Like most people, Willin Low makes new year resolutions. Like most people, he breaks them.
“Every year, I tell myself that the F&B business is getting crazy competitive and I want to take it easier the next year – and then I break it,” says the lawyer turned personal chef turned chef-owner of Wild Rocket, who has opened sibling eateries, hosted TV shows, sells ready-to-eat meals, opens more restaurants and goodness knows what else he decides to put his mind to.
His latest venture is as a partner in the new restaurant Lerouy – with chef Christophe Lerouy and Gwen Lim of Patisserie G – although he is taking a back seat where the cooking is concerned. He says he met chef Lerouy (the former head chef of Restaurant Alma) at his short-lived restaurant Dstllry and was smitten by his bold, innovative cooking. The trio became friends, but “subsequently Christophe left Dstllry due to outstanding salaries due to him and misrepresentations made to him”.
Believing it to be a waste of Lerouy’s talents if he didn’t have a platform to showcase his cuisine, Low and Lim decided to back him by opening a place in Stanley Street. Low designed the restaurant with his input, but “neither Gwen nor I will interfere with the menu as we love his food.”
At last count, Low cooks full time at Wild Rocket while juggling everything else. They include the burger bar Relish at Cluny Court and Wild Oats at Mt Emily, although he was forced to close Relish in Serangoon and Wild Oats in Punggol due to manpower issues. He linked up with Roxy Laksa to study its recipe before adding it to the growing repertoire of ready-to-eat meals under his &Will brand which retails curry puffs, laksa, mee siam and nasi lemak at Esso petrol stations.
&Will is part of The Common Good Company – “a collection of chefs, F&B folks (including Commonwealth Capital) that looks at how to make delicious ready-to-eat meals easily available” So far, the chicken pies and curry puffs have been bestsellers since they were launched in January. “Sales of the ready-to-eat meals is growing, but it’s tougher because you compete with a la minute cooking from hawkers. But the tide will turn as (sadly) more and more hawkers hang up their aprons.”
If he’s come a long way since opening the first mod-Sin eatery Wild Rocket in 2005, it was no accident. “Diversifying was always the DNA rather than a plan or strategy. And perhaps more doors have opened this year and I didn’t want to shut those that seem too good to pass.
“I can’t finance all the projects on my own. Some are with money we have made over the years and are re-invested, some are with friends as investors, some are sweat equity.” Besides Lerouy, Low is also opening a restaurant in Niseko, Japan – serving Singaporean flavours in locally made ceramics.
He’s proud of the fact that Wild Rocket and Relish still stand after 12 and 11 years, respectively, “in an industry that is cut-throat competitive with a fickle client base”. Even with setbacks over the years, he remained an optimist. “Perhaps the saddest part of shutting some of our outlets was not because they were not profitable but because of manpower shortage issues.”
While he was disappointed that Wild Rocket didn’t win a Michelin star when it first launched in Singapore, Low says that he was humbled by the public support. “In the days following the announcement, Wild Rocket was fully booked by guests who wanted to show that they still supported us despite the lack of a star.”
He’s able to juggle so many projects thanks to his team and also, “I do the things that I love – there’s no other way to survive this madness.” So what are his plans for next year?
“I want to take it easier – oh wait, I’m opening in Hokkaido.”
Story first appeared on The Business Times.