Their fine-dining restaurants rank among the top in Singapore, and, together, they won awards for Jaan at Swissotel, yet not many people know that the abiding friendship between chefs Julien Royer and Kirk Westaway started in a professional kitchen in London’s Mayfair district.
The Michelin-starred chefs are the stars of Ermenegildo Zegna’s latest “Defining Moments” video, which is part of a series featuring the musings of well-known personalities.
When Royer was appointed head chef at Jaan in 2011, he needed a sous chef. Westaway, who was then in Argentina and on his way back to London to pursue his career, was the first person Royer called. It was an opportunity too good to turn down, and Westaway found himself abandoning his original plan and joining his friend in Singapore.
Both Royer and Westaway grew up on farms in the countryside; the former in the Auvergne region of France and the latter in coastal Devon, England. From a young age, both men were accustomed to using the freshest seasonal ingredients harvested from their surroundings.
“Our families like to eat and cook with natural, organic and artisanal small-farm produce,” says Westaway. This obsession with the provenance of their ingredients, as well as their desire to place their produce at the centre of their cooking, is the reason why both men work so well together when it comes to crafting dishes and creating menus.
“Working together allowed both of us to strive to perform at high levels. We progressed as chefs in our own ways,” Royer says. With him at the helm and Westaway as his right-hand man, Jaan was listed on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list for three consecutive years. In 2015, Royer decided to make a bold move and start his own restaurant, Odette, which was named after his grandmother.
Taking in the panoramic view of Singapore over glasses of red wine at a rooftop bar at Andaz Singapore, both men look back on this decision as a turning point in their respective careers.
For Royer, transitioning from chef to restaurateur meant he had to learn how to run a business within a short period of time, but it also gave him the privilege of controlling an entire restaurant, not just its cuisine. And, while inheriting the title of head chef at the illustrious Jaan could have left a lesser chef quaking in his shoes, Westaway saw this as a chance to put into practice what he learnt from his mentor.
“When I left Jaan to open Odette, I realised that not only did I have to cook, but I also had to think about the business part of it… So it was a very exciting, but also very challenging moment for me. But it made me grow as a chef, as an entrepreneur, and nowadays I enjoy it very much.”
– Royer on the move
“In our journey over four years, watching your ability to break boundaries and to evolve and to grow every day was a huge inspiration for myself and the whole team,” Westaway tells Royer in the video.
With the departure of Royer, the Englishman took the opportunity to bring a bit of his heritage into Jaan’s Modern European style of cooking. It has paid off – Jaan is still on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list to date, and it also gained a Michelin star in 2016.
Royer’s fondness for Westaway, and his pride in his protege coming into his own, is apparent – as is his own humility as a chef. Never mind the two Michelin stars Odette has, and its 5th place on Asia’s 50 Best this year – Royer is more concerned about how to keep honing his craft.
He says: “I think what’s incredible about this job is that there is always something to improve when it comes to cooking a dish. I really believe that you can always do better than the day before, and there is always some room for improvement; something to perfect, something to tweak to make it better.”
The video ends with a shot of the sharp-suited friends gazing at the Singapore skyline, both looking confident, yet the scene is somewhat poignant. Their sojourn to this tropical city has been immensely rewarding, and it wouldn’t have happened, if not for their appetite to explore something new.