He has deliberately played the low-key card for the past two years, as he instituted changes in Les Amis, including a $1 million renovation of the kitchen after he came on board. But now, Sebastien Lepinoy is ready to shine on the F&B stage.
Not that there is any way to hide his genius. Earlier this year, Les Amis was bestowed an Award of Excellence at this magazine’s annual G Restaurant Awards. It was also given the “Four-Star” Award by the Forbes Travel Guide Star Ratings 2015.
The 41-year-old spent more than half his career working with the legendary Joël Robuchon, eventually becoming his right hand man. It was those formative years, between 1993 and 2010, that taught him “the importance of team work and fidelity”.
“Joel Robuchon always reminded us that we do not work alone,” says the Frenchman, as we spend the day with him driving around town in a BMW X6. Robuchon also taught him the philosophy of ingredients being key to a restaurant success. Thus, the artisanal butter served at dinner is from Le Ponclet, a producer in Brittany, France. Les Amis is the only restaurant in Asia offering it, and Lepinoy even had to submit his resume before the company agreed to supply him. The cavier is from Kaviari, another French producer, selected for their ability to customise the flavour of the roe to his specifications. As diners, we certainly value these details.
Gourmet & Travel steps behind the scenes, and spends a day with the man poised to bring Les Amis to even greater heights. (MORE: Video at footer of this story.)
8AM: Leave home for Evolve Mixed Martial Arts
Lepinoy might start the day at different times but he never sleeps in on a workday. “I wake up early because I need to do something outside of work in the morning. I think it is important to have a balance in my life between family, career and personal time.”
At least three mornings a week are spent exercising. One of those is dedicated to a 90-minute private muay thai lesson at Evolve Mixed Martial Arts, with Pornsanae Sitmonchai, a multiple world champion. A quick check on the BMW ConnectedDrive system reveals, real time, that traffic is heavy but flowing. The navigation system chooses the best route and he arrives on time for class.
Lepinoy also cycles 50km at least twice a week, biking from his home in Emerald Hill to Changi Beach, and back. His regime is born out of need than want. Because of occupational hazards, he grappled with obesity for years, “I was a vacuum cleaner. I loved to eat butter, cheese and ice-cream.” After developing high blood pressure in 2008, he realised he had to take action and promptly lost 17kg within three months. His weight has never spiralled out of control since.
10AM: Breakfast at Ya Kun Kaya Toast, Far East Square
Lepinoy is buzzing with adrenaline after the high-octane muay thai lesson. “I always feel so good after the class, devoid of stress and very zen-like. The life of a chef is always full of pressure so the workout helps me generate positive energy,” he enthuses. It is customary for him to make a stop at Ya Kun, where he downs a quick breakfast of kaya toast, black coffee and occasionally, soft boiled eggs. “It’s simple, fast and al fresco. This is authentic Singapore for me.”
10.30AM: Arrive at Les Amis
Lepinoy’s “first job in the morning”: personally saying hello to each and every one of the kitchen staff.
“It is important to be friendly at work because we all work so closely together,” says Lepinoy. He sets up both his smartphones and notes needed for the day’s meal services at a small corner in the kitchen designated to him. Then it is off to the morning meeting with various heads of departments to discuss operational issues for the day, including VIP guests and the distribution of the service staff.
11AM: Meeting with Gourmet Partner
It is black truffle season now and Les Amis’ supplier Gourmet Partner is making its delivery. Coming first from Western Australia and later Tasmania as the season changes, the tuber is of top quality only if its aroma is arresting, and reveals a veiny marbling upon slicing. “I’m French but the Australian black truffles are really better,” admits Lepinoy. Through Gourmet Partner, he also persuaded a fisherman living in the French town of Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie to supply seafood solely to Les Amis. These arrive every Monday, Thursday and Saturday, and ranges from seabass to lobster to dover sole depending on the time of year.
11.30AM: Walk-through with chefs and sommelier
With a large team of 26 chefs, it is essential to go through the menu before the meal service. This meeting is usually led by Executive Sous Chef Peter Teo while Lepinoy hovers in the background before moving on to discuss the sommelier’s suggested wine pairings for the day.
At the pastry section supervised by chef Cheryl Koh, a tray of mini baguettes have just been pulled out of the oven. “You know the meal service is about to start when the bread is laid out on the table,” says Lepinoy. An average of up to 10kg of flour a day is used to make four different types of bread. “In France, we believe that to share bread before a meal is to share friendship. The word ‘pain’ is derived from the word ‘friend’,” he explains.
12PM: Lunch service commences
He used to drink 10 cappuccinos a day but has since reduced to five. Just before the first guests arrive, Lepinoy downs a cup – his second for the day – and takes his place behind a table, ready to perform his role as quality controller before the dishes are served.
The service peaks between 1pm and 1.30pm, “crescendo style”, and the atmosphere in the kitchen becomes increasingly fast-paced and frantic with him barking out orders. In response, the chefs chorus “oui” together, mandated by him to indicate they have heard the instructions.
“The customers want to finish their lunch in one hour, but still expect a fine dining experience,” he says. “If they are made to wait, they won’t come back, so we cannot let that happen.”
As the last guest sips his coffee, Assistant Restaurant Manager Ruziq Andross pops in for a quick chat with Lepinoy to give feedback he has received during the lunch service. They had a busy afternoon with 62 covers and the staff is looking slightly peaked.
2.30pm: Lunch with wife at Casa Verde
Tall, well-coiffured and lively, Lepinoy’s Korean wife Olivia Lee bursts into the restaurant after the meal service ready to lunch together – something he tries to do regularly. En route to Casa Verde, he catches up with his emails on the large screen of the X6 with the help of BMW ConnectedDrive, while she chats about how they met.
Wedded in October 2014, Lepinoy first laid eyes on Lee at the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants award ceremony in February last year. They had been introduced by pastry chef Koh, who is a friend of Lee’s. A cookbook author and popular TV chef in Korea herself, she lost her heart to him after she tried his food at Les Amis and found it “very special”.
“He is a serious, mature and good guy,” she says about her husband, as they sip on calamansi juice and eat hor fun and a cheese pizza at the Botanic Gardens. “Our work is also similar, so we can understand each other.”
4.30PM: Service training session
After spending the first two years focusing on the food and kitchen of Les Amis, Lepinoy now turns his attention to service. Jolene Lee, the group’s assistant training manager, shares details with him and Royston Soo, the group’s director of restaurants, about plans for a mystery diner programme for testing standards. Lepinoy is also introducing new uniforms come 1 September, and has even mandated that the male staff have to use the same cologne, Chanel’s Allure, for consistency.
Then it is on to a quick session on the black truffle, to ensure the service staff is providing accurate information on this in-season ingredient.
6PM: Pre-dinner service briefing and food tasting with visiting chefs
In Singapore for training for three months are Kentaro Komada and his team. They will be behind Vue 46 – the baby brother of Les Amis and Lepinoy’s pet project for the moment – opening on 1 November on the top floor of Plaza Indonesia in Jakarta.
6.30PM: Dinner service commences
The pace is noticeably slower than at lunch, because dinner at a fine dining restaurant is always a leisurely affair. Still, there is a table of 19 in one of the private dining rooms and the kitchen is up to its eyes with some 11 langoustines, seven grilled artichokes and 13 scallops to prepare.
Three tasting menus are offered at dinner and these are change about every month, according to the produce available. The September menu will focus on French mushrooms and for October and November, the white truffle.
10.30PM: Supper at Sin Hoi Sai Seafood
As the dessert course starts going out, Lepinoy changes out of his chef whites and heads out with his colleagues for supper at Tiong Bahru. They are regulars at Sin Hoi Sai Seafood, which he loves for the black pepper and chili crabs, and stir-fried hor fun served with a raw egg.
It has been more than 12 hours since he left home but he still looks remarkably fresh. Already he is two steps ahead, checking the BMW ConnectedDrive for the weather forecast for tomorrow morning, when he plans to go cycling.
“I didn’t think I will stay so long in this career,” he muses, as the car drives through the quiet streets taking him home. “But having done it for more than 25 years, I cannot imagine doing anything else.”