Private dining establishments in Singapore that home in on a niche

Chefs offer unique and intimate culinary experiences that cannot be replicated in a mass-market restaurant setting

Private dining chefs in Singapore: (from left) Wala Pizza's Jenna Ding, Ben Fatto's Lee Yum Hwa and Liufusifangcai's Henry Lau. (PHOTOS: Instagram/Facebook)
Private dining chefs in Singapore: (from left) Wala Pizza's Jenna Ding, Ben Fatto's Lee Yum Hwa and Liufusifangcai's Henry Lau. (PHOTOS: Instagram/Facebook)

SINGAPORE — Before you can dig your fingers into Wala Pizza, you must first work them.

Getting a booking at the private dining establishment requires fast fingers - Wala Pizza is fully booked within a minute of chef Jenna Ding releasing slots each month.

Like some of the most sought-after home private dining experiences in Singapore, Wala Pizza offers diners what restaurants cannot.

Ding’s homemade dough undergoes a five-day fermentation process. Pizzerias typically do not spend more than two days on fermentation, she said.

“It’s because of storage capacity,” added the 32-year-old, who serves up to six diners per seating.

“Let’s say (pizzerias) are doing a 30kg batch of dough every day and imagine they need to do five-day fermentation. Every day you have to store five times these 30kg batches, and there’s no way you can do it in a commercial-scale pizzeria. Besides capacity concerns, it’s also very hard to monitor your dough's development across all those different batches, so nobody is doing that."

Ding admitted that her extra three days of fermentation adds to the dough’s depth of flavour by just 10 per cent, but believes that increment makes all of the difference.

Given her own spatial limitations, she opens her Choa Chu Kang flat to guests only two to three times a week. But she is looking to do more when she completes her relocation to Boon Keng in the coming weeks.

Ding’s dough must rest but its maker does not have days off. She has eaten pizza almost every day for the past three years - in part because she loves the dish, in part because she uses her meals to do research and development.

Wala Pizza's pizzas, made from homemade dough.
Wala Pizza's pizzas, made from homemade dough. (PHOTOS: Instagram/Wala Pizza)

“Freedom of time allows me to indulge in my own R&D,” said Ding, whose omakase menu has featured flavours such as truffle carbonara, black garlic and pistachio mortadella.

New flavours are key for returning guests. Ding keeps an excel sheet of what her guests have experienced and notes their favourite pizzas so that she can customise their next meal.

Carving out a niche

While Ding uses Jotform to manage her reservations, Ben Fatto’s Lee Yum Hwa receives booking requests via e-mail and has a one- to two-year waiting list. Meanwhile, Liufusifangcai’s Henry Lau runs a ballot to choose his dining guests, who had already filled up a reservation form.

Lee and Lau face overwhelming demand amid limited seatings because they too have dishes that cannot be easily replicated.

Lee is understood to be among just 20 pastai (Italian for pasta makers) in the world who can make Su Filindeu, the world’s rarest pasta.

“The Threads of God” require time and technique. Lee has to stretch and fold dough into 256 even strands to create a delicate three-layer pattern that resembles cloth.

Su Filindeu is in Lee’s signature dish at his Paya Lebar Crescent childhood home, where diners can be forgiven for momentarily thinking they are in Italy.

The degustation journey, with a short trip to a workbench for a hands-on session as an interlude, showcases pasta shapes not available at the Forma restaurant - Lee’s collaboration with The Cicheti Group.

The experiential element helps guests appreciate the art of pasta making and the effort that goes into each piece.

Ben Fatto's Su Filindeu pasta.
Ben Fatto's Su Filindeu pasta. (PHOTOS: Instagram/Ben Fatto)

“For what I do, which is producing more technical and less commercial pasta formats, it’s feasible through private dining because of the scale,” said Lee.

“And what you get in a private setting like this is the privacy and the intimacy, which cannot be replicated in most commercial environments.”

Lee makes a Su Filindeu disc every week. Each disc takes him three hours.

“I don’t want to put it down. If I do, I will lose some proficiency of doing it. There’s a highly nuanced gesture to making this,” said the 41-year-old, who founded Ben Fatto in 2017 and took four months to be proficient at making Su Filindeu.

“Why I kept it on the menu for so long is because it represents the pinnacle of handmade pasta… I am here to show people that there’s also something to talk about here and that is the amazing craft of this particular format that spans over 300 years. It’s a skillset that is incredibly rare because it’s so hard to do. It’s a message to show people the extent of handmade pasta.”

Preserving the food heritage

For Hokkien chef Lau, white space was found when he could no longer find his favourite Chinese dishes like kong ba pao (braised pork belly bun) executed to the levels he expects.

“We want to eat these food, but nobody knows how to cook them, and that’s why there’s a very huge demand for this type of food. And that was when I realised, might as well I do it,” the 47-year-old said.

“I’m doing this for a living. But in the same process, I enjoy preserving the heritage because I also find it sayang (Malay for pity) that these things get lost in time.”

Lau serves up dishes like Hokkien Mee cooked with two-day stock and Ngoh Hiang (pork rolls) that is a rendition of a family recipe.

Commercial Ngoh Hiang is typically stuffed with minced meat but Hokkien families use sliced meat in their homemade versions. These rolls are traditionally for special occasions like reunion dinners and for offering ancestors.

Preparing a 2kg slab of meat takes around 90 minutes, making it challenging to do at scale at Chinese restaurants that boast a wide-ranging menu.

Liufusifangcai usually has five seatings a week, with Lau never failing to fill up a slot at his Tembeling Road home since he started in 2018.

Ngoh Hiang (left) and Hokkien Mee from Liufusifangcai.
Ngoh Hiang (left) and Hokkien Mee from Liufusifangcai. (PHOTOS: Facebook/Liufusifangcai)

Patrons drawn to unique, intimate experiences

Lau said private dining was in its infancy around 2018 and that the landscape has since become more competitive. He noted that many establishments started during the COVID-19 pandemic and expects more to pop up due to the economic slowdown.

Patrons who have gone to the likes of Liufusifangcai, Ben Fatto and Wala Pizza say they are drawn to new, unique and intimate experiences, with social media and food influencers playing a part in their desire to get a coveted booking.

Despite the demand, Lau is unlikely to charge much more than what he does now - $135 per person for a seven-course meal. He believes food has to be accessible, and it is a sentiment shared by Lee and Ding.

A table with a 10-person limit at Ben Fatto costs $1,800, and Lee said, “It stems from the placement of pasta in the culinary culture in Italy. It is something that is produced at home. It is to feed people, to nourish people, not for the higher echelons of cuisine.”

Ding is mindful that $158 per person at Wala Pizza is not cheap but she feels it is reasonable given the labour and premium ingredients sourced from Italy.

“If I increase the price to get an equilibrium (of demand and supply), it becomes very commercial,” she said.

“I want to attract people who sincerely appreciate or want to appreciate the food, rather than people who are willing and able to pay. I don’t want to go in the direction where I focus only on getting to a high-end foodie group.

“I’m glad that I’m still positioning myself as a chef rather than a business owner.”

You do not have to be a surgeon to dig into Wala Pizza, but nimble fingers will help.

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