Taste. The word often elicits a more divisive reaction in fashion than in food, in part because its relationship with the former is more traditionally tied to aesthetics. Is something good, bad or – an increasingly occurring category when it comes to dressing – good-bad?
Somehow, the answer is a lot easier to figure out when discussing brunch instead of, say, designer logo tees or Balmain. (And it’s hard to call a dish good-bad; even detractors of In-N-Out have to admit that those Animal-Style Burgers are passable. Also, we’ll take them over starving.)
Yet, visual flair and creative thinking are becoming more and more part of the everyday dining lexicon. The camera eats first. Plating is now an art form. Earlier this year, Monocle – arbiter of culture and taste – launched a Drinking & Dining Directory. The next 16 pages have nothing to do with that last point.
What they do have: people in or from Singapore who are bridging the world of fashion and design with what we eat and drink. Stylists who approach a gastronomical feast with the same eye that we do a new runway season. The telegenic It girl straddling home cooking and recipe development with illustration, creative direction and public appearances. The Bagaholicboys of food. And that’s just an appetiser to what we’ve cooked up (aren’t culinary-related puns so good-bad?).
They’re the folks who make the idea of taste in food no longer simply about its sensorial effects on our tongues.
Creative outfit Can Studio JB (www.canstudiojb.com), comprising photographer Weishen Tan and baker/food stylist Holly Withers, created this zesty creation for Female. Withers is known for her artisanal confections that are often decorated with real plants and flowers – precisely what she utilised in her piece for us after a jaunt to the local market.
The fashion insider turned food stylist: Elodie Bellegarde
Call it a successful mid-career switch if you will – French transplant Elodie Bellegarde was working in a Savile Row tailoring house, but found herself craving creative stimulation. She went back to school to take up a new discipline – culinary arts – and eventually settled in Singapore with her new calling. These days, Bellegarde’s gone from amateur cook to cookbook author (Kitchen Stories, co-written with pastry chef Denise Hung), and does food styling and photography for a diverse and impressive roster of clients such as Hermes, Singapore Airlines and Cadbury. Up next: a collaboration with a Japan-based start-up that specialises in environmental sustainability, a cause Bellegarde believes in strongly.
The modern hipsters’ “Master Chef”: Tim Ross-Watson
Like with creative heads in fashion, the shelf life of a chef has become increasingly short. Following the closure of Garden Of Eden and Pyxiemoss – two restaurants that were arguably ahead of their time – this Brit is proving to be very much relevant though. (Uncannily, he studied at the London College Of Fashion, and has bag design and a now-defunct label on his resume.) His latest move: taking a non-conformist stab at the menus of Kilo – the trendy F&B-meets-lifestyle establishment that’s a favourite of the creative pack – where he’s been culinary director since end-January. Think dry-ageing brisket with sake – wagyu beef-style; turning flavours and textures on their head (try the umami bomb that’s the Salmon Roe Puri with oolong tea and pickled ginger panna cotta); and generally “bringing up the bar and style” across the company, which spans restaurants here and in Bali, as well as a thumping club. While mindful not to alienate Kilo’s loyal clientele, the Alexander McQueen fan is determined to never put pasta on the menu, or wear Crocs in the kitchen.
The Fashion Blogger Turned Vegan Champ: Laila Lu
If Lu’s name sounds familiar, it might be because she was part of Singapore’s original generation of fashion bloggers (that’s bloggers with a capital B, not Instagram influencers) in the late 2000s with her blog Rock The Trend. Along the way, her burgeoning interest in pursuing a healthy diet, well before it became trendy to be gluten-free/pro-scoby/vegan, resulted in the decision to establish a separate outlet called Luna Folk (@lunafolkblog) early last year, where she writes, cooks and shoots her own vegan recipes. “The common assumptions are that healthy food does not taste good, is difficult to cook, and also expensive to make. Luna Folk is a small step towards defying these presumptions.” While Lu’s still in the fashion and beauty industry in a different capacity these days (digital marketing for a French beauty giant), the ultimate goal is to start her own Youtube channel so that she can “detail the full cooking process step by step”.
The design-trained culinary influencer: Shu Han Lee
Here’s a common story: Singapore youth goes overseas to study (in this case, graphic design at London’s Central Saint Martins) and has to learn how to cook (terribly) for the first time in her life. Not many are able to transform that experience into a well-received cookbook though. Enter the 27-year-old behind Chicken and Rice, a tome of traditional South-east Asian recipes created with seasonal British produce in place of hard-to-get Asian ingredients, and filled with chic illustrations and photos by Lee herself. “To me, the ‘agak-agak’ (improvisational) way is the most authentic approach towards South-east Asian cooking, which is itself born out of a mishmash of culinary influences,” she says of the concept. Audiences certainly take to her “glocalised” style. Prior to the launch of the book in 2016, she had already been named one of the UK’s best food bloggers (her literary agent approached her after discovering her website www.mummyicancook.com), worked with industry titans such as Jamie Oliver, and written for The Guardian and Food & Wine. At press time, her Instagram account @mummyicancook had more than 44K followers. Now a strategist in the food sector post-graduation, she has in the works a range of spice pastes due to launch later in the year.
The brains behind the Muji-esque “co-sharing” culinary space: Tan Chun Rong
The light-drenched studio in the industrial Tai Seng area is a rarity here not only for its soaring, nearly 6m-high ceilings, but also its function. Opened in February this year, the 1,722 sq ft space was born out of founder Tan’s desire to have his own studio – the 26-year-old is a food stylist and photographer. It has, however, since evolved into a multi-use venue that hosts culinary workshops, can be rented for private events, and (in May) held its first public culinary experience: a dinner for 20 with a theme of Filipino cuisine, designed by chef Ryan Foo. “I think it’s a good platform for private or young chefs with a distinctive style to showcase their work,” says Tan, who hopes to stage similar dinners three to four times a year. As for the space itself, he says it was “based on the combined concepts of Danish ‘hygge’ and Japanese ‘wabi-sabi’, embracing the natural beauty of organic aesthetics and bliss in simplicity”. Translation: It’s pretty – and pretty perfect – for that natural-light- filled Instagram shot.
The Experiential Curators: Tahnya Butterfield and Sarah Tan
Private home dining has been boiling over for the past couple of years (even Vogue devoted an article to the movement last December). Consider this duo’s three-year-old outfit Noshtrekker the next step up: It seeks out and curates exclusive hosts that run the gamut from thespians to chefs, and even fashion consultants, to conceptualise a meal. The goal: to have patrons leave having learnt something about the local culture that’s not usually found in travel guides. “There are many who enjoy cooking for others. However, finding someone who is an excellent cook who can (also) be a docent of culture… while having what we call ‘sharp service eyes’ is an absolute art,” says co-founder/brand director Tan. Every potential host, she explains, goes through about four months of training (menu design, table service, styling, and even how to interact with guests) before one can be deemed ready. Daunting as that might seem, that’s not stopped the company from expanding beyond Singapore two months ago: Now, via Noshtrekker, you can dine in unconventional spaces such as an arts academy or golf course in Australia, or be hosted by a food anthropologist in Italy.
The fashion events pro-turned-baker: Naadhira Ismail
The fashion set would probably recognise this 33-year-old – she was a fixture at industry events such as the Singapore Fashion Festival because she was part of Mercury, the events giant behind them. After nearly a decade in the scene though, she desired change and uprooted to New York to study baking at the International Culinary Center. The payoff: Mother Dough Bakery, a cosy joint that opened at North Bridge Road in May, specialising in a concise selection of baked goods using organic bread flour. The baguettes, for example, are naturally leavened – aka sourdough-style – and made with wild yeast, with a more robust flavour and texture. “I love working with dough, using my hands, and smelling fresh bread at sunrise. It’s this warm, gentle feeling that brought about the opening of Mother Dough,” she says. Her roots in fashion remain though: the stylish interior of the store was designed by The Monocot Studio.
The pop art-influenced image maker: Dionna Lee
It’s not hard to see how this 29-year old has amassed a whopping 53K followers on her Instagram account @tofurier. The food stylist/photographer is one half of creative agency Studio Oooze with her husband Sean Ashley Gabriel, and her works – almost always bursting with vivid pop hues – range from a picture of a cherry tomato flying off a playground swing made of farfalle, to austere tableaux inspired by the still lifes of 17th century artist Juan Sanchez Cotan. Colours aside, a distinctly humorous eye runs through all her imagery. “People are getting more adventurous when shooting their food: The current trend is excess, overly styled sets showing manicured food, variety and quantity,” she says – her approach little different from that of a creative director at a fashion shoot. “I believe we will be seeing more deliciously ugly foods, or styling with more storytelling intent.” That creative POV has caught the eye of bigwigs such as Apple, Louis Vuitton and Chanel, among her numerous clients. Come late 2018, expect a collaboration with a local fashion brand in which there’ll be “many lifestyle items to complement the everyday life”.
The “bagaholicboys” of food: Rachel Loh & Charlie Kwok
These days, it seems like you can’t have food without documenting it first, but Charlie Kwok (top left) and Rachel Loh (below right) are far from your basic foodie Instagrammers. In fact, don’t call them that at all. The latter, an accounts manager, has chalked up nearly 50K followers on her account (@rachmloh) with her pretty, rustic images of everything from poached eggs to a home-cooked Japanese meal, alongside equally charming snapshots of her everyday life. More recently, she launched a video series called 5 Minutes With to showcase everyday folks, and uses her platform to raise awareness on various issues such as global warming. “Mindful content creation is so important; good photos alone just don’t cut it for me anymore,” she points out. Meanwhile, the 18-year-old Kwok’s Scandi-fused pictures of what she eats and cooks has earned her commissions from The Lo & Behold Group and Park Bench Deli, with her account (@chockywoky) mainly used to support friends and F&B concepts that she believes in, she says. If dining with these girls means that the camera must eat first, by all means.
The slow-life gurus: Keirin Buck & Josee Yeomans
When asked if natural wines could be grouped under the slow food/wellness movement, Yeomans – head sommelier at two-month-old natural wine bar Le Bon Funk – says she’d be “happy to utter it in the same sentence, because both are about letting the earth do the talking”. It might sound hippy, but she has a point. Natural wines, that is, wines that have the “lowest possible intervention” (read: less synthetic chemicals and processing) have become increasingly popular, mirroring similar trends towards the au naturale in beauty, fashion and lifestyle. Paired with the rustic yet polished dishes of the restaurant’s chef-owner Buck (cedar jelly foie gras, handmade charcuterie) and the result is a thoroughly unpretentious yet inviting meal. According to Buck, Le Bon Funk – his first solo venture, with an intimate 1,500 sq ft space designed by Foreign Policy – is meant to be “a casual neighbourhood wine bar that you can feel comfortable coming back to repeatedly”. Add the fact that it’s part of the trendsetting The Lo & Behold Group, and people certainly will.
Text Keng Yang Shuen & Charlene Fang Photography Vee Chin & Zaphs Zhang Art Direction & Styling Jonathan Chia & Adeline Eng Hair & Makeup Sha Shamsi, using Nars & Ouai & Benedict Choo, using Urban Decay & Kevin.Murphy
This story first appeared in Female’s July 2018 print issue.