Cantonese traditions meet modern inspirations
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Cantonese traditions meet modern inspirations

Summer Palace at the Conrad Singapore Orchard is a culinary journey in a serene imperial garden setting

Cantonese traditions meet modern inspirations

Summer Palace at the Conrad Singapore Orchard first opened its doors in 1982 and has since remained one of the country’s most revered Cantonese restaurants.

Along with the recent revamp and rebranding of the hotel, Summer Palace, which has retained a Michelin star since 2017, has also freshened its decor to keep up with the times, but kept its old world charm in terms of the cuisine it offers. Inspired by its namesake in Beijing, the restaurant honours the imperial Chinese gardens, featuring a terrace that integrates with the hotel’s iconic atrium.

Under the guidance of executive Chinese chef Liu Ching Hai, Summer Palace offers a dining experience where authentic Cantonese cuisine meet modern culinary inspirations. The menu showcases an assortment of Cantonese specialities, from dim sum and roasts to soups, broths and the freshest live seafood. Using the finest seasonal ingredients to craft a refined dining experience, the menu comprises an à la carte selection and a tasting menu. 

“My philosophy lies in the holy trinity of food… colours, aroma and flavour. All that needs to come together to satisfy the diners. The dishes that come out of my kitchen needs to make the diners feel happy and blissful. This is how I approach my cooking in a nutshell,” says the chef, whose 20-year journey started in Hong Kong and took him across Southeast Asia, including Bangkok. 

Chef Hai says growing up in densely populated Hong Kong, he and his friends spent most of their days in restaurants, where everyone ate produce that was seasonal. This became the foundation for the chef’s narratives of the seasons in his menus. “We also could get a lot of variety in the small eateries and restaurants. The two things that I have carried with me from my childhood are the soups and the seafood, of which in Cantonese cuisine are plenty.

“In Cantonese cooking, most often, ingredients are not visually present but you can taste them. Like in the double boiled soups, I still make my superior stock the traditional way, with Jinhua ham. I don’t use any modern ingredients like chicken powder. These are the essentials in the foundations of great Chinese cuisine.”

This is more than evident in his soups like the Braised superior bird’s nest fish maw, conpoy and coriander, which is a classic and a staple on most Cantonese menus. A soup that is a tad different from the others in the sense that it is cooked on medium to high heat for four hours, as opposed to the slow simmering technique. It uses the “old mother’s hand” stock or the superior stock. This means that the already existing flavours are enhanced. “I filter the chicken so it’s just the soup stock and all the ingredients are added into this stock. I let it cook on the hearthstone for a bit before it is served,” explains the chef. 

The one thing I love in modern Cantonese restaurants is that most have a tea sommelier and being a tea drinker, I always look forward to trying the various teas. The tea programme at Summer Palace encapsulates the traditions of Chinese tea culture where the each tea served is brewed tableside on a tea trolly. The programme is structured into The Classics, The Icons and The Pinnacles, with each highlighting different aspects of the teas’ versatility.

Peking Duck is one dish that traces its origins to the Ming Dynasty when it was served at the Beijing Imperial Court. Naturally, this is a star dish at Summer Palace, where chef Hai has made an effort to showcase the different cuts of the duck. Though also served traditionally with house-made pancakes, cucumber, spring onion and corn biscuit, the duck is carved tableside, adding to the experience where one can see and hear the glistening skin. Served in three stages, the first is the skin, which is paired with a bit of sugar and soy bean sauce. This is best enjoyed as soon as it is carved. The next is when you eat it in the pancakes, while the remainder of the duck can be cooked into soups or meat dishes for the table to enjoy. “Some diners like to take away the rest of the duck, while others like to eat it in a noodle dish or in a soup made from the bones,” adds the chef.   

Fish is another produce that always reminds chef Hai of his childhood. “Fish is always something that gathers everyone together at the table. It is part of Cantonese culture. At Summer Palace, we have fish tanks in the kitchen and the fishery comes daily with fresh catch. There are different ways to enjoy the fish here, as well,” says the chef, who has also worked in Bangkok. 

The key to marrying the old with the new, says the chef, is keeping in mind that traditional techniques like heat or temperature are important. “The ‘wok hei’ brings the aroma and flavour for people to truly appreciate the dish,” he adds. 

While there has been shift in modern times to chefs having to focus more on presentation since what people see is also very important, “it is also important for me to work with local ingredients and nourishing flavours. The flavours are cleaner and lighter in this modern day,” explains chef Hai of his menu. 

“Summer Palace stands out from other Cantonese establishments in the way of still using traditional methods of cooking and ingredients, like in the soups. I don’t use any shortcuts and am focused on the quality to ensure my diners get the best available.” 

Over the last 42 years, Summer Palace has amassed a long list of fans, who return time and time again. To the chef, the diners are most important and diners enjoying their meal is the ultimate key. Flexibly is also a huge part of chef Hai’s working process. If diners want an off-menu dish, he is most willing to oblige. This is where perhaps Summer Palace leads the pack, as to most diners this would be akin to coming home. 

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