AT close to 2 pm on Shenton Way, when the lunchtime crowd usually thins out and eateries start to empty, the week-old My Type restaurant on the street level of the refurbished Golden Shoe Carpark was still buzzing.
One could just barely find an empty table in the 40-seater restaurant, filled as it was with a motley group of office executives, expats and food bloggers snapping photos of the food to upload on to their sites later. They were all there to dine on surprisingly scrumptious broccoli soup, cod en papillote, oven-baked rack of baby lamb with sweet potato cake and chocolate covered chiffon cake. Surprising because the food tastes like the kind of quality fare you get at an upmarket bistro, nothing like the rabbit food you would expect to find in a 'health food' restaurant catering to people following the Blood Type Diet.
My Type restaurant - which follows the diet philosophy of Peter J D'Adamo, the creator of the Eat Right For Your Type diet which claims that your blood type determines what kind of food is good or bad for you - is one of a growing number of eateries that defy the conventional image of health food restaurants as a place for vegetarians, the chronic sick or the artistically or holistically inclined. The food is good for you, but it's not the brown rice and tofu 'if you concentrate hard enough, you can convince yourself it's delicious' definition of 'good'. It's luxe gourmet cooking that appeals to your taste buds as much as it does to your cholesterol levels.
It's all part of a growing movement dominated by catchphrases like 'sustainable', 'functional food' and 'organic' permeating restaurants in countries like the US, Europe and Australia, where acclaimed chefs apply their talents to produce winning menus that are also environmentally friendly. With more well-travelled Singaporeans becoming exposed to such concepts, local restaurateurs are taking the first steps to tap this growing demand.
In a few weeks' time, for example, The Sentosa Resort and Spa will open The Garden restaurant, an eatery dedicated to 'conscious dining', which executive chef Michael Leibl says will serve 'contemporary cuisine with an emphasis on using quality ingredients which are organic and bio-dynamic where available and when possible'.
As he puts it: 'The concept behind The Garden is the growing global trend of being conscious of the food you are consuming, as well as the empowerment of us, the consumer, in being more aware of ingredients and produce in general.
'This trend has just started to blossom in Singapore even though in Europe, it has been happening for the past 20 years.'
The biggest obstacle, naturally, would be that apart from some vegetables, it's next to impossible to find locally raised livestock like in the West where chefs virtually know the names of the cows and pigs they buy. The next best thing would be careful sourcing for trusted suppliers who can provide the best quality produce, even if not totally organic.
Part of the reason why it's nearly impossible to find a restaurant that serves 100 per cent organic food is cost.
'Organic carrots, for example, cost five to eight times more and for certain ingredients, there is no consistent supply,' says chef Leibl. 'At The Garden, we use only ingredients that are chosen for its quality and consistency of supply. Sometimes, however, some organic ingredients are not as great as perceived.'
Also, it's not cost-effective to have a purely organic restaurant, says Chen Pennefather, who runs the Club 21-owned Supernature organic store. She used to run an organic eatery in Mohamed Sultan Road, but found that the high prices the restaurant had to charge and the niche clientele made the venture unviable.
It's tough, she says, 'because everything has to be imported unlike organic restaurants overseas where they can easily source their produce locally'.
She reckons that there is definitely a growing demand for organic food, but if restaurants were going to go into it, it would be more as part of their menus rather than a full-fledged one.
That well explains why restaurants like mezza9 in the Grand Hyatt, Jiang-Nan Chun at the Four Seasons and Club Chinois of the Tung Lok Group now offer organic menus as an added service for their guests.
'The organic menu at mezza9 is 100 per cent organic,' says executive sous chef Stig Drageide. He was instrumental in designing the organic menu after moving to Singapore from Park Hyatt Zurich. He says: 'It is my vision to change the perception of diners that organic cuisine is unimaginative or only for vegetarians. The new 100 per cent organic menu at mezza9 offers consumers the chance to try the best of what organic ingredients have to offer, including the freshest beef and lamb direct from Australia.'
At the Four Seasons, 'many of our regulars at Jiang-Nan Chun have mentioned the lack of gourmet (organic) Chinese food', says Byron Chong, director of F&B. 'We've also noticed a trend among our patrons to order healthier food preparations ie steamed, poached, boiled soups, fish, tofu and vegetable dishes, and opting for lighter options.'
Hence, the restaurant will introduce an organic menu in March where 'main ingredients like meat, fish and vegetables are from an organic source'.
To keep the costs down, non-organic sauces and seasonings will be used. By doing so, the restaurant keeps the organic menu prices as close to the regular menu as possible.
Club Chinois, which introduced an organic vegetarian menu shortly before Chinese New Year, will re-introduce it after the festivities end. Ricky Ng, Tung Lok's vice-president of operations, says that the organic menu came about 'as we could see that more and more people were conscientious about eating healthily - we also had requests from our diners for such a menu'.
Although the menu was stopped temporarily over the New Year, the organic menu saw a decent response - about 40 sets - when it was introduced and Mr Ng is confident that it will gain in popularity once it kicks off again. Currently, only a vegetarian menu is being offered, but it will be expanded to include meat and seafood within three months, says Mr Ng.
While it's obviously safer commercially to offer organic food as part of a conventional menu, those who go the whole hog by making the entire menu healthy are also taking a risk.
Eu Yan Sang, for one, opened Taste@Red White & Pure in VivoCity to integrate traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) philosophy with contemporary European cuisine, with mixed results. A recent visit saw the restaurant almost empty, although it could also be that most diners were celebrating the Year of the Rat in Chinese restaurants. Even so, it does imply that the restaurant, despite the good quality food, could still be ahead of its time given that Singaporeans tend to equate TCM with Chinese rather than European cuisine.
Still, Eu Yan Sang is thankfully sticking to its guns. 'The menu is mostly natural and herbal, hence it is very much in tune with the current (healthy eating) trend,' says KF Tan, Eu Yan Sang's chief financial officer. 'As it's a relatively new concept in Singapore, it needs time and more marketing push to realise its potential.'
In contrast, the company recently opened a traditional Chinese herbal restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. 'It is a familiar concept to consumers in KL and has done extremely well since it opened,' says Mr Tan.
Maybe all health-inclined restaurants could take a leaf from Glow Juice Bar & Cafe, the Hilton Singapore's organic/healthy restaurant that opened in 2000 and has managed to stay the course despite ever changing trends.
In fact, 'comparing the operating profit of Glow Juice Bar & Cafe between 2006 and 2007, the figures have doubled', says marketing communications manager Frances Koh.
Organic and natural food may cost more, but its customers are prepared to pay a premium, she adds. 'The cost of importing food produce from organic or natural sources has increased over the years and customers are aware of the growing high standard of living on the whole.
'Glow's menu pricing has always been very reasonable, given the total dining experience it offers. The service team knows their customers by name, their food preferences - more often than not, this makes a difference and ensures a repeat visit.'
What, then, does all this herald for die-hard foodies for whom gourmet cuisine reigns paramount over health? As more chefs pick up on the healthy plus good food correlation, foodies could one day do what they've longed to do - literally eat their way to good health.
This article was first published in The Business Times on Feb 23 2008.
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