“Inever thought I would ever open a restaurant in Singapore,” confesses Julien Royer, the former head chef of Jaan. Yet fate had different plans. He was introduced to Wee Teng Wen – the brains behind the Lo and Behold dining concepts such as The Black Swan and The White Rabbit – through a mutual friend about a year ago, and casual chats morphed into a business venture.
“It wasn’t planned. I was happy with where I was but I was lucky to meet him at the right time.” Wee echoes the sentiment: “We were never on a conscious lookout for fine-dining opportunities. But when I met Julien, I was drawn to his management style and the emphasis he placed on his people.”
(UPDATED: Odette clinched the Best New Restaurant award at the G Restaurant Awards 2016.)
The result of this partnership is Odette, a restaurant which occupies a lofty, light-filled space that was one of the old Supreme Court offices. This project is the fruit of seamless teamwork, with the interiors being designed by Sacha Leong (Universal Design Studio), and branding and artwork by local artist Dawn Ng.
Born and bred in the quiet countryside of Cantal, France, Royer grew up reaping the seasonal bounty of his family’s farm. His beloved grandmother, Odette, always prepared food according to the seasons. Royer reminisces: “In autumn, she would cook with root vegetables or make a cep mushroom quiche. I always remember her tarts and jams, which she prepared all year round using fruit from the farm.
“She would use red currants and strawberries in spring-summer, followed by apple, quince and pear in autumn. And in the cold winter months, she would use dried prunes.”
“What my grandmother taught me was to respect seasonality and products – that is the key that goes beyond any kind of food philosophy. It seems simple but people tend to forget that there’s a season for everything. You have to use a product when it’s at its peak.” Royer has kept Odette’s words of wisdom close to his heart. “I was always with her in the kitchen, and told her, when I was eight or nine years old, that I wanted to be a chef or baker.”
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Although Odette passed away when Royer was 16, she remains a source of inspiration and encouragement. “The restaurant is a tribute to what I learnt from my grandmother. She always made people happy. She always loved cooking great meals for us. Our best memories were always around the family table where we spent countless hours eating and drinking. It was her way of showing us how much joy and love you can give people through food.”
GUIDED BY THE SEASONS
For Royer, when it comes to devising his menu, ingredients are the headline acts. “Everybody is asking me, ‘What’s going to be different [from Jaan]?’ My answer: nothing and everything. The style of cuisine at Odette is still contemporary French cooking that is very much ingredient-centric, even more than before.”
After Royer left Jaan in June 2015, he travelled back home, as well as to Shanghai, Tokyo and Hong Kong, to build his contacts and source for suppliers. “Having spent a few years in Singapore, I think I’ve become a more mature chef and have better understanding of the region, as well as how to get the best from each part of the world,” he shares.
“We spent a lot of time sourcing for good quality products. We also try to find ingredients from small producers – people that we believe in.”
Some of the exclusive ingredients that diners can look forward to include guinea fowl from France, pigeon from Brittany, organic vegetables and black truffle from Australia, and trout from Mount Fuji, Japan. “We also get line-caught wild flounder and Arctic surf clam from Hokkaido. We are probably the only non- Japanese restaurant to work directly with a seafood supplier in Hokkaido,” enthuses Royer. The restaurant is also bringing in cheeses from Alsace’s Bernard Antony, “eleveur de fromages”. “We will serve only unpasteurised cheese made of raw milk as it’s a different level of dimension, in terms of taste and palate sensation.”
LET THERE BE ART
With the restaurant taking pride of place in the National Gallery, art obviously plays a significant role in its concept. Suspended from the ceiling of the dining area is an oak, polyfoam, brass and paper aerial installation that took artist Dawn Ng four months to complete. “It is actually part of a larger series of art inspired by my time spent with Julien in his studio – the kitchen,” shares Ng, who’s married to Wee.
“Most design elements for the logo, branding and collaterals stem from the original collages made from textures, colours and treated photographs of raw ingredients which Julien and I are obsessed with. The aerial, consisting of a suspended sea of abstract folded shapes, is another expression of that.”
After photographing ingredients like scallops, walnut, amadei, romanesco, morel, kabocha, mackerel, pigeon and black truffle that arrived in Royer’s kitchen, Ng explored the natural beauty of these items. She blew up these images and manually sliced the photos to showcase each product’s details. She then derived colour swatches from these close-up shots, and picked three pastel shades that make up Odette’s brand colours: Skin, Blush and Dust.
There’s a noticeable impression that Royer has become a chef comfortable in his own skin. Shunning theatrical elements, intense philosophy or story-telling, he has a deliberate plan to make products and taste the priority. His precise technique-driven cooking influences his creations, and to him, it’s essential to pay attention and listen to the product. “I want the cooking to be simple and good, and to be enjoyed by everybody,” says the chef, adding that his plating now will be more “natural and fluid”.
A signature on the opening menu is a celeriac risotto. “When I was younger, I didn’t really like rice that much. So my grandmother made me a risotto without rice. Instead, she diced celeriac and cooked it with shallots, white wine, stock, cheese.”
In his own kitchen, Royer reinvented this dish as a tribute to his grandmother. He elevated his creation with shavings of black truffle and shoots of sunflower. The green shoots, which have a subtle nutty taste, balance perfectly with the earthy truffle and the creaminess of the risotto. The dish’s flavour is heightened with ribbons of comte cheese.
Forest, a textural contrast of different root vegetables – ranging from Chinese artichoke, chervil root, parsley root, Jerusalem artichoke, parsnip, chestnuts and Japanese burdock – further showcases Royer’s culinary dexterity with greens. The autumn vegetables are roasted, pureed, pickled, raw, or cooked sous-vide style, and bound with a tangy mushroom ketchup and finished with hazelnut crumble and black truffle. Royer also plans to roll out different versions of this dish for the different seasons. Another highlight on the menu is a guinea fowl, slow-cooked at low temperature and finished in charcoal grill. “The idea is have this barbecued crispy skin and umami flavour of the grilled meat,” tells Royer.
To match with the food is a small French-leaning wine list sourced from small producers. This isn’t Royer being romantic, but practical: an expansive wine collection that requires huge storage and complex logistics is not the way for a new set-up, so he would rather a compact wine list that is easier to manage.
“That is the reality. There are too many romanticised stories and lies about what goes into the business these days!” he exclaims candidly. That said, the controlled list also makes it easier for the restaurant to build strong relationships with winemakers and suppliers – evidence again of Royer’s emphasis on people.
“And small is beautiful,” he concludes.