SINGAPOREANS who travel overseas - to Macau, Japan and Russia specifically - and suddenly feel like they want some Singaporean food, might now be able to order something else besides Singapore bee hoon.
You couldn't always find good old favourites like chicken rice and laksa outside the immediate South-East Asian region, but dishes like these are now popping up, and in nice surroundings too - thanks to a new wave of Singaporean food and beverage consultants establishing eateries overseas.
While that's good news for hawker food fans who can't go for two days without some local fare when they travel overseas, what's more important is that Singapore fare seems to be getting recognised as 'Singapore cuisine'.
The business has moved on from just the food, important as this is, to the whole restaurant and dining concept, say the businessmen who are coming up with food concepts that can be adopted internationally.
But back to local fare for now. Got a craving for Singapore laksa while in Tokyo? Head to Ginza, which recently got its first restaurant serving Singapore food. Raffles Terrace is so far the only Singaporean F&B franchise venture of its kind in Japan.
'It came as a recommendation from a frequent Japanese diner at thesimplelife at Wheelock Place, who introduced us to a Japanese F&B group,' says Ricky Chew, managing director of OB International, which owns and operates Fish & Co, thesimplelife, Giraffe and Pret A Manger (a joint venture).
Raffles Terrace is done up with an old colonial flair, and OB International franchised out thesimplelife concept to Port Japan Group, a Japanese company which owns and operates several restaurant concepts in Japan.
Availability of ingredients
What makes Japan now ready to accept Singapore food? Mr Chew notes that it's probably easier for local fare to penetrate other markets because of the availability of ingredients.
'With free trade agreements and so on, goods are moving more freely across borders. A lot of ingredients are available in Japan when you could hardly find any five years ago,' he says. OB International isn't a stranger to exporting our F&B concepts, having taken Fish & Co out to places like Dubai. But now, others are keen on Singapore fare as well. 'We do get inquiries from other countries, even Pakistan. But for now, we might probably look at Hong Kong and Korea,' he says.
Raffles Terrace, which seats 60 people, has got off to a good start, with crowd favourites being chicken rice, bak kut teh and laksa.
These are the exact same top-sellers as in Rasa Singapura (inset) in Macau, opened by Solutions 17 group just a month ago.
Its chief executive Raymond Khoo says that Rasa Singapura's plan is to draw diners to the centre through Singaporeans. There are more than 200 Singaporeans working in Macau.
'They're our regulars, but they in turn bring friends. And regional tourists who visit Macau also have some knowledge of Singapore food,' he explains.
The food's not the only draw, he says, as the whole restaurant is turned into a 'tourist centre' with posters and brochures of Singapore. 'All the visuals are of Singapore, and we also screen Singapore movies, besides broadcasting channels U and I. So it's not just the food,' he says.
This is the formula that he plans to take for possible Rasa Singapore restaurants in other parts of the world.
In fact, there are already takers for the concept - the Las Vegas Sands people, who are opening the Venetian Macau Resort by the end of this year.
When Mr Khoo met them in Singapore to discuss possible outlets at the forthcoming Marina Bay Sands integrated resort here, they ended up talking about F&B concepts in the Macau resort as well.
Solutions 17, which currently operates the Tong Shui Cafe chain here, as well as the 3-Monkeys theme restaurant and eateries at the Singapore Turf Club and Singapore Polo Club (under Mount Pleasant Holdings), has brought four new restaurant concepts to the new Venetian Macau.
The group will invest a total of US$3.5 million in Venetian Macau for the four different restaurant concepts, covering 12,500 sq ft in total. This investment amounts to a commitment of US$16 million (S$20 million) of rental fees for its five-year lease.
There will be another Rasa Singapura which will serve Singapore hawker fare; TSC, a Hong Kong style cafe; 3-Monkeys with its family-friendly jungle themed restaurant, and World Wide Wings sports bar and eatery which will see a menu of chicken wings in all types of styles paired with over 100 brands of beer.
Going further afield
'This is our biggest venture, but we now have strategies to go even further,' says Mr Khoo. Talks are under way to bring some of the TSC and Rasa Singapore to Las Vegas for instance.
'We've some 20 food concepts at hand, and we also hold an international franchise for a UK chain which we could open both in Macau and Singapore IRs,' he reveals.
Some of Solutions 17's other food concepts include Damn Yankees, King Kong Ribs, Oystermania and Samy's Curry in Cotai Central in Macau, which houses the St Regis Hotel, Sheraton Hotel, Sheraton Towers and Shangri-La Hotel due to open in 2009.
While Solutions 17 used to do more consulting work before, it's now moving into the phase of developing and operating its own F&B concepts, while spending some 20 per cent of its time in consultancy.
These are exciting times for the Asian F&B industry, he says. 'Asian food as a whole is taking the world by storm now,' Mr Khoo says. 'I reckon that Singapore food would sit well in the Asian food context. A lot more people know about Singapore now, and about Singapore food.'
Plus, thanks to all the gold medals Singapore chefs are winning in the international culinary competitions, they're gaining quite a notable reputation, Mr Khoo says.
Which sees him picking chefs - mostly with a hotel background - who have participated and won awards before.
Chefs who have the skills to create more contemporary versions of Asian food and present them well are sought after in places like Russia, says Andrew Tan, of 1871 Investments. The group operates Restaurant 1827 at The Arts House and is also a consultancy.
Having developed F&B concepts like the former Colours by the Bay at the Esplanade, word got around that he also consulted for F&B businesses. So he was asked by a Russian partner to conceptualise and design a 16,000 sq ft restaurant in St Petersburg. Terrazza has a concept like Mezza9 here, serving both Asian and Western food.
But he doesn't see authentic, local Singapore food doing well in a place like Russia which is now flush with new money. 'The people there are willing to pay for fine dining, so they care a lot about presentation and ambience. Besides they're so close to Europe as well, with all of its fine-dining traditions,' he says.
So what he'll do is help them come up with dishes like soft-shell chilli crab, for example, instead of exporting Singapore chilli crab there wholesale.
Besides coming up with the menu, he also comes up with the restaurant concept and design.
After 25 years in the F&B business, Mr Tan is keen to do more consultancy work instead of running his own restaurants, he says.
There could be more Singaporean F&B conceptualisers and consultants out there, he thinks, describing himself as a 'small but personable' player. There are much bigger Asian players out there, he adds.
'But Singapore is a good platform for F&B concepts because we're so internationalised. We have all kinds of food concepts here.'
That's probably the reason why more F&B consultants like him, and Mr Chew and Mr Khoo, are being sought after - for their ideas and the resources to serve up either Singapore food or modern Asian fusion fare.
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