Ex-banker LG Han rushed to start his own business.
With no local culinary training, the local chef opened one of Singapore's most famous restaurants.
Labyrinth was founded in 2014 and is a place of “self-expression” that pays homage to a life in the green food culture of Singapore.
The award-winning, three-time Michelin-starred restaurant is considered one of the best restaurants in Singapore, if not worldwide.
The restaurant also has a sister gastro bar concept called Miss Vanta, which was due to hit the market earlier this year, despite its opening being delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Labyrinth's menu currently features unique twists and turns of Singaporean cuisine, including “Bak Chor Mee, No Bak Chor, No Mee” made from Hokkaido scallop and Jurong fish squid. to "Ah Hua Kelong Garoupa", made from homemade fish paste noodles and fish milk.
From banker to cook
LG Han was never expected to cook professionally.
The ex-banker graduated from the London School of Economics (LSE) in 2009 with honors in finance and accounting and pursued a lucrative career at Goldman Sachs and Citibank just to meet “family expectations”.
Image Credit: Exquisite Taste
Hospitality and F&B, however, had always been in his blood. LG Han's grandfather ran a steak house in Cairnhill on Orchard Road, and his father worked in the hospitality industry for most of his life.
One of his greatest influences was his grandmother, who was a fantastic cook and has a dish on Labyrinth's menu: "Ang Moh Chicken Rice".
As a student in London, cooking became a form of therapy for him – a passion that would continue into his career in the financial sector.
In the early 2010s, LG Han began an apprenticeship at Garibaldi, an Italian restaurant and bar. After a nerve-wracking week at work, his weekends were devoted to the kitchen: floor cleaning, refrigerators and prep work.
It was a difficult transition from home cooking.
"Passion is not enough to become a chef," says LG Han. "You need to enjoy the professional cooking environment, which can be mentally and physically demanding."
"(But) I liked the camaraderie, energy, and adrenaline at the fine dining level that worked with quality ingredients and highly skilled chefs."
Labyrinth: A platform for self-expression
By 2012, LG Han quit his full-time job to become a full-time professional chef.
Photo credit: Chronicles of Brian
It was a "nomad trip". To get its feet on the ground, LG Han pulled out all the stops: Apprenticeship training at events that organize private catering, even work for companies.
He also attended cooking school for six months.
The ex-banker also helped open Tanuki Raw, a bar and restaurant that serves modern Japanese cuisine.
LG Han, drawing on the experience gained, began devising a plan for its own business.
The plan didn't go without hiccups. Originally, Labyrinth was supposed to be operated as part of a “dining in the dark” concept in order to raise awareness for the visually impaired, but its investors got cold feet.
LG Han decided to go to a regular restaurant instead of using the menu they had already developed.
Bring the Singaporean tariff back to its traditional roots
Labyrinth is best known for its “Mod-Sin” concept, which was awarded a Michelin star in 2017 and 2018 for its modern twist on Singaporean cuisine.
Image Credit: Foodies
However, the restaurant turned away from the concept of food science in 2018 and focused again on restoring traditional Singaporean cuisine. The game of chance paid off and Labyrinth won another Michelin star in 2019.
“We wanted to define Singaporean cuisine in a more authentic way,” explains LG Han.
“The Singaporean cuisine is always relevant to the time and place – how do you really preserve and represent it? It's more exciting than molecular cuisine. "
To date, 70 to 80 percent of the menu in the Labyrinth is based on products sourced from local farms like Ah Hua Kelong, Edible Garden City, and Crab Lovers Farm.
According to LG Han, local products are closer to the ingredients used in original recipes and carry their own unique flavors. These include products like green-lipped clams, native plants like Ulam Rajah and the Wandering Jew, and local cow and goat milk.
Labyrinth also uses traditional cooking methods such as slow cooking, infusions, and layers, coupled with modern technology to create authentic flavors.
“Kaya shouldn't be lumpy, otherwise it will have an artificial taste. This means that it has been excessively curdled, but (most kaya people eat from it) ingredients that are (thoughtlessly) thrown into a bowl, ”he explains.
“Proper kaya should be smooth, yet textured, using coconut, eggs, sugar, and natural pandan. You need to gently steam it on the stove for three to four hours. (We do it ourselves in the maze) with a secret step that nobody uses anymore. "
The restaurant also makes its own prata batter from scratch, using fresh oysters for its in-house oyster sauce.
LG Han notes that it relies on a vast peer-to-peer network to uncover forgotten Singaporean recipes and techniques, including everything from shadowing street vendors to learning from home cooks.
Consume Singaporean cuisine worldwide
Since introducing Labyrinth more than six years ago, LG Han has honed its culinary skills while traveling the world, working with top chefs from countries such as Taiwan, Japan, Thailand and Hong Kong.
"It's all about the ability to learn," he notes.
"There is knowledge that you as a normal foodie never have access to. (Within the cooking community) we are proud and happy to teach others – you can just pick up a phone and call someone."
The maze is now at the height of its game. The next step for LG Han is to find a way to spread Singaporean cuisine overseas.
"I'm working towards it (but) I don't know the answer to that yet," he admits.
“How do we 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? "
Regardless, there will only ever be one labyrinth, claims LG Han.
“I knew I would never get a Ferrari out of this business. Maybe a motorcycle – or a bicycle, ”laughs LG Han. "It's not a gold mine."
Selected image source: City Nomads / Seth Lui