Han Li Guang’s rojak looks nothing like the Southeast Asian salad that’s tossed in a dark, glistening dressing. But just as the hawker staple is a reflection of cultural diversity, Han’s aesthetic assemblage of 12 local herbs (sourced from urban farm Edible Garden City), jackfruit, peanuts and stingless bee honey, is a tribute to both the nation’s people and its terroir. Delicious and familiar yet palpably intellectual, it is a reflection of who he is — confident, exceedingly candid and markedly astute — and of just how deeply personal food is to him.
Since 2014, the chef-owner of Restaurant Labyrinth has taken a creative approach to Singaporean fare, building a repertoire of favourites the likes of Bak Chor Mee No Bak Chor No Mee (it spotlights scallop and squid instead of mince pork) and The Labyrinth Chili Crab (flower crab with chilli crab sauce ice cream).
One Michelin-starred by its third year, Labyrinth placed 40th on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants List in March 2021 and was recipient of its Flor de Caña Sustainable Restaurant Award; the latter, a clarion affirmation of Han’s boundary pushing advocacy for farming in the land scarce, highly dense city-state.
While Han’s inventive menus have always taken inspiration from his grandparents and the flavours he grew up on, in 2018 — after the Michelin star was now his to retain or lose — he took the notion of Singapore cuisine further, by adamantly insisting on profiling ingredients grown on Singapore soil and in Singapore waters.
In true locavore style, 70 per cent of Labyrinth’s ingredients come from across the island. Among its suppliers are Edible Garden City, Ah Hua Kelong, Uncle William Quail Farm, Kühlbarra and Sea Farmers, all of which Han has named dishes after.
Besides minimising food miles and carbon footprint, going local is the former banker’s way of ensuring fresher and brighter flavours for diners, while helping build an ecology of farmers and food professionals who gather resources, knowledge and skills to help one another.
With his big personality, success and recognition, it’s hard to believe that Han is only 36. He’s given neo-Singaporean cuisine a fine-dining platform while championing a wider community of food growers. Even he is taken by surprise by how he has slipped into the role of industry veteran, and speaks of being heartened to see younger chefs drawn to locavorism. Understanding refinement, pursuing perfection and embracing hard work are values that describe both Chef Han and the ethos behind the Rolls-Royce Ghost. Read on for what it all means to him.
What does Singapore food mean to you and would you characterise Labyrinth as elevating our everyday fare to fine dining status?
I grew up around good food and was exposed to all types of cuisines. My grandma cooked really well. My granddad was a restaurateur. My father was in the corporate management side of the hotel industry. And my grandma in Thailand also ran a hotel.
Cooking Singapore food is just natural because it’s what I love to eat. I’m not intentionally elevating Singapore food to fine dining status. What I’m doing is expressing Singapore food in my own way, creatively, in a manner which is representative of me as a person. But Singapore food has the expectation of being cheap despite the effort that goes into its creation. I want to change that perception. Food should have a fair value tied to the efforts and heritage behind it.
You have a Michelin star and most recently made the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants List, taking home its Flor de Caña Sustainable Restaurant Award at the same time. Are accolades something you strive for?
I didn’t leave the finance industry and enter F&B for the glory. It was a struggle at the start to open a restaurant and get people to believe in me. But being able to cook whatever I wanted with the freedom of expressing myself — that was all I needed. Even now, I’m not working towards two stars. I work for self-fulfilment and for my customers.
But the sustainability award was a big one. I was shocked and humbled when they called me on the phone. I see it as a validation of our hard work. First, in helping get the local farming cause picked up by our government, which has gained momentum because Covid-19 disrupted supply chains; and second, in convincing diners to eat local produce, which doesn’t come cheap. I do want my farming partners to receive more attention, awareness, and better business.
So really, it is a validation that a small country like Singapore can produce a restaurant that’s ready to be recognised across the region for sustainability.
When you pivoted to advocating local produce, you received some pushback…
It had taken a while to stabilise the business, and we finally had a Michelin star that changed our fortunes overnight. And here I am, wanting to change the entire way of how we cook, using local produce that has very little perceived value. At the time, we were one of the first movers into this space. So it’s understandable that my partners and family would feel that I was putting the business on the line again. But I’ve always cooked for myself, not for a star.
So I made the decision to cook in a way that represents who I am as a person, in a style that truly belongs to me, and for a cause I really believe in, versus doing something that’s trendy. I own a majority of the business, so I went ahead. The only way to convince them is to show them that we can make money. And we have.
What do you think of your story and journey inspiring others?
I just want to cook and to make people happy. If making my diners happy inspires them to go out and buy local, great. If it inspires a younger generation to go local as well, great. But it’s also slowly dawning on me that I’ve become a bit of a veteran in this industry at just 36. Not many restaurants survive 7-8 years in Singapore, and without changing chefs!
I’ve diners coming in who were just kids when we opened in 2014, and now they’ve graduated and have incomes. I just had a foodie cum chef from Hong Kong message me saying he wants to visit when travel resumes, and learn more about my approach. We also have people wanting to work in our kitchen to see what we do here at Labyrinth.
I’ve come to realise that it’s good to inspire. I believe that as a chef and business owner, you have to have the right reasons for being in this industry.