Luke Mangan: “Australia has some downright amazing produce, which we wanted to take over to Asia and introduce it on our menus – what better way to show it off?”
Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance
The culinary scene in Singapore is a melting pot of diversity; boasting restaurants drawing inspiration from many different cultures. Singapore-based, leading Australian chef and entrepreneur Luke Mangan is a welcomed contributor to this diversity; at the helm of popular Singapore restaurants such as Salt grill & Sky bar and Salt tapas & bar.
Considered as a “shining example” of Australia’s contemporary culinary culture, Luke’s love affair with food began in his mum’s kitchen in regional Melbourne, and took off in Sydney following the tourism surge of the 2000 Olympics.
Describing Singapore as a city that houses some of “the world’s best restaurants and chefs”, Luke is undoubtedly in the right place to continue building his culinary empire.
How did your fascination with food start, how did you parlay that into a career, and how did you wind up in Singapore?
I grew up in regional Melbourne, in what you’d call a middle-class family. Being one of seven boys we certainly didn’t have the luxury of dining at hatted restaurants, that’s for sure! At home, mum was the queen of the kitchen, cooking in bulk to feed us all. She’d make everything from scratch so I suppose I fell into cooking from being exposed to it all the time. That, and the fact that I despised school.
I left school at 15 and started my apprenticeship at Herman Schneider’s Two Faces in Melbourne. At first, I hated it – long hours standing peeling potatoes – but I stuck it out for two years, and from there I went to London to work at Michel Roux’s Waterside Inn, and I guess the rest is history!
I opened my first restaurant in 1999 in Sydney, then Tokyo, which was the start of our expansion into Asia. When we were approached with the opportunity to bring our restaurants to Singapore it made sense to expand further into Asia. Singapore was becoming a serious food destination so it made sense.
How would you describe the culinary scene in Singapore? Does it draw from any Australian influence?
I’ve always loved Singapore, I think it’s certainly up there with having some of the world’s best restaurants and chefs. The city is filled with all sorts of different dining options and cuisines. There’s Australian chef’s like Dave Pynt, killing it with his modern Australian barbeque experience at Burnt Ends, and also some of the world’s best international chefs, such as Wolfgang Puck with Cut Restaurant, Mario Batali with Osteria Mozza and JAAN ranked 42nd in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.
What makes Singapore unique as a city?
Singapore has the whole package – for such a small city (aka “The Dot”) it’s a vibrant food hub; it’s always on the go, it’s safe, the locals are really welcoming, and, as a foodie, there’s never a shortage of places to eat in the city!
Singapore has something for everyone, the city has really embraced all sorts of different food cultures and cuisines, and at the same time, has kept with tradition. I love that one night you could be eating fantastic hawker street food then the next night at World 50 best restaurant.
What is the Australian expat community in Singapore collectively excelling at?
Well I know one thing is for certain: Singapore certainly has an amazing line up of Australian chefs at the moment with the likes of Brisbane’s own Drew Nocente running Salted and Hung, Dave Pynt of Burnt Ends who has also taken on our own Jake Kellie from Melbourne.
How do you think your “Australian-ness” contributed to your successes working in global markets?
It’s been great to showcase great Aussie produce into Singapore and Asia and we think it’s great to see the locals enjoying what we have to offer. The city just embraces different cuisines. Australia has some downright amazing produce which we wanted to take over to Asia and introduce it on our menus – from a beautiful piece of steak to quality cheeses – what better way to show it off?
What are the benefits of starting a business in Singapore as an Australian? Are there any significant barriers that you faced when you first started out?
Currently we have two really thriving businesses in Singapore with Salt grill & Sky bar and our Salt tapas & bar – so the decision for us to open in Singapore has created some fantastic opportunities for me and the brand. I think Singapore is a great networking city and a great place to establish yourself within the Asian market.
We haven’t really had any difficulty with doing business in Singapore. On a whole, we have developed great relationships with the locals and the city is really embracing international chefs and Australia’s modern contemporary cuisine, which has been fantastic for us.
Initially there was some hesitation around supply to Asia, as I wanted to keep the standards high throughout all my restaurants, not just those in Australia. As it turned out, supply was easier than I thought, and there is a very high standard of fresh produce available if you are organised. Being in Singapore, we have the opportunity to source some amazing produce from Europe and all around the world.
Staff are the centre of a restaurant and every country has its own challenges and you need to keep the good staff when you get them. Most of our employees in Asia haven’t grown up with the exposure to Western food/wine, so the teams need a lot of training and mentoring to ensure they are able to provide this knowledge to our customers.
What has been your biggest career highlight to date?
It would have to be 1999, when I opened my first restaurant, Salt in Sydney. It was just before the Olympics, which proved to be great timing because of the promotion Australian tourism, including restaurants, were enjoying at the time. That was a fantastic time and a real defining moment in my career. This was pretty much the start for me!
What does it take to be a successful chef in 2017?
Persistence and discipline! This is not your average 9 to 5 job/career but the possibilities and opportunities that can come to you will be worth the hard work.
Besides your own restaurants, where are your favourite places to eat in Singapore?