Whether you are from Singapore and are thinking of opening up a restaurant in your home country, or you are a chef from outside the country’s borders looking to serve up culinary delights abroad, Singapore is a country that poses a unique set of challenges for domestic and foreign chefs alike.
The Opportunities for Foreign Chefs in Singapore
If you are a chef from outside Singapore thinking of getting a start in the country, you are looking at an excellent opportunity. Domestic chefs in Singapore face a lot of barriers, and for whatever reason, the culture seems to uphold foreign chefs as the crème de la crème.
This preference is so strong that even Singaporean chefs recognized for their talents are well aware of it. Petrina Loh, 31, co-owner of a small plates restaurant called Morsels in Mayo Street, says, “The younger generation, when they go out, they prefer to go somewhere with an ang moh [white]chef and they will pay for it.”
Bjorn Shen, 32, who runs Artichoke at Sculpture Square, says, “More than several diners have asked if the chefs are foreign and are crestfallen when told I am the chef.”
In short, diners who might be willing to shell out hundreds of dollars for fine dining at a gourmet restaurant with a big-name foreign chef may not be willing to pay even a fraction of that cost to dine at a restaurant with a Singaporean chef. The food isn’t the issue—simply the fact that the chef is local and not very well known. This is a vicious cycle, since it prevents Singaporean chefs from building names for themselves. And since they aren’t listed on the big lists with the foreign chefs, no one is will to pay them.
While this discrimination is unfair and is obviously a huge detractor for local chefs, it does give you an immediate advantage if you are a foreign chef who wants to live and work in the country. Demand is high for foreign chefs. If the idea of opening a restaurant in Singapore appeals to you, you may as well take advantage of that edge.
The Opportunities for Domestic Chefs in Singapore
Nonetheless, this very fact may be an opportunity in disguise for Singaporean chefs. If you are a domestic chef, you will struggle to gain acclaim in your own country, but if you do manage to make it into a “best of” list like Restaurant Magazine’s annual World’s 50 Best Restaurants, you may be recognized far and above your domestic peers. Plus, Singaporeans are obessessed with food, and hiring restrictions make it tough for foreign workers to enter the country. That’s why Singapore needs great local chefs (now if only Singaporeans would recognize that fact).
Reading the above, you are now well aware of some of the challenges facing domestic chefs in Singapore. Along with the discriminatory aspect, there are also other barriers as well. Petrina Loh mentions issues like high staff turnover, a shortage of manpower, and difficulty getting the word out. “It will take three years to build a name, build a following. We also need to build a team that conveys our love and vision on a plate. That’s hard here.”
Education is another problem for local chefs in Singapore. As Veteran chef Anderson Ho, 49, explains, “The education system doesn’t really allow students to have a taste of kitchen life. In Europe, they start at 15. After school, they work in a restaurant kitchen for four hours … If they have the potential, they are given opportunities to get into the industry. They have a very good head start.”
A lot of Singaporean chefs lack that education and experience. In fact, many have experience in totally unrelated fields like finance or law. Male chefs also have to meet their national service requirement, which means they either get a late start in the culinary arts, or they have to take a break in the middle of their careers to fulfill their duties.
Foreign chefs also face difficulties of their own, however. As mentioned previously, Singapore has tight rules on hiring foreign workers. That means that for regulatory reasons, it can be hard to get a foothold, especially if you want to bring your whole staff with you.
Another difficulty that you face if you are coming over to Singapore from abroad is the fact that Singapore’s cost of living is very high. Paying rent both on your residence and your restaurant is not going to come cheap. There are affordable rentals, but finding them isn’t easy, and you have to be fast, because good deals get snapped up quickly with the high demand.
Many tenants in Singapore end up paying agents commissions in order to find them affordable premises. Thankfully there are ways around this. One great tip is to use rental classifieds sites like FlatsDB.com or general classifieds sites like Gumtree.sg. Websites like this can help you hunt down affordable accommodations where owners post directly without charging you agent commissions.
Singapore Offers a Tough Environment for Chefs, But One Rich in Opportunity
Making it as a chef in Singapore isn’t easy, whether you are a foreigner or a local. As a local, you will struggle with discrimination, the high cost of living, and staff turnover issues. As a foreigner, you will have to deal with the same high costs and challenges with tight regulations. Either way, you will have to hustle to get your name out there and start pulling in profits to make up for the high cost of rents and other expenses.
If you are up to meeting those challenges, you will find that Singapore offers a competitive environment where you can excel. Singaporeans love their cuisine, and if you can carve out a niche for yourself, you can become very successful. If you want to learn more about what it’s like to work as a chef in Singapore and learn the full stories of the chefs quoted in this article, check out this piece published in The Straits Times.