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  • Writer's picturePinky

Why Singapore’s Fine Dining Scene is the Toughest for Restaurant Businesses

When we speak of Singapore as a food capital, we’re no longer just referring to our humble yet glorious Chicken Rice or Chilli Crab – we’re also celebrating the myriad of fine dining restaurants, informed by the city’s diverse cuisines and cultures.

Despite being a nation of foodies, being in the F&B business in Singapore is still a tall order. Just take a look at the statistics: Nearly half of restaurants close within five years of opening. And even the top-notch fine dining restaurants aren’t exempted from this number – prestigious accolades or reverence amongst dining guides don’t necessarily translate into actual patronage.

Singapore: A fine dining destination?

A menu favourite at Whitegrass: South Australian grass fed beef, fermented black beans, raw mushrooms, ice plant, veal broth.

Being a fine dining destination requires a pool of diners as much as it does the presence of fine dining restaurants. However, with the new generation of diners becoming “Smart Consumers” of a tech-enabled world, there has been a shift towards more casual, convenience-led dining habits that focus more on affordability and ease of access. The surge of fast-casual dining spots has done away with tasting menus, precise course-by-course meals and other experience-led elements that don’t directly add to the finesse of each dish. Food delivery apps are flourishing, with a year-on-year growth of almost 20% and funding continually pouring in by the millions. The boom of these dining options wasn’t a matter of luck – these were all calculated, consumer-focused moves made to disrupt the food industry right from the time they entered the market.

Unfortunately, the very nature of fine dining makes it unsuitable for a lot that technology has made possible. Take for instance automation in the kitchen, which can make processes quicker and cheaper. But at higher-end restaurants, where innovation and an appreciation of the stories behind each dish is as much a part of the experience as the food itself, there’s a limit to how much of the human element tech can replace.

Online ordering is even more out of the question. The integrity of a dish from a fine dining restaurant often won’t sustain by the time it’s delivered to the customer, so spare kitchen capacity cannot leverage on these food delivery companies to extend their market reach. While digitisation has expanded the market for just about every other restaurant, it seems like fine dining has been left behind in many ways.

And even those who are blessed with steady business face problems of their own, one of the biggest being scalability. Ever since Cantonese restaurant Chef Kang was awarded a Michelin star in 2017, reservations for this three-table restaurant doubled – which meant diners had to book at least two months, instead of one, in advance. But chef-owner Ang Song Kang, who prides himself in cooking every dish himself to maintain top-notch standards, said in an interview that he has “no ability to go any bigger without compromising on quality”.

This problem isn’t unique to Chef Kang. For chef-owner of one-Michelin-starred modern-Singaporean restaurant Labyrinth, Han Liguang, one defining element of his restaurant is his dedication to sourcing and using the best quality ingredients in his dishes, which simply isn’t possible to achieve in high volumes. Having to operate on a small scale drives up costs, which means low margins for the restaurant. The same goes for two-starred French spot Les Amis, where raw ingredients make up about 50 per cent of total costs.

In a newly-restored heritage shophouse overlooking the Singapore River, the Michelin-starred Braci serves contemporary Italian cuisine and classic cocktails uplifted through modern techniques.

Of course, the picture isn’t all bleak. Fine dining is a hard business to run, but it’s not a bad business to run. Says restaurateur-chef Beppe De Vito of one-Michelin-starred Italian restaurant Braci, “Fine dining is an art form, and like any art form, there are those who will always have an appreciation and understanding of the craft, and will continue to indulge in it.” Ask him about his restaurant and what the future holds for it, and the ferocious zeal he feels towards it is immediately apparent. “It is ultimately up to us, as chefs and restaurateurs, to provide reasons for diners to continue coming to us,” he muses.

Chef Sam Aisbett of one-Michelin-starred Whitegrass would concur. Inspired by his mother, whose cooking exposed him to a world of flavours, from Italian to Indian, and having worked under top chefs in their fine dining restaurants, the dishes he conceives are not just about taste, but an entire multi-sensory experience: deftly composed, beautifully plated, texturally profound.

In the face of digitisation and the casualisation of good food, fine dining restaurants are braving through this paradigm shift. Chef Beppe, for one, doesn’t see the changing dining trends as a crisis for traditional fine dining restaurants. The online food delivery market, for instance, “serves an entirely different purpose”, whereas fine dining is “more about experience and exploration”.

Many of the big names in the F&B world echo his viewpoint. Despite closing his namesake, three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Singapore earlier this year, celebrity chef Joël Robuchon maintains that fine dining will still remain relevant. While many took his exit from the Singapore market as a big blow to the city’s fine dining scene, the man himself sees it as the natural ebb and flow of F&B – even the best chefs need to have an insatiable curiosity for fresh ways to evolve their craft. And sometimes, that involves moving on from what they already have. In his place, though, are other fine dining maestros, such as Alain Ducasse, expected to enter Singapore’s market this year.

The question that needs to be answered is this: How will Singapore fare as a fine dining destination? Trust the restaurateurs and chefs to soldier on and bring the best to the table. With that, fine dining will always be a beloved segment of the restaurant industry.

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