Other than at the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony, held a few days ago in Thailand, it would be difficult to imagine more top chefs from Asia Pacific in one room. But the Fine Dining Lovers brunch, organised by S.Pellegrino, brought together many of the continent's best chefs for a convivial get-together in the sunshine of Bangkok.
It was a social gathering for hard working individuals who rarely, if ever, get the chance to meet up, as Julien Royer of Singapore's restaurant Odette, the highest new entry in the history of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants to debut at #9, explained: “Most of the time we're working in the kitchen, so it's not often we can get together in the same place on the same day. We can talk about the future of our business in a relaxed atmosphere. Thailand has a sense of hospitality like nowhere else in the world and we have a lot to learn from this kind of experience.”
Amongst those in attendance, one theme surfaced time and again as a trend for the year ahead, namely the critical importance of sustainability across all aspects of restaurant operations.
Richard Ekkebus from Hong Kong's Amber – number three on this year's list – made it clear: “How we look at doing business and how our business impacts the environment and social structures is a key trend. It covers everything, down to what paper we use for the menus. We even audit our suppliers now to see how sustainable they are – how do they recycyle their packaging?” A longstanding fan of the finest Japanese produce, Ekkebus is also clear that Hong Kong simply can't offer the local ingredients he needs, joking: “The only thing that grows in Hong Kong is real estate! There's no agriculture or aquaculture, Japan is probably as genuinely locavorean as you can get.”
Julien Royer concurred, highlighting the reality of working in another compact Asian capital, namely Singapore: “Its really important, especially in Singapore as we have to import 95% of what we use in the kitchen. Nobody can be perfect when it comes to sustainability, but everyone can do a little bit, make an effort to integrate it into ingredients, preparation and wastage.”
It was also a theme that Umberto Bombana, the much-respected chef at 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana restaurant in Hong Kong and recent recipient of the 2017 Asia's 50 Best Restaurants Lifetime Achievement award, mentioned: “Sustainability is the most important thing we have in life now. We have to learn how to respect nature – because then you also respect the culture of nations and their traditions.”
Kirk Westaway is a young British chef – South-East Asia finalist at S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2015 competition – working in Singapore at Jaan, a modern French restaurant currently at #42 on Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list. Despite coming from a different generation and country than Bombana, he echoes what the Italian discussed, citing his personal experiences growing up as a key factor in his views on sustainability:
“If I was home in Devon in the South West of England, I could source all my ingredients within a five mile radius. But in Singapore it's different so we have to be very strict about the quantities we use. We take the best of the best, but always a minimal amount. We're very strict on wastage – in fact we don't waste anything. I grew up in a very organic-style environment, was a vegetarian for years and we always had an organic garden at home with a lot of ingredients. The flavour, taste and general wellbeing of your entire meal depends on the produce, so it has to be sustainable.”
With such a shared passion voiced by all the chefs, sustainability is clearly much more than a trend – it's integral to their work and absolutely here to stay.