Humble and passionate. These are two words to describe banker-turned-chef Han Liguang, who took the plunge last year to set up his fine-dining restaurant, Labyrinth, at Neil Road, at the age of 29.
Specialising in modern experimental cuisine, Labyrinth has certainly made its mark in its first year of operations. The relative newcomer to the local culinary scene has been lauded for its nod to Singaporean classics, with innovative dishes such as the Siew Yoke Fan with Roasted Pork Belly, Chendol Xiao Long Bao and Chilli Crab ice-cream. Yum.
Chef Han can often be spotted toiling away in the restaurant day and night, personally involved in the preparation work for the dishes to be served the same night. His dedication to his craft has certainly paid off. Labyrinth clinched 2014’s ‘Best New Restaurant’ award by Wine & Dine Magazine, and most recently, was nominated for ‘New Restaurant of the Year’ by the World Gourmet Summit Awards of Excellence 2015.
We speak to the award-winning chef on his culinary journey, and his ambitions for the year ahead.
1) Hello Chef Han! Tell us about your culinary journey and how it all began.
It all began when I picked up baking back in my university days in England, a hobby I was immensely hooked on thereafter. Upon graduation, I pursued a banking career but during my free time, I would teach myself recipes focusing on desserts, cakes and macarons.
My love for hot cooking and passion for kitchen-service adrenaline began when I did a kitchen apprenticeship at Garibaldi‘s during the weekends. This was while I was still in the banking industry. I started to appreciate professional kitchen life, as well as the wonders of hot side cooking and the importance of developing your palate.
From there on, it was all about building my technical fundamentals and knowledge of ingredients on all things food-related, either via self training or stints with renowned chefs and exposure to various types of cuisine. The cuisine at Labyrinth is the result of my experience working with classical and modern chefs, and my own passion in innovation and creativity, whilst still being rooted to memories of growing up in Singapore and what it means to be a Singaporean in this modern era.
2) What was it like working with top chefs such as Mauro Colagreco (of Mirazur, France), Tom Kerridge (of The Hand & Flowers, UK), and Roberto Galetti (of Garibaldi, Singapore) during your training?
Working with the top chefs was a very steep learning curve. You will need a high level of tolerance and perseverance, be disciplined and organized. Be prepared to work long hours, and work fast with minimal mistakes.
Despite the difficulties and personal challenges working for them, these chefs at the top of their game oozed passion and a keen eye for detail. They have a never-ending thirst to learn more and these traits definitely rubbed off on me when setting up Labyrinth.
3) Tell us more about your transition from a banker to chef. Were there any trade-offs you had to make in terms of your lifestyle to pursue your dream?
Transiting from banker to chef required the ultimate sacrifice on all fronts.
First comes the social sacrifice — working almost 24/7, all weekends and public holidays and never reaching home before midnight.
We work when peers are playing and also work when they are working. Secondly of course, is the trade-off on monetary remuneration and stability. F&B to me, is always and should always be about passion more so than money, especially during the start-up phase.
The requirements of the industry are both mentally and physically taxing. One has to be mentally prepared that this is not a glamorous business. Beers with mates every weekend will be a luxury we hardly have time for.
4) Labyrinth is known for its innovative local fusion dishes such as the Chendol Xiaolongbao. What is the process like in coming up with such novel dishes, from inspiration to concept to launching it on the menu?
The inspiration behind the dishes at Labyrinth comes from various angles and can be sparked from a single ingredient, to a visual on a plate, to childhood memories of flavours and textures, etc.
The end-to-end process of creating a dish from a vision to the plate is always a fun experience and also presents a learning experience for all of us. Most dishes normally start from an inspiration, to a vision of what we can see it becoming, to working on the use of the right ingredients and cooking techniques to fulfill the vision.
Most dishes take anywhere between one month and six months in the R&D phase, depending on how lucky we are with the success of it. Failure is key to our success in Labyrinth as we work on recipes from scratch and learn more about a technique or use of ingredient from our failures before we succeed.
5) Labyrinth was named Wine and Dine Magazine’s Best New Restaurant in 2014. That must have been a huge milestone for you and for the restaurant in its first year of operations. What do you think has contributed to Labyrinth’s success so far?
Winning an award in our first year of operations definitely puts the icing on the cake and also serves as an affirmation that we are going down the right path.
However, the success at Labyrinth has never been about awards or rankings, but more of the pride that everyone working at Labyrinth possesses to deliver product excellence from kitchen, to service, to atmosphere. Our top priority is to ensure that diners have a memorable experience dining with us.
Passion is also key to our success as we never look to remain on our laurels and to improve everyday on all fronts. My ethos in running Labyrinth boils down to two key factors: delivering quality and consistency.
6) What can foodies expect from Labyrinth in the coming months?
Exciting times are ahead for Labyrinth this year.
We are launching a unique St. Valentine menu which we hope will surprise and delight lovers for this special occasion. It will feature Satay Marinated Wagyu Ribeye with pan-seared foie gras and peanut mochi, and a Chocolate and Peanut Butter Cigar, as part of the menu.
We are also looking to relocate to a bigger dining space later this year and in the process, have a makeover on the feel of the restaurant and to truly deliver an end-to-end modern Singaporean experience to our diners.
We will be diversifying our wine selection and a wholesale restructuring of our menu to include new, exciting dishes as well as remakes of existing favourites. As of today, we currently have 10 R&D projects on new dishes in the pipeline.
7) What is the best piece of advice you have been given so far, and by whom?
The best piece of advice was given to me by the General Manager of a certain five-star hotel before I opened Labyrinth.
Always remember that in the restaurant industry, whilst diners walk through the beautiful entrance of the restaurant, you and all the staff will be entering the restaurant from the less-than-impressive backdoor every day.
The glamorous side of the business is only experienced by diners; running it or working in the industry is about hard work and sometimes reaps minimal rewards, but believe in your own decision and never regret it.
8) What are the challenges culinary enthusiasts face if they are looking to start a F&B venture in Singapore? What advice do you have for them?
My advice is first and foremost, think not twice, not thrice but every day (I planned for Labyrinth for 2 whole years prior to opening) before you embark on your business plan.
Being a mere good cook at home or a culinary enthusiast is not the same as cooking for a living, or cooking for paying customers who will be more critical. The challenges not only lie in one’s ability to organize a commercial kitchen, commanding a brigade and running a business but also in external factors. The current labour crunch and rising costs and inflation are certainly important to factor in your decision. Building a strong relationship with suppliers is also key to sustainability and success.
To all culinary enthusiasts and even culinary students: Test yourself in the toughest of kitchens or restaurants. If you can survive the physical and mental ordeal of doing so, then you will be one stop closer to making the right decision on carving your own niche in the F&B world.