I had dinner with two Knights the other night. No, they weren’t wearing swords and shields. They weren’t wearing armour and we certainly weren’t seated at a round table. Nonetheless, my dining companions were Knights of the Realm (just not my realm). More specifically, they are Chevaliers, Ordre National du Merite (National Merit), awarded by the French President for their work in promoting (excellence in) French cuisine and culture overseas. I am very proud to have become friends with these two amazing men over the last decade here in Singapore–their new titles are well and truly deserved. And I was thrilled to attend the award ceremony, held late last year. But it also made me think about how we Singaporeans are honouring, or forgetting to honour, our own culinary heroes.
Over the past year, a number of our government agencies have banded together to articulate a vision for the future (and future promotion) of our local food scene. One of the identified strategies that I wholeheartedly support is the identification of local food heroes. Thing is, though, while the general idea of supporting local food heroes has been mooted, from what I understand, the mechanics of how to do this, and even who are our local food heroes, have yet to be worked out.
I’ve never made it a secret that I’ve long felt that our very best chefs, food writers and other culinary entrepreneurs have lacked real, national support and recognition. But now, and for the first time in a long time, there may finally be a tiny bit of light at the end of a previously never-ending tunnel. On my side, I’ll be doing my best (through my full-time gig) to lobby the various agencies involved, hoping that some of the things I believe need to be done might get considered.
Here’s a run-down of some of the things that I feel should be done. You’re totally welcome to disagree with me, and if you do, I’d love to know why and what you would propose instead. First of all, though, we need to define our food heroes. To me, these are the men and women, Singaporean or Singaporean PR, based either locally or internationally, that have (1) risen to the top of the culinary world through the merit of their culinary skills and innovation, and whose names are recognized by their peers internationally; (2) have devoted their careers to championing the very best of Singapore’s local cuisines and food scene to both local and international audiences; or (3) devoted their careers to improving the gastronomic scene here in Singapore.
1. National Honours for our Food Heroes. We give Meritorious Service Medals to sportsmen and women. Why can’t we similarly award the chefs and other culinary superstars that have long been representing our country on the world’s stage? I am looking forward to a time when men and women like Justin Quek, KF Seetoh, Juliet David, Chris Yeo, and Peter Knipp (just to name a few) can stand tall on National Day and be honored alongside other local heroes. Not to be pithy, but if the French are willing to award Knighthoods for doing this, shouldn’t we also consider this? It would be a well-publicized thank you that these men and women dearly deserve and have never truly gotten.
2. Pro-Active Funding for Media Platforms. Before his first TV show, Jamie Oliver was a nobody. Nigella Lawson, similarly, had a regular food column and one well-reviewed book, but until she and her very noticeable assets hit TV, she wasn’t known outside of a small circle of foodies and intellectuals. Rachel Ray was stuck doing food demos in supermarkets before being discovered by TV. Martha Stewart was a caterer before her first cookbook — published by her then husband — threw her into the limelight. Gordon Ramsay too, while a great chef, wasn’t the international superstar he is now. It took a slew of cookbooks and TV shows to turn him into one of Britain’s most famous exports. Joel Robuchon has a daily morning TV show and Indian celeb chef Sanjeev Kapoor has a mountain of cookbooks under his belt and is even launching his own 24-hour TV channel next month. We need to set up an agency that pro-actively identifies our chefs and foodies that have the potential to front cookbooks, food television shows, and other food-related media and whom will appeal to regional or international audiences. And funds these projects. I’m not talking about a government agency that waits for people to apply for grant funding and then makes them jumps through multiple hoops and aggravates them with things like “qualifying costs”. I’m talking about a very private sector style initiative in which an organization is given the funding to back potential culinary superstars. I can already think of at least 4-5 local foodies/chefs that have the potential to be developed this way. (Some of you might say that this is something the private sector should be doing, but unfortunately, the reality here is, unlike in the USA or UK, the local media companies don’t have the confidence and finances to take these risks.)
3. Encourage Internationalization. In addition to reaching international audiences through the media, the other obvious way to reach new customers is through the opening of restaurants abroad. Ducasse, Ramsay, Oliver, Robuchon, The Pourcels, Santamaria, and countless other great Western chefs, all have restauants in multiple countries, which helps create greater name value, not just for them but for the countries of their origin. We should set up support structures to help our very best restaurateurs and chefs expand (smartly) overseas. These can range from financial grants to pure assistance. One thing in particular that would help, especially for our chefs who are working overseas (and by nature of their heritage flying our flag), is financial help in hiring a top public relations company to promote them in their new place of business. More than anything, we should not, the minute one of our chefs leaves our shores, turn our backs on him or her. We should continue to support these lifestyle ambassadors as much as we can.
4. Local Promotions to Celebrate Local Chefs. It’s always been a little strange to me that in a country that has so many great restaurants and chefs, our two major food festivals pretty much ignore local chefs and sideline them, respectively. We need to create opportunities locally during which we celebrate the best local talent, thrusting them into the spotlight and making their names known to all Singaporeans.
I should say that these ideas are specifically engineered towards the objective of promoting our local food heroes. Of course, in addition, there are many more strategies that are equally important in truly promoting and properly building up our gastronomic scene. These range from better and more funding for culinary education programmes to setting up a proper archive for recording and preserving our culinary history.
There is a lot that has to be done. The good news is that our government agencies are starting to take steps in the right direction. But the industry (especially) and the public need to step up and let our public servants know what what they believe the right steps are. Or else we have no one to blame if they run off course but ourselves.