security with a wonderful diversity. It’s the only place that you can get everything from around the world – food, shopping, retail and it is very cosmopolitan which is what the government markets it as. The good thing is also that 40 percent of the population comes from overseas. We meet people from very different backgrounds so, for me, Singapore is some place I see myself settling. For business and personal reasons it holds a lot for me.’’
Singapore Tourism is encouraging visitors to get lost and find the real Singapore. LG says it is hard to define exactly what the real Singapore is.
“I guess I need to ask myself what the real Singapore is. If we are looking for traditional Singapore that would be watching my grandmother cook over an old wok. Today’s Singapore is now a more urban city. For me, I would say start in Arab Street and just walk and you will discover a traditional area; and then you walk further down past new shopping areas into a hipster area. Further down to China town it becomes more traditional again. Just walk around. If you have time you can head out to the heartland areas where you will find bicycles everywhere, great markets, locals enjoying morning coffee and good food.’’
Images by Luke Wheatley and Alastair Emmett