Kausmo is the small minimal waste restaurant with a big vision to shape the future of food
Little by little
Here's where we currently stand on the S-word (for sustainability, in case you're still hibernating under a rock): A promising headway on reusable coffee cups, a growing number of designers striving for recycled fashion, and emerging zero-waste grocery stores setting the golden standard for our home pantry. But all things considered, we haven't exactly nailed a breakthrough when it comes to delaying the decline of our environment.
Even Kausmo — the latest and most meaningful concept by the Les Amis Group — isn't claiming to be the hero the food industry in Singapore needs. Conceived by Lisa Tang and Kuah Chew Shian, the idea is to instead challenge food norms towards a more thoughtful and conscientious living. By doing so, they've created a small, intimate 16-seater carved to be like someone's home kitchen, in hopes of cultivating a newfound appreciation with regards to mass-consumed produce through the medium of delicious grub.
"Singaporeans are generally quite disconnected from our food, since we don't visit farms and don't know any farmers personally. We don't really understand the effort behind producing the food, and why it's even lauded as fruits of labour," explains Kuah, restaurant manager of Kausmo.
Having prior experience in the F&B industry, the two ladies who were friends back in polytechnic, realised a common underlying issue they have seen in kitchens, where chefs would typically accept or reject ingredients that were sent to them. They then considered where the rejected foods would end up. But it was only after Tang's stint in Maine, where she worked at Primo, a restaurant on a farm, which engaged in zero waste practices, that she witnessed the stark contrast it had with Singapore. Tang says, "The appreciation wasn't really there, and it sparked a lot of questions regarding what's possible in Singapore, what's lacking in term of understanding what we have here and understanding our food systems here." Meanwhile, Kuah was in Scandinavia, where they're known to be the leaders in sustainability. "Everyone there practiced composting, amongst other sustainable practices," says Kuah.
When they both returned home, the vision was crystal clear. But they had plenty to learn when it came to how the building blocks of a restaurant came to be — so they mangled with logistic, business queries and food security needs by looking up importers before Kausmo was birthed. With a focused ethos on utilising the whole ingredient, cooking with aesthetically imperfect foods, procuring sustainable seafood, and even foraging from our lands when it comes to local herbs and spices, the menu at Kausmo champions the 'industry rejects' under an adept and innovative culinary direction by Tang herself. After all, why are we lusting after flora and fauna like rosemary and thyme, when we have a good supply of ayang rajah and blue pea flowers right here on our soil? Tang was also notably, one of the nominees for the Rising Female Chef award at the World Gourmet Summit and runner-up for the 2014 Les Amis Awards Culinary Competition.
It's a two-woman show here in the restaurant. Tang's role is stationed in the kitchen, while Kuah hosts. But apart from just cooking and serving, they both don on many hats — joining hands to order ingredients, switch up the menu, prep work, ferment their own chilies and oils, and make a steady batch of kombucha. On top of all this, they manage a Youtube channel demonstrating recipes that involve making use of an entire ingredient. Within the restaurant, they have upcycled wood cutlery handmade by both of them, coasters crafted from upcycling fabric, and porcelain tableware that are marked by imperfections. What this means, is that none of them are homogenous. Instead, they bear subtle differences, which can sometimes depreciate its value on the market.
The legwork behind what you both are doing on a weekly basis sounds like quite the marathon. What is the process like?
Lisa Tang (LT): We'd prepare the ingredients into the components needed in the menu. From there, let's say we're preparing fried shallots for our mainstay congee dish, then we'd have a lot of onion peelings and skin, which we'd dehydrate it for R&D (research and development) and upcoming menus. There are a lot of volatile changes here and there, but the mainstay will be tweaking our beverages, which is our kombucha that we ferment in-house. We always have to tweak it before service because the product is alive and it always changes.
Kuah Chew Shian (KCS): For some people in the industry, they are very surprised we can do this and adapt so quickly. It's very time sensitive, and when suppliers let us know what is available, we don't have the luxury of time to think about what dishes we can make from the ingredients. They want a fast answer to know whether to keep the ingredients for us. From a business perspective, time and storage space are resources to them and they don't like to keep deadstock, which is why we always take a proactive state in ordering.
How does wholesome produce utilisation work here?
LT: One of our snacks, is a seabass belly. When we purchase seabass, we hope to use more than just the loin. So it's about wholesome produce utilisation — that can be divided between different dishes. We smoke the roe of the seabass and grate it over the butter for some umami. This goes with our housemade sourdough. And for the belly, we cut the fleshier side into small pieces to serve on wild pepper leaves. The other part is typically too oily, and can't be eaten, so we make a broth of it, which goes into a separate congee dish.
Talk us through a process of a dish in Kausmo.
LT: We recently got a shipment of red brussel sprouts, as compared to the usual green ones. It's so beautiful, but you can't cook it too much, if not the colour would turn out really dull. So we cooked it simply, and featured it for what is is. It ended up adding bitterness to the wagyu dish (as part of our main). The beef also has a chipotle persimmon glaze — persimmons that were over-ripened. We charred those and cooked it more into a jam-like consistency, then we added chipotle into it to make it savoury. The mild sweetness balances out the heat. Then we had a roasted potato puree on the side, from overstocked potatoes. We baked them till the skin was almost charred then steeped them in milk so that added a hint of smokiness to the puree. The protein was chosen because while d-rump cut is a secondary cut, it is very underrated. We just love the texture, and the flavor it has — a good balance of meat and fat. Last but not least, the vegetable jus. It is a very concentrated broth of roasted vegetables, charred alliums, like onions, garlic and some tomato paste we made from previous batches of tomatoes.
Do things ever get tricky? For instance, while dealing with the many states of an ingredient?
LT: Definitely, not planning our products and dishes, encapsulates what Kausmo is mainly about.
KCS: It all depends on the condition of the ingredients. For example, the first batch of vine-ripened tomatoes we received, the tomatoes were over-ripened and naturally fell off the vine. This isn't preferred by retailers, as they want to sell them on the vine.
LT: But they are perfectly good tomatoes — at their best stage of ripeness, best flavour and texture.
KCS: So we made a hot sauce out of this ingredient. We roasted it down and then added some mala oil for a kick.
What is Kausmo's role here in today's food landscape?
KCS: We are definitely not here to point fingers at suppliers for filtering out ingredients. We feel that Singaporeans should have more discussions about this issue as consumers.
LS: We have more power than we think we have, and Kausmo is just here to spark conversations. Chew and I are just two individuals, and we do not know the solution to this problem, but perhaps if there were more voices on this issue, it might cause a trickle-up/down effect, impacting the supply chain. It's very easy to talk about things over food! It's very casual and personal, and they don't feel the tightness they would feel in some restaurants. That's why the restaurant looks like this — if you were to come over to a friend's house.
KCS: Perhaps a general acceptance and understanding that the beauty and uniformity in supermarkets today should not be the norm. While you might see irregularly shaped produce, we should understand that this is how nature works, and not something to condemn or dispose of. Hopefully, this acceptance could lead to a slackening of the stringent registration and filtering in place today. It's to raise awareness for the time being, and hopefully with small changes and common understanding, our industry can slowly shift.
1 Scotts Road, Shaw Centre, #03-07, Tel: 8126 8538
Opening hours: (Tues-Sun) 6.30pm-10.30pm