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Taiwan dining tour gives S'poreans food for thought
Publication Date : 14-01-2013
A group of Singaporeans embark on a whirlwind tour of learning through eating
The master sat on a tatami mat, facing rows of people sitting cross-legged in business or casual attire in the spartan room.
The room was bordered on two sides by long rows of windows.
One side looked out on a bamboo forest; the other faced a stream. Soft sunlight streamed in as a light rain fell outside.
Dressed in a straw-coloured linen shirt and black slacks, the master was speaking in an even, unhurried voice in response to a question from his audience.
"When you enter an environment like this, you will awaken to chan. Work and other everyday concerns fade," said the master, referring to the Chinese school of Buddhism, a precursor of Japanese Zen Buddhism.
"In our age, most people are too busy to ponder what really lies in their heart... Once we take time to sit down and think, our perspectives will change."
It could have been a scene right out of the sutras, except that this was in the mountains of Taiwan and the "master" was Taiwanese concept dining doyen Lin Bing-hui.
His "disciples" were 37 fellow restaurateurs from Singapore who were in Taiwan on a six-day study trip to learn more about the finer aspects of the dining experience, from choosing the right cutlery, superlative service standards, to fusing traditional Chinese aesthetics or even philosophy with the dining table.
Led by Andrew Tjioe, executive chairman of the Tung Lok Group, the delegation comprised top executives from such well- known names as the Jumbo Group, Sushi Tei, Dian Xiao Er and Bakerzin.
The meeting with Lin and the prior eight-course lunch at his acclaimed establishment, Shi Yang Shan Fang, was the climax of a whirlwind tour of learning through eating organised by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry and its Taiwanese partner, the China Productivity Centre.
The tour began last Monday with a lunch of braised fatty pork rice at local favourite Formosa Chang, followed by a presentation and dinner of home-style Taiwanese cuisine at the chichi 85th-floor restaurant of the Shin Yeh group at the Taipei 101 building.
The feasting continued on Tuesday with visits to Dian Shui Lou, which specialises in south-eastern Chinese cuisine, then spicy hotpot chain Tripod King, and Din Tai Fung, renowned for its xiao long bao, or soup dumplings.
On Wednesday, the group travelled to Taichung, headquarters of Wowprime, Taiwan's leading food and beverage operator. There, they tucked into NT$1,300 (US$45) belt-popping five-course set meals featuring huge slabs of steak at Wang Steak, the flagship of Wowprime's 11 brands.
Sim Lih Cherng of Barcook Bakery said that coming to Taiwan was ideal, compared with, say, Japan, because the island and Singapore shared a similar culture and language.
For some, it was the service standards that left the biggest impression.
Said Eliza Gunawan, executive director of Dian Xiao Er: "The waiters at Wang Steak would squat next to you to speak to ensure clear communication. This is something you don't see in Singapore."
Another highlight was a tour of the central kitchen in Taoyuan county of Jia Jia Food Company, a prepacked cooked food company with 35 per cent of the Taiwanese market, as its workers prepared NT$200 packs of the festive dish, Buddha jumps over the wall, for the Chinese New Year season.
Tjioe summed up the biggest takeaway for the delegation from the pilgrimage.
"Taiwanese restaurateurs have perfected the low-cost luxury model in the face of years of slow economic growth and stagnating wage levels here," he said of an industry that grew by more than 7 per cent to NT$372 billion in 2011 over the previous year.
"Instead of raising prices, they go for sales volume, which is feasible because rent and labour are cheap - you can hire a university graduate as a waiter for just NT$110 per hour.
"The question is whether this model can be replicated in Singapore, where overheads are much higher and labour costs are rising as a result of the new restrictions on foreign staff," Tjioe told The Straits Times during the 11/2-hour coach ride from Taoyuan to Taipei on Thursday.
The bus ambled up steep winding hill roads before stopping in the middle of seemingly nowhere.
The group alighted, umbrellas in hand, and proceeded to walk gingerly down a slippery, pot-holed road to a two-storey house nestled in the woods.
Here, the delegation had an eight-course lunch punctuated by oohs and aahs of admiration for the quality and presentation of food ranging from tofu to sashimi to a lotus root chicken soup with a floating dried lotus flower that appeared to bloom in the wafting steam of the broth.
Then came the question-and-answer session with Lin at the cabin, a five-minute walk in the woods away from the restaurant proper.
The 58-year-old ran an interior design company until he went into semi-retirement in the 1990s and started cooking for friends at home.
As his reputation spread by word of mouth, Lin started Shi Yang Shan Fang - which translates loosely to "food nourished mountain lodge" - in 1996.
Asked what it would take to create an establishment like his, he replied: "You need to be what you want to see, from the way you talk to what you do, and do it consistently. Then your staff will follow.
"I'd say it takes at least five years to create your ideal restaurant."
Until then, one will have to be content with a shorter wait of up to three months for a table at Shi Yang Shan Fang.
US$1 = NT$29