What makes a restaurant sustainable? For some chefs, it is providing meat-free and organic options; for others, it’s buying meats from sustainable sources, or reducing the overall carbon footprint in their sourcing supply chain.
For Singapore’s Restaurant Labyrinth, winner of the 2021 Flor de Caña Sustainable Restaurant Award at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021, sustainability means pivoting to "local produce advocacy" and it’s a commitment described by chef-owner Han Li Guang as being “multidimensional”, encompassing not just the environment but also commerce and society.
“We started focusing on sourcing local produce for my New Singapore cuisine only about three years ago,” Han says, adding that he was at first “very surprised” at the quality of local produce when he first started combing the city’s bounty.
Today, his Esplanade restaurant, renowned for reinventing local hawker flavours, is also known to champion the cause of local food growers. A cadre of local farmers - namely Edible Garden City, Ah Hua Kelong, Toh Thye San, Uncle William Quail Farm and Nippon Koi Farm - is collectively supplying some 70% of his ingredients.
Proudly citing examples of local produce with outstanding quality, Han raves about Ah Hua Kelong’s “sweet and juicy” green-lipped mussels featured in his new laksa dish, together with clams and green papaya in a broth made from mussel jus. The fish farmer’s “delicately sweet” wild-caught flower crabs that “taste of the sea” also anchor his signature chilli crab course alongside a scoop of chilli crab ice-cream. From Edible Gardens City, he sources all the herbs and plants served at his restaurant, including the “beautiful” ulam rajah herb ( “it tastes just like green mango”) that appear in his yu sheng dish alongside local barramundi.
Local wild caught crab, photo credit Da Photography
When Han decided to shift his focus to local producers, one of the first things he did was to remove all imported products that were served as a main ingredient - these included Boston lobster, hamachi (Japanese yellowtail), kuruma ebi (Japanese tiger prawn) and kurobuta pork. He also printed a map of Singapore, showcasing the location of his partner farms, and built two new walls in the restaurant, one to pay tribute to his grandmother and the other to showcase the produce of Singapore.
“Guests have, in general, responded positively, expressing surprise that we have so many farms in Singapore and such a large variety of produce for consumption at a quality worthy of fine-dining,” Han says. “Most also expressed appreciation saying that they are proud that a restaurant in Singapore like us was leading the path in sourcing local and succeeding at that.”
In a city with few natural resources and only one season - summer - to speak of, Han’s gamble to take-on the Little Red Dot’s little-known terroir is paying off handsomely. The seven-year-old neo-Singapore cuisine champion hit a home run when it picked up not one but two awards at the 2021 edition of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards - for the first time, Labyrinth was also ranked 40th on the list.
To the self-taught chef, these awards are but an affirmation that his restaurant is evolving in the right direction. Determined to double-down on the good work he has started, Han knows that sustainability is much more encompassing than just buying local and he has his work cut out.
Han Li Guang, photo credit Da Photography
He only buys herbs and vegetables from farmers who use natural fertilisers from waste compost and who avoid spraying pesticides on their crops. To date, he has done away with most single-use plastic materials such as straws, spoons, boxes, etc. and is encouraging all his farming partners to do the same. In cases where he receives ingredients in plastic bags or boxes, he tries to re-use or recycle them as much as he can. Additionally, he also tries to work exclusively with farmers who employ natural farming methods and sustainable practices. To keep food waste to a minimum, he also uses all parts of the produce in his cooking, if not for staff meals.
However, guests who dined at the restaurant recently may have noticed Kagoshima beef making an appearance in Han’s Homage to My Singapore tasting menu. Aptly named An Ode To Cairnhill Steakhouse, a steakhouse in Cairnhill Road that his grandfather used to own from the 1960s to 1990s, the course comes complete with photos of the period from the chef’s childhood and is chef’s way of keeping the traditions and heritage of Singapore alive through food and stories involving local brands like his grandfather’s steakhouse.
Photo credit Da Photography
Dubbing his effort to preserve the steakhouse’s heritage a form of “society sustainability”, Han says that his attempt has resulted in an unexpected discovery recently. In a strange twist of fate, a former customer of Cairnhill Steakhouse who dined at Labyrinth recognised the images and identified himself as the gynaecologist who delivered chef into the world when he was a baby.
To this, Han says that “every aspect of what we have currently - heritage, history, environment, food source and food security - should be protected and left in a better shape than we first found it”.