Michelin-Starred Restaurant Labyrinth Turns S’pore Food Into Fine Dining
Former banker LG Han struggled to start his own business.
Without formal training in the culinary arts, the local chef opened one of Singapore’s most iconic restaurants.
Founded in 2014, Labyrinth is an outlet for “self-expression” that pays homage to a life growing up in Singapore’s lush food culture.
The award-winning, three-Michelin-starred restaurant is considered one of the best restaurants in Singapore, if not the world.
The restaurant also offers a twin gourmet bar concept, Miss Vanta, which was slated to launch earlier this year, although its opening was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Labyrinth’s menu currently features unique twists on the Singaporean fare that includes “Bak Chor Mee, No Bak Chor, No Mee,” made with Hokkaido scallop and Jurong squid; to “Ah Hua Kelong Garoupa”, made with homemade fish pasta and fish milk.
From banker to chef
Cooking was never something LG Han expected to do professionally.
The former banker graduated from the London School of Economics (LSE) with a distinction in finance and accounting in 2009, and pursued a lucrative career at Goldman Sachs and Citibank simply to meet “family expectations”.
However, hospitality and catering had always been in his blood. LG Han’s grandfather ran a steak house on Cairnhill in Orchard Road, and his father worked in the corporate hotel business for most of his life.
One of her biggest influences has been her grandmother, who was a fantastic cook and has a dish dedicated to her on Labyrinth’s menu: “Ang Moh Chicken Rice”.
As a student in London, cooking became a form of therapy for him – a passion that will continue well into his career in the financial industry.
In the early 2010s, LG Han began his apprenticeship at Garibaldi, an Italian bar-restaurant. After a nerve-racking week of work, his weekends were spent cooking – cleaning floors, refrigerators and doing prep work.
It was a difficult transition from the kitchen to the home.
“Passion is not enough to be a chef,” says LG Han. “You have to take advantage of the professional kitchen environment, which can be mentally and physically exhausting.”
“(But) I loved the camaraderie, energy and adrenaline at the gastronomic level, working with high quality ingredients and highly skilled chefs.
Labyrinth: a platform for self-expression
In 2012, LG Han quit his full-time job to become a full-time professional chef.
It was a “nomadic journey”. To take off, LG Han did everything possible: apprentice at events organizing private catering, even working for companies.
He also attended cooking school for six months.
The ex-banker also helped launch Tanuki Raw, a bar and restaurant serving modern Japanese cuisine.
Based on the experience gained, LG Han began to develop a plan for his own business.
The plan did not go without hiccups. Originally, Labyrinth was supposed to operate under a “dinner in the dark” concept to educate people with visual disabilities, but its investors got cold feet.
LG Han decided to go ahead with a regular restaurant instead using the menu he had already developed.
Bringing the Singaporean tariff back to its traditional roots
Labyrinth is best known for its “Mod-Sin” concept, which won a Michelin star in 2017 and 2018 for its modern twist to Singaporean cuisine.
However, the restaurant moved away from the concept of food science in 2018 and refocused on recreating traditional Singaporean cuisine. The bet paid off, winning Labyrinth another Michelin star in 2019.
“We wanted to define Singaporean cuisine in a more authentic way,” says LG Han.
“Singaporean cuisine is still relevant for a time and place – how do you preserve and truly represent it? It’s more exciting than molecular gastronomy. “
To date, 70 to 80 percent of Labyrinth’s menu relies on produce from local farms like Ah Hua Kelong, Edible Garden City, and Crab Lovers Farm.
According to LG Han, local products are more faithful to the ingredients used in the original recipes and carry their own unique flavors. This includes products like green-lipped mussels, native plants like ulam rajah and wandering jew, as well as locally sourced cow and goat milk.
Labyrinth also uses traditional cooking methods such as slow cooking, infusions, and layering, combined with modern technology to achieve authentic flavors.
“Kaya isn’t supposed to be lumpy, or it will taste unnatural. This means it was too curdled, but (most kaya eat is made from) ingredients thrown into a bowl (without thinking), ”he says.
“A proper kaya should be smooth but textured, using coconut, eggs, sugar, and natural pandan. You need to gently steam it on the stove for three to four hours. (We do this ourselves at the Labyrinth) with a secret step that no one uses anymore.
The restaurant also makes its own prata paste from scratch and uses fresh oysters for its homemade oyster sauce.
It draws on a vast peer-to-peer network to uncover forgotten Singaporean recipes and techniques, notes LG Han, including everything from observing hawkers to learning to cook at home.
Singaporean cuisine around the world
Since launching Labyrinth over six years ago, LG Han has honed his culinary skills by traveling the world, collaborating with top chefs from countries like Taiwan, Japan, Thailand and Hong Kong.
“It all depends on the ability to learn,” he notes.
“There is knowledge that you will never have access to as a normal foodie. (Within the chef community) we are proud and happy to teach others – you can just pick up a phone and call someone.
Labyrinth is now at the top of its game. The next step for LG Han is to find a way to bring Singaporean cuisine abroad.
“I’m working on it (but) I don’t know the answer yet,” he admits.
“How do you make Singaporean cuisine great? How do we work together for our small country? How do we act as ambassadors to bring traditional and unique Singaporean flavors abroad? “
Either way, there will never be just one Labyrinth, says LG Han.
“I knew I would never drive a Ferrari out of this company. Maybe a motorcycle – or a bicycle, ”LG Han says with a laugh. “It’s not a gold mine.”
Featured Image Credit: City Nomads / Seth Lui
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