Asia’s Most Influential 2021: Meet the Tastemakers Shaping Singapore’s Vibrant Food and Beverage Industry
Arrif Ziaudeen and Dinesh Balasingam, CEO and CBO of Chope
Affectionately named after the colloquial Singaporean term for “to reserve”, Chope is now Asia’s leading online reservations platform spanning eight cities and servicing more than 5,000 restaurants. Founder and CEO Arrif Ziaudeen, and CBO Dinesh Balasingam have grown the business (raising funds from venture capitalists along the way) with a passion for equipping restaurants with customised tech solutions to increase efficiency. Besides helping restaurants manage their reservations, and providing them with marketing and analytics support, the company has also come up with other innovative revenue-generating solutions such as off-peak vouchers and discounted deals. And to steer F&B outlets through a post-pandemic recovery, Chope recently partnered with the Infocomm Media Development Authority to help merchants in Chinatown engage with new audiences through its platform. In their spare time, the two entrepreneurs are committed to various mentorship programmes and networks that groom young leaders in the tech space.
Benjamin Swan, Co-founder and CEO of Sustenir
Benjamin Swan is the founder of transformative indoor vertical farming company Sustenir Agriculture. When he moved to Singapore more than a decade ago, the Australian was inspired to grow fresh greens after seeing how vertical farming could create a controlled growing environment. With over 20 years of infrastructure and project management experience, he researched new methods and solutions to adapt and customise vertical farming practices to Asia. The result is tastier, more nutritious, and pesticide-free fresh leafy greens such as kale. In the past year, Sustenir has scaled up its farm in Singapore and launched three new salad mixes. Sustenir Hong Kong launched in the thick of the pandemic, but the business has been growing positively and now boasts more than 80 distribution touchpoints in Hong Kong. Most recently, Sustenir expanded to Malaysia, and launched the country’s first-ever indoor vertical farm inside a distribution centre in Kajang, in partnership with Dairy Farm International, creaitng the first zero-mile, pesticide-free superfoods in Malaysia.
Beppe DeVito, Chef-restaurateur and founder of il Lido Group
The man behind some of Singapore’s buzziest dining concepts wears many hats. Beppe De Vito, founder and owner of il Lido Group, juggles a variety of restaurants ranging from luxe dining destinations Art, Gemma and Michelin-starred Braci, to breezy rooftop bars Levant and Southbridge, to casual restaurant Amò. The dynamic Italian chef certainly seems to have a knack for ideating and executing crowd-pleasing concepts—his latest venture is Carne, a joint partnership with chef Mauro Colagreco of three Michelin-starred restaurant Mirazur in France. It ticks all the right boxes in sustainability, a game changer for a restaurant specialising in the icon of the fast-food industry: burgers.
(Related: Chef Beppe De Vito Takes Food Delivery in Singapore to the Next Level With Online Restaurant, Grammi)
Bjorn Low, Executive director and founder of Edible Garden City
In its nine years, Bjorn Low has transformed Edible Garden City into a social enterprise that impacts every individual involved in the urban food cycle: chefs and consumers have access to a steady supply of local produce from its farm in Queenstown (the latter through weekly subscription boxes). He also lends his expertise to designing and building herb gardens for restaurants, hotels, schools, offices and residential homes, while empowering the next generation to rediscover their connection to the land through classes and workshops. Local food artisans like chocolate makers and brewers frequently collaborate with Low to incorporate local produce into their products.
Blair Crichton, Founder of Karana
Passionate about revolutionising the global food system, Blair Crichton, together with Daniel Riegler, established Karana, Asia’s first whole plant-based meat brand, in Singapore. Its first product, which launched in 2021, is a whole plant-based “pork” alternative made from organic jackfruit sustainably sourced from Sri Lankan farmers and created using proprietary processing technology that enhances the texture of ingredients without chemicals or heavy processing. It already features at several top dining establishments, including Candlenut and Butcher Boy, and will be available for retail later in the year. In May, Karana also launches at leading restaurants in Hong Kong, the city where Chrichton was born and raised. He has experience working at alternative meat start-ups Impossible Foods and New Age Meats as well as The Good Food Institute.
(Related: Karana Founders on Creating Asia’s First Plant-Based Meat Alternative Using Jackfruit)
Christina Ong, Co-founder of Como Group
Lifestyle maven Christina Ong is undoubtedly leading the experience economy. Over the years, the founder‑owner of Como Group has expanded the brand globally through its luxury fashion retailer Club 21, and hospitality collection, Como Hotels and Resorts, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Ong is also a pioneer of the wellness industry. Como Shambhala, which was established in 1997, advocates holistic wellness and encompasses resorts, retreat centres in urban cities, and even its own brand of healthy cuisine. Back home in Singapore, Ong has also revitalised Dempsey Hill into a lifestyle enclave with Como Dempsey, which is home to The Dempsey Cookhouse and Bar headlined by world-renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the Michelin-starred Candlenut by chef Malcolm Lee, Como's retail cum bistro space Culina, and Como Cuisine.
(Related: 5 Guilt-Free Comfort Foods That We are Craving For)
Christopher Tan, Author
A journalist for more than two decades, Christopher Tan has explored and commented on food, culture and heritage for many local and international publications. He believes that what we eat is the smallest part of any food encounter: it is in the how, why, when, where and with whom we eat that its full flavour truly lies. Tan has authored over 12 cookbooks, most recently The Way of Kueh, a paean to traditional kueh culture, which was named Book of the Year and Best Illustrated Non-Fiction Title at the Singapore Book Awards 2020. The champion of local cuisine also expresses his lifelong devotion to kuehs—the sweet and savoury snacks traditional to many Southeast Asian cuisines and cultures—by teaching heritage-focused cooking classes.
(Related: Elevating Singapore's Favourite Kueh-Kueh)
Cynthia Chua, Founder and CEO of Spa Esprit Group
This relentless entrepreneur is a tastemaker in the truest sense of the word. Since 1996, the savvy founder of the Spa Esprit Group has built an entire lifestyle empire encompassing some of the city’s most noteworthy F&B venues as well as beauty and wellness brands. The 16 brands (and counting) span over 100 outlets in 10 cities including Bangkok, Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Chua has an uncanny ability to give consumers what they don’t know they want yet. She has introduced new concepts—to much fanfare—into the Singaporean market such as natural wine bar Drunken Farmer, farm-to-table dining experiences Noka and Open Farm Community, and gut-friendly and gluten-free venue The Butcher’s Wife. The group opened its seventh Tiong Bahru Bakery in April, and a new Common Man Coffee Roasters in Joo Chiat in May.
Damian D'Silva, Chef at Kin
Affectionately dubbed the “grandfather of heritage cuisine”, Damian D’Silva is a familiar face to many through his role as a judge on MasterChef Singapore, and not least his championing of the preservation of Singapore’s heritage dishes. He painstakingly documents the country’s complex culinary history through the time-honoured dishes he serves at Restaurant Kin. Diners tucking into D’Silva’s piquant dishes are treated to a tapestry of flavours woven together by personal stories of yesteryears, a combination that takes Singaporean diners down the journey of remembering their own wonderfully unique and multicultural identities.
Chef-owner of Burnt Ends
In 2013, chef Dave Pynt carved out one of the most exciting places to dine in Singapore. Wildly popular modern barbecue restaurant, Burnt Ends, has one Michelin star and is currently ranked No 14 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. Newly introduced spin-offs include Burnt Ends Bakery, an online bakery arm, and Burnt Ends Cellars, which offers exclusive wines, whiskies and gins. Pynt, who has been nominated for The Best Chef Awards 2021, also runs casual eatery brand Meatsmith, which serves American smokehouse barbecue at its Telok Ayer restaurant and modern Indian barbecue at its Little India outlet. Meatsmith also recently expanded to Doha, Qatar. Pynt has plans for new concepts in Jakarta later this year to boot. The Perth native has also taken his modern barbecue concept to the luxurious Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi with contemporary grill restaurant The Ledge by Dave Pynt, which champions local seafood. Burnt Ends will be moving to a new home in Dempsey this year which will feature an expanded bakery section.
Desmond Lim, Group chairman of Les Amis Group
For more than two decades, Desmond Lim has been instrumental in developing and steering Les Amis Group’s numerous dining concepts. Since Les Amis, Singapore’s first independent French fine dining restaurant, was established in 1994, the group has grown and evolved and yet maintains its dedication to excellence. To date, it has 25 brands and concepts under its umbrella. The year 2021 promises to be a busy year for the company: its first cloud kitchen concept, Kitch, opened in February, while Japanese prefecture-focused Wagyu omakase concept, Wagyu Jin, is targeted to open at Shaw Centre in May. After a successful pop-up at Casa Verde, American Texan BBQ concept S’Mao will find a permanent space in the third quarter of 2021. Les Amis Group also has plans to introduce its first halal-certified concept.
(Related: Meet Singapore’s Culinary Power Couple: Les Amis Executive Chef Sebastien Lepinoy and Olivia Lee)
Han Li Guang, chef-owner of Labyrinth
For an import-reliant country like Singapore, it seems unthinkable for a restaurant to have over 70 per cent of its ingredients sourced locally. And yet for Han Li Guang, chef-owner of one-Michelin-starred Labyrinth, this is the only way forward. For the past seven years, Han has evolved from a chef showcasing his playful and inspired takes on local dishes, to one at the forefront of the locavore movement. At his restaurant, Han works closely with local food growers and farmers with the aim of creating an “ecology” where farmers and chefs collaborate to source and utilise more local produce. His vision of melding culinary creativity with food security culminated in Labyrinth winning the Flor de Caña Sustainable Restaurant Award at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021, where it debuted at No. 40 on the list.
(Related: Chef Han Li Guang of Labyrinth on Why Singaporean Cuisine is Worth a Michelin Star)
Indra Kantono and Gan Guoyi, Co-founders of the Jigger & Pony Group
Since founding their first cocktail bar Jigger & Pony in 2012, Gan Guoyi and Indra Kantono have expanded their business to include contemporary Italian restaurant and bar Caffe Fernet, mid-century Japan-inspired bar Live Twice, and creative small plates and oyster bar Humpback, among others. In 2020, Jigger & Pony clinched the top spot on Asia’s 50 Best Bars list for the first time, and secured the ninth spot in the World’s 50 Best Bars list. The secret behind the brand’s success? Providing a place where guests can consistently find comfort, forge friendships and share happiness over well-crafted drinks and bites. Together with other industry leaders, Gan also set up the non-profit Singapore Cocktail Bar Association to help raise relief funds for bar staff and operators, banding the industry together to emerge stronger post-pandemic.
(Related: Jigger & Pony Group Co-Founder Gan Guoyi Shares How She Managed Her Business Amid the Pandemic)
Ivan Brehm, Chef-owner of Nouri and Appetite
The chef behind Michelin-starred Nouri approaches food with the intellect of an anthropologist, investigating the moments of cultural intersection across cuisines. The result is “crossroads cuisine”, which sees his creations drawing on global culinary traditions and flavours. Extending the idea of crossroads cuisine to cultural experiences, in 2020 Brehm launched Appetite, a space that brings art, music and food together. While Appetite started as Nouri’s research and development arm, the new space (located just above Nouri) showcases daring R&D dishes that draw on collaborative research with historians, artists, journalists and designers.
(Related: Why Culinary Visionary Ivan Brehm Wants To Celebrate Amazing Food, Art And Music Under One Roof)
Jamie Koh, Founder of Brass Lion Distillery
Running Singapore’s first standalone micro‑distillery that specialises in small‑batch craft spirits is only the beginning for Jamie Koh, who believes that maintaining a sustainable business is just as important. This includes a product line that uses upcycled ingredients from its distillation processes. “As part of our commitment to quality, we hand-peel all of our citrus fruits and use the peels for distillation. The fruits without peels are then cut and dehydrated for use in our tasting room and bar as garnishes. Other interesting products that we’ve made as part of our sustainability product line include gin marmalade, hot sauce, ice cream and cooking salts,” she says. Koh also highlighted her fondness for collaborations with like-minded local businesses, which include chocolate bonbons with local chocolatier Mr Bucket, the Osmanthus Oolong Gin with Gryphon Tea Company, and the Flourishing Fortune Gin with homeware and furniture brand, Scene Shang.
(Related: The Gin-trification Of Singapore—How The Classic White Spirit Became Our Favourite Drink)
Janice Wong, Chef-founder of 2am:dessertbar and Janice Wong Singapore
This homegrown pastry chef constantly invites the world to rethink what dessert can be. Since launching her progressive dessert bar 2am:dessertbar in 2007, Janice Wong has made a name for herself globally with her avant-garde culinary creations, not least her edible art installations that have been exhibited the world over. Today, her name has become an eponymous international brand found in South Korea, Japan and the UK via retail shops that tote Wong’s signature confectioneries such as bonbons and chocolate painting sets. In July, she will also be running a pop-up in Osaka to commemorate the 2021 Olympics, featuring a range of Peranakan-inspired confectionery.
Julien Royer, Chef-owner of Odette
The chef-owner of three-Michelin-starred fine dining restaurant Odette in Singapore, and one-Michelin-starred bistro-style restaurant Louise in Hong Kong, Julien Royer is not only the face of his restaurants, but a mentor to his team of chefs. In his kitchens, there’s a very collaborative culture with much emphasis on the team growing together. “To develop the next generation of hospitality leaders, I believe I have a responsibility to infuse positivity, inspire through knowledge, cultivate an uplifting culture and continuously challenge one another to move the industry forward,” he says. Royer is working on his second venture in Singapore with The Lo & Behold Group. Slated to open in the third quarter of 2021, the new concept at Dempsey Hill is designed for a wider audience, and will serve à la carte French cuisine in a relaxed manner. “I’m very excited about the possibility of creating a place that brings people together over the simple pleasures of good food and drinks in a lively atmosphere. I believe people look to return to comfort and authenticity more than ever before.”
Ken Loon, Restaurateur behind Naked Finn, Magic Square and BurgerLabo
Restaurateur Ken Loon and his team are known for conceptualising some of the finest seafood creations at Naked Finn since 2012. Loon is also the brain behind Magic Square, which started as a year-long pop-up in 2018 to provide opportunities for young local chefs. “Magic Square is the first step in our pursuit for an evolution of modern Singaporean cuisine; it’s a continuous project to provide the platform for our talents to explore and experiment,” he says. Recruitment of self-motivated chefs is critical to the success of Magic Square, which provides space and tools, as well as access to quality ingredients and mentors that include top chefs from around the world. In mid-2021, Loon will reopen Magic Square in a permanent location, and launch an affordable, standalone burger restaurant.
Koh Seng Choon, Founder and executive director of Project Dignity
Project Dignity was established 11 years ago to create jobs for people who are disadvantaged, including those with physical, mental and intellectual disabilities, and who face social challenges. “I started Dignity Kitchen, a centre that trains people with disability to be hawkers,” Koh shares, noting that it was the first hawker school in the world. “We have four basic principles: providing skills, helping people to gain employment, integration and inclusion.” It started with just one stall, and has since grown to include a warehouse building that’s been transformed into an F&B space. He wants to introduce the Dignity Farm initiative to train autistic children to do farming. He adds, “In Hong Kong, we have created Dignity Wheel—an electric wheelchair delivery system.” He also started Dignity Mama, a second-hand bookshop for mothers with disabled children, and Dignity Ai that features a digital concierge.
Kwan Lui, Founder and director of At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy
Founded by Kwan Lui in 2001, At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy is Singapore’s leading culinary school, through which Lui relentlessly paves an educational-cum-career pathway for young people in Asia to achieve their aspirations to be global chefs. To date, the academy has welcomed students from more than 32 countries. In January 2021, At-Sunrice inked a partnership with Worldchefs, a France-based organisation that elevates global culinary standards. For the first time, chefs from 104 countries will be able to attain a diploma accredited by Worldchefs through its DigiChef platform. The platform not only offers At‑Sunrice’s brand of east‑west, herbs-spices curriculum, but also provides work-study opportunities to 500,000 Worldchef members. Lui is a recipient of two lifetime awards and an honorary doctorate in educational leadership. Her current focus is on sustainability with zero waste, food entrepreneurship and culinary wellness in transnational collaborations.
Loh Lik Peng, Founding director of Unlisted Collection
With top-notch restaurants such as Burnt Ends, Cloudstreet, Nouri and Restaurant Zén all under the Unlisted Collection umbrella, what is Loh Lik Peng’s winning formula? “I think I have been lucky to work with the best in the business. It’s really down to them and not me,” the serial restaurateur declares. Loh entrusts the restaurant projects to them and enables them to hone their creativity—as long as the businesses are kept financially viable. Besides Singapore, Loh also helms Unlisted Collection’s boutique hotel properties and restaurants in restored heritage listed buildings in cities including London, Sydney and Shanghai.
(Related: "I’m Just Not That Interested In Growing An ‘Empire’," Says Unlisted Collection's Loh Lik Peng)
Milind Sovani, Culinary director of Masalaa Bar; founder of Chef Milind Sovani’s Innovation Centre
This veteran chef, who previously headed one of Singapore’s top fine dining Indian restaurants, launched Masalaa Bar at the end of 2020 with the aim of offering an eclectic space that features a bar with excellent food, and a restaurant that serves fantastic drinks too. Sovani is also collaborating with TiffinLabs, the food-tech company that creates digital-first F&B brands. He says, “Under this umbrella, the Indian food will be branded under my name, and the recipes will be mine. The first venture is called Biryani Bar. In the future, we might do street food of India—which you can assemble for parties at home; this is one of the most exciting projects for me as I see a good future for the virtual restaurants space globally. I’m not afraid of change … maybe that’s what has helped me in my job the last 36 years. I’m always reinventing myself—I think it’s the most important thing.”
Paul Gabie, Co-founder and CEO of Proof Collective
Led by Paul Gabie, leading independent spirits company and drinks consultancy, Proof & Company, has raised the bar with the launch of ecoSpirits, a groundbreaking solution to spirits packaging. “I am in the process of shifting the majority of my time to leading ecoSpirits, our low-carbon, low-waste technology that dramatically reduces the carbon footprint of spirits consumption,” says Gabie, who passed the baton of his Proof & Company CEO role to his successor Paul Broadbent in April. He adds, “ecoSpirits is launching in the UK in May, and soon in additional markets in Europe. We are bringing a Singapore sustainability technology to the world—something we’re very proud of.” Last year, Gabie helped establish the Singapore Cocktail Bar Association to help the industry navigate the pandemic. In 2020, he was named in Drinks International’s Bar World 100 list of the industry’s most influential figures.
(Related: Rediscovering the Future of Singapore’s Dynamic Cocktail Scene)
Phuminant Tantiprasongchai, Co-founder of TiffinLabs
Co-founded by Phuminant Tantiprasongchai, TiffinLabs is a digital restaurant group that creates and scales delivery-optimised digital restaurant brands. “Our proprietary food data analytics engine looks at consumer demographics and sociographics, as well as available cuisines in a certain geography to identify cuisine gaps," says Tantiprasongchai. "This data is then used to craft our brands, menus and recipes to optimise product market fit." He notes that traditional bricks-and-mortar restaurants they partner with “can cook these meals out of their restaurants using our proprietary recipes and ingredients that ensure rapid cooking time, while maintaining consistency and quality for every delivery order at scale”. TiffinLabs also manages the e-commerce sales to maximise incremental revenues and profits for restaurateurs. The culinary team comprises chefs with experience leading research and development in Michelin-starred restaurants as well as global QSR (quick service restaurant) chains. The company’s growing list of digital restaurant brands include La Takorea, and The Biryani Bar by Chef Milind Sovani.
(Related: La Takorea, Created on The Apprentice: One Championship Edition, Launches in Singapore)
Rishi Naleendra, Chef-owner of Cheek Bistro, Cloudstreet and Kotuwa
For years after making his mark on the local dining scene with one Michelin-starred Cheek Bistro (previously Cheek By Jowl), Sri Lankan native Rishi Naleendra found an elevated platform to offer a deeper and more eloquent expression of his culinary prowess with restaurant Cloudstreet. Opened in July 2019, his culinary approach here—which is modern European in foundation—combines his experiences and heritage. This progressive embrace of Sri Lankan flavours quickly led to the 2020 launch of Kotuwa, Singapore’s first full-service Sri Lankan restaurant––and it could lead to more openings. “After we settle in Singapore, we may take Kotuwa somewhere else like Australia—it’d be nice for us to have something there," says Naleendra. “It’s a marathon, and I’m pacing myself. When I work for a place, there was always a purpose, and it was never about money. I knew when the time is right, money will follow. Also, investing in people—that’s the key.” Suffice it to say, his unpretentious approach regardless the restaurant concept remains extremely attractive.
Samia Ahad, Chef and founder of The Coriander Leaf Group
Twenty years on and still going strong. Suffice to say, Samia Ahad is one of the luminaries in the local F&B industry. Her restaurant, Coriander Leaf, started serving imaginative, pan-Asian cuisine in Robertson Quay back in 2001. Now, Coriander Leaf can be found at Chijmes and most recently, the Singapore Polo Club, where it breathes fresh air into the club, drawing in members and new visitors with Ahad’s colourful cuisine, which inclusively caters to all dietary restrictions. Ahad has also pivoted her business towards catering services and culinary classes—the latter now done virtually, taking participants around the world with her signature eclectic cuisine that draws on multifaceted culinary cultures.
Sebastien Lepinoy, Executive chef and director of culinary and operations at Les Amis Group
Chef Sebastien Lepinoy has helmed Les Amis since 2013. The French haute cuisine restaurant was awarded three Michelin stars in 2019, and ranked No 13 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021 list. “When you receive three Michelin stars, it’s not a lifetime achievement. To maintain the stars, we must get stronger and stronger every year. We must invest in manpower and training so that they have different skills,” says Lepinoy. This includes sending team members for French lessons. The chef shares, “One of the exciting things in 2021 is that we will be renovating the restaurant [in June]. One of our private rooms will be transformed into a cheese room to offer an even better experience to our guests. We are also going with a new approach by offering gourmet products online including olive oil, caviar, butter and champagne with Les Amis branding.” Lepinoy, who is Chopard’s brand ambassador, will also be collaborating with a famous porcelain maker in France in the near future.
Wee Teng Wen, Co-founder and managing partner of The Lo & Behold Group
Since Wee Teng Wen co-founded The Lo & Behold Group in 2005, he has launched a series of award-winning concepts in Singapore, revitalising the F&B scene with pioneering concepts. Last year, the group launched Clink Clink, an online bottle shop offering sommelier-curated bundles of wines, while 2021 will see the opening of a new relaxed French dining concept led by Julien Royer, the award-winning chef behind the three-Michelin-starred Odette. Wee says, “I encourage my team to challenge and uplift the local scene by always trying to take the uncharted path to accomplish our goals.”
(Related: Lo & Behold's Wee Teng Wen On His Business Story)
Will Leonard, Group general manager of The Loco Group
The Loco Group, which runs Super Loco at Customs House and Robertson Quay, and Lucha Loco at Duxton Hill, embarked on the “LoC02” Green Steps initiative to make its business more sustainable as well as inspire the F&B Industry. In December 2019, the group led the founding of Singapore’s first F&B Sustainability Council. “What I am proud about is the number of businesses and individuals we have influenced to either do more, stay motivated, or start from scratch,” says Leonard, who hopes the council will be able to scale its impact beyond businesses in its immediate sphere of influence.