Celebrated chef Sergio Herman on Singapore as a culinary destination and why he loves sambal stingray
The prolific restaurateur, a household name in the Netherlands and Belgium, chats with CNA Luxury on his plans for his upcoming restaurant in Singapore and his thoughts on the country’s diverse food scene.
There is no doubt that Singapore is an attractive destination for the world’s leading culinary talents.
When the year 2023 rolls around, the Lion City will welcome yet another famous chef on its shores. Making his foray into Asia is Dutch chef and entrepreneur Sergio Herman, who will be opening his first outpost outside Europe in Grand Hyatt Singapore.
Slated to open its doors in the second quarter of next year, Herman’s restaurant will take over the hotel’s mezzanine floor that once housed popular restaurant mezza9. The chef said that the dining concept is still in the works.
Herman is a household name in Belgium and the Netherlands. He grew up in the Dutch province of Zeeland, rising to fame after taking over his family’s restaurant, Oud Sluis. Herman revamped the humble country inn restaurant into a fine dining establishment, eventually garnering it three Michelin stars. But at the peak of its success in 2013, he shocked the culinary world by deciding to close the restaurant to strike out on his own.
His culinary empire only grew from there. In 2010, he had already opened fine-casual restaurant Pure C in the Dutch coastal town of Cadzand. A year after closing Oud Sluis, Herman unveiled The Jane, located in a restored chapel in Antwerp, Belgium. Frites Atelier, a fast-food casual concept, was launched in 2016, born out of Herman’s love for French fries. In 2020, he opened Le Pristine in Antwerp, a culmination of his passions in food, fashion, design, art and music.
The 52-year-old father of four has also starred in several food documentaries. He’s known as a gruff mentor in cooking shows and has written several cookbooks. An astute entrepreneur, he has launched his own product lines in coffee, cocktails, granola, champagne and more. Beyond food, he designs tableware and ceramics.
Herman’s first visit to Singapore was 15 years ago, when he first tried and fell in love with sambal stingray (or “ikan bakar”), a local dish consisting of barbecued stingray with sambal paste, served atop a banana leaf.
Since arriving in Singapore once again in August 2022 for the announcement with Hyatt, Herman has been on a whirlwind food tour of the city. He has dined at Jumbo Seafood restaurant in Dempsey, where he tried the famous chilli crab. On Instagram, he described the dish as a “must eat in Singapore…for everyone who loves intensely good food with power and soul”.
Naturally, he also stopped by the city’s fine dining establishments, including Restaurant Zen – “Zen was fantastic” – and Burnt Ends – “great chef, fantastic guy, good food”. Drinks were also had at Atlas Bar, where he was awed by the space. “I said to myself, ‘what is this? My god!’ At first I thought it was a big lobby of a hotel. But it’s just a bar!” he quipped.
On the sidelines of his visit Singapore, CNA Luxury sits down with the feted chef to discuss his exceptional career, his expansion into Asia, and of course, all things food.
YOU'VE DONE QUITE A FAIR BIT IN YOUR CAREER, FROM BEING A CHEF, TO BECOMING AN ENTREPRENEUR, TO DESIGNING TABLEWARE. HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE WHAT YOU DO?
The base is to be a chef, of course. It’s what I know in my professional career. Even if I’m busy, if I have some moments in the kitchen, I’m the happiest person.
But on the other side, I did so many things for so many years. Those pillars that we have – fashion, music, design, art – all those things are very important to what we do. Tableware is of course something unique. We like nice things [in a restaurant], we like beautiful objects. These details are so important for us. It’s fantastic to see people liking what we create, and not just in food.
I like to do different things. But it is also heavy. Sometimes I see a very good baker, or a chocolatier, and I think ahh, it would be nice to just be the best in something, to make the best bread in the world. But I do different things, because I think if I just made bread, it would also be boring.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT FOOD THAT MADE YOU FALL IN LOVE?
My father was a chef. My mother ran front of house. She was the manager for the restaurant, she did everything. She was cleaning the toilets in the mornings, for example. Their passion and hobby was eating out. I grew up in a restaurant, we used to sleep above the restaurant. [My parents] picked me up from school on Fridays, and we would always eat in fine dining restaurants with good wines. [Food] is in my DNA. I think we have one of the most fantastic jobs in the world, to make people happy.
WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE ON SINGAPORE AS YOUR FIRST FORAY INTO ASIA?
Singapore was the first destination in Asia, 15 years ago. I always had Singapore on my mind. I was always looking to Asia. But I knew nothing about Chinese food, Asian food.
The first time [I came here], I didn’t know Singapore had all these food courts…I didn’t know that there are so many people from India, Thailand, Malaysia, even Japan living here. [Different cuisines] come together and you can eat them here. You can choose this, that, and bring it to your table. It’s a trip, a real food trip.
WHICH IS YOUR FAVOURITE SINGAPOREAN DISH?
Sambal stingray was my first love; it is still my first love. It’s fantastic, it’s everything. You have the stingray, the spicy sambal on top. You have just a little bit of calamansi juice. And a beer. It’s beautiful.
THE CONCEPT FOR YOUR RESTAURANT AT GRAND HYATT IS STILL IN THE WORKS. BUT WHAT CAN DINERS EXPECT?
It needs to be [in line with] our philosophy. For us, it’s important that people coming to our restaurants feel the energy. The music, the food, the fashion, the design, the art, all those things need to come together. We would love to bring Dutch and Belgium art and design to Singapore. There will be some very unique objects.
Of course, food is the main thing. The plus point is that we can bring great hospitality here because the standards are so high.
I think it’s going to be brilliant. We have discovered Singapore’s food scene a little bit more. Whether it’s a fine dining or casual restaurant, we will decide later on.
WILL YOU BE INCORPORATING SINGAPOREAN FLAVOURS INTO YOUR MENU?
I would love to bring in some fusion style, but not too much. It’s nice to work with some ingredients that people know here, but to incorporate them in my way. Not copy and paste. That’s one of the things I want to bring. The rest, it’s our DNA. What is our DNA? It is seafood, fish, shellfish, crustaceans. We love it, I grew up with it. That’s always the pillar of all our restaurants.
HOW DO YOU SPEND YOUR DOWNTIME?
I don’t have a lot of hobbies actually. I like to run. I like to be at home, sometimes far away from everything. Because wherever I go, people want something from me. So sometimes when I’m at home, I see my stuff around me. I like art, just small objects, small things, nice books. So I'm there, enjoying the space around me.
DO YOU COOK AT HOME FOR YOUR FAMILY? WHAT DO YOU COOK?
It’s different [all the time]. It can be typical Belgium and Dutch food, or Italian, or Spanish. Of course, I’ll make what I know from Chinese or Asian food. My kids and I have eaten in a lot of restaurants in the last year. One of my children really loves Indian curry. So sometimes I make curry, sometimes I make pasta. And in Holland, we eat mashed potatoes with cabbage, sausage and mustard in the winter.
YOU MENTIONED THAT FOOD IS IN YOUR DNA. DO YOU THINK ANY OF YOUR CHILDREN WILL FOLLOW IN YOUR FOOTSTEPS?
My oldest one is now cooking in one of my restaurants. But they decide. I’m not a father who pushes too much. My parents also didn’t do that. The most important thing is that they are happy. I said to my daughter, if you’re working a job, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, but be the best in it. Of course I give them some guidance, but they need to be happy.
WHERE ELSE IN ASIA WOULD YOU LIKE TO VISIT NEXT?
I have been to Thailand and Japan. I would love to go to South Korea. I would also love to go to Vietnam. I’ve been to Hong Kong before but I want to see and learn a little bit more from China.
I always say that it doesn’t matter where you are. I like to be open and to put my phone away to see and enjoy a place. Sometimes we are too addicted to our phones. Of course, it may be work, but sometimes you’re looking at your phone for nothing. But there’s more [to life] than that.
WHAT'S NEXT FOR YOU?
When we first created tableware, we didn’t know it would be such a great success. And now we’ve made the first step to open our first international restaurant. That is of course a fantastic step for us.
We will see what comes next. I am not a guy who will say, now we’re going to open 15 or 50 restaurants. No, no, no. It’s better to do a few very good restaurants than to copy, paste, copy, paste, copy, paste.
For so many years, I did something for television…I’ve made cookbooks…I always said it would be great to make [more] cookbooks in English. Maybe that's something that will happen in the future, we’ll see.
But it is always nice to have a dream. Small dreams and big dreams. I'm not a guy with a lot of things I want to do. I did a lot before so I'm very proud of myself and my team. I miss the times I spent behind the stove, because I used to do that every day. But my life is better now. Travelling, a little bit more time for my kids. It’s nice.