No, not poltergeists. Foreign celebrity chefs, that is. Just when you thought that they had lost their allure given the over-saturated F&B industry and recent big name closures, they’re coming back. And in a big way.
Perhaps it’s more coincidental than planned. But with Raffles Hotel’s recent unveiling of its Michelin-starred lineup for its re-opening next year coupled with Marco Pierre White’s The English House and the three Michelin-starred Frantzén set to open there hasn’t been so much celebrity chef buzz at one sitting since the opening of Marina Bay Sands (MBS) and Resorts World Sentosa almost a decade ago.
However, the new names are entering a market that has evolved since starry-eyed food lovers got their first taste of international-level fine dining with Guy Savoy, the late Santi Santamaria and Joel Robuchon, Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud and Wolfgang Puck among those opening their doors here. From this group alone, only the last two chefs still have restaurants here.
But more importantly, homegrown talent whether Singapore-based or local-born has changed the dynamics of dining here, thanks to more savvy, well-travelled diners who are no longer in awe of the names once feted by royalty here. Plus, the city has earned its own reputation in the world as a dining destination with its unique brand of cuisine from fine dining to hawker fare.
REDEFINING CELEBRITY CHEF RESTAURANTS
Is it harder for celebrity chefs to make an impact in Singapore now compared to say, 10 years ago?
Absolutely, says Ivan Brehm, chef-owner of the Michelin-starred Restaurant Nouri. “The market is saturated and diners have seen it all. When the first few celebrity chefs came, the Western fine dining concept was still very new. Now it’s like, if it’s good, that’s great but if it’s not, it won’t make it. Where celebrity chefs have failed here in the past is when they think that their reputation is enough to capture the audience. But the reality is that you have to convince them that (the restaurant) is really good.”
That’s why Raffles Hotel is all set to redefine the celebrity chef dining experience in Singapore with a positioning that is “approachable and honest,” says Christian Westbeld, general manager of Raffles Hotel, stressing the importance of knowing what the market is looking for.
“The times when hotels and restaurants say ‘we are doing this because we have always been doing it this way’ are gone. The market is very sophisticated, discerning, value-oriented and always looking for new experiences.”
With this in mind, the hotel is bringing in two of the biggest names in France Alain Ducasse and Anne-Sophie Pic and staging the return of Jereme Leung, one of Singapore’s best-known chef exports, to helm its flagship Chinese restaurant, Yi.
While the name Ducasse tends to be associated with ultra-luxe fine dining, it was a “planned decision” not to bring in a version of say Le Louis XV. Instead, BBR by Alain Ducasse is a Northern Mediterranean concept that has a tapas bar vibe with a large open kitchen, wines by the glass and different price points at different times of the day. “It’s something he has not done anywhere else in the world,” says Mr Westbeld. “Mr Ducasse and his team have achieved everything you can achieve at every level. I think it’s true credit to Singapore that someone of that level has embraced (the idea) to try something different.”
It is key to the Raffles’ F&B positioning that they create “unique concepts that are truly new to our celebrity chefs, Raffles Hotel and the community in general.” This way, “you don’t get the feeling that, when you travel to London or Paris and then you come to our venue, you’re getting like for like”.
As for Anne-Sophie Pic’s restaurant, La Dame de Pic, “we are working with her and her team to create something unique so that Singaporeans who have been to her restaurant will still find something new here.”
Another first will be Singapore-born Jereme Leung’s return to helm the Chinese restaurant Yi, but his won’t be the only homecoming story, hints Mr Westbeld as reveals that there will be two or three new F&B tenants in the shopping arcade who are “recognisable names”.
While a sense of grandeur and pomp were what defined the early celebrity chef restaurants in Singapore, “for some it hurt more than it helped”, he feels. “There’s no reason why we can’t retain that sense of formality when the occasion calls for it. But in our overall approach, the value perception is critical.”
WHAT THE CHEFS SAY
It isn’t just Raffles Hotel that believes in the ‘value perception’. Björn Frantzén of the three Michelin-starred Frantzén in Stockholm stresses that “we were never about stuffy fine dining we want it to be relaxed, personal and fun”.
That is the brief for Zen, the restaurant that will take over the space vacated by Restaurant Andre, and is a collaboration with chef Andre Chiang and restaurateur/hotelier Loh Lik Peng. Chef Frantzén explains in an email interview that although Zen is closer in concept to his flagship restaurant, “it was never about establishing a fine dining presence in Asia”.
His Frantzén Group already has a presence in Hong Kong, albeit a more casual restaurant, but it is not part of a larger plan to expand into Asia. “We get many offers but most of the time we say ‘no’. Wherever we choose to open, it’s about knowing we can execute our vision there.”
Frantzén is the first Nordic Michelin-starred restaurant to open an outpost in Singapore. “Our food is a mix of Nordic, Japanese and French influences, and it is about using ingredients that are locally available. The same will apply to Zen as we’re working with many Asian and Japanese ingredients we can get here. We are bringing many other ingredients, spices and pickles from Sweden, in fact, we’ve been fermenting and pickling some ingredients for the past 21 months that will be brought to Singapore.”
“We are not transporting a restaurant from Sweden wholesale to Singapore,” adds Mr Loh. You will see the DNA in Zen but it is very much its own restaurant, located in and connected to Singapore.”
He is not perturbed by the turnover of fine dining/celebrity chef restaurants, calling it “healthy, and allows new talent to come in and new concepts to flourish”. Long-term sustainability is more important than profit to him. “Fine dining will always have its place and I don’t think such restaurants open purely to make money. It’s important to make some money for sure but it’s also important to have a wider purpose for your guests and your team.”
Singapore-based Michelin-starred chefs aren’t feeling any pressure from the new entrants either. “The influx of these big names just shows that Singapore has established itself as a dining destination in its own right, and international chefs want to be involved in it,” says Kirk Westaway, head chef of the one-starred Jaan.
Edina Hong, co-owner of the two-starred Shoukouwa and one-starred Saint Pierre agrees. “It’s human nature to go where the opportunities are. It used to be Japan, then Macau and Hong Kong, and now Singapore. If anything, manpower is going to be an issue, which can only be solved by the government. The manpower shortage is no secret in Singapore, yet there are still a lot of restaurants opening.”
Julien Royer of two-starred Odette reckons that restaurants like his would still have an advantage because “guests know I’m in the restaurant not just two or three times a year but all year round!”
Having said that, there is a greater sense of wanting to blend into the local environment by the celebrity chefs compared to before. Like Bjorn Frantzén, Anne-Sophie Pic says via email that “I have always been deeply attracted by Asia and culture, dynamic, products and gastronomic influence have always been my inspiration.” She is also focused on discovering local products “to adapt to the market but also in search of constant evolution.” Berlingots a pasta shape she created is a signature dish and “a specific version is present in each Pic restaurant and always adapted to the city spirit”.
But no one is happier to be in the Singapore environment than Jereme Leung. The specialist in modern Chinese cuisine has restaurants around the globe from Shanghai to New York and Maldives, but considers his Raffles Hotel outpost to be both “practical and emotional”. Practical because Singapore’s dining scene is evolving to match that of sophisticated dining cities such as New York, Tokyo, Shanghai and Hong Kong; and emotional because “I’m proud to be a homegrown chef with a long overseas career that has allowed me to break out of the mould of the typical Southeast Asian school of Chinese cuisine.”
What he wants to do at his restaurant Yi by Jereme Leung is to “offer guests what Chinese cuisine will be like 20 years down the road, an evolving style that retains its core Chinese heritage.”
BEEN THERE, STILL DOING THAT
Celebrity chefs have come and gone, with most of them concentrated in the two integrated resorts MBS and RWS. At RWS – which declined to comment for this article – its most high profile exit has been that of the three-starred Joel Robuchon restaurant and two-starred L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in June this year. (Mr Robuchon himself passed away in August). It also closed its high end kaiseki restaurant Kunio Tokuoka which opened in 2011 (it has since been replaced by Syun by Hal Yamashita), while its celebrity-linked tenant Chinois by Susur Lee was rebranded as TungLok Heen.
(RELATED: Remembering Joel Robuchon)
At MBS, the sudden death of chef Santi Santamaria in 2012 led to its first closure of Santi, followed by Guy Savoy in 2014. It closed Mario Batali’s Osteria Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza in July this year for no apparent reason, although it was speculated to be related to allegations of sexual misconduct against chef Batali. Currently, Daniel Boulud’s db Bistro, Tetsuya Wakuda’s Waku Ghin and Wolfgang Puck’s Cut and Spago are still going strong, along with Adrift by David Myers, Long Chim by David Thompson and Bread Street Kitchen by Gordon Ramsay. Outside of the integrated resorts, there are others including Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Dempsey Cookhouse & Bar, Alvin Leung’s Forbidden Duck, Jamie’s Italian and Luke Mangan’s Salt.
Opening MBS with big iconic names “was our promise to Singapore right from our bidding days and we’re happy to have made some impact on the dining scene over the years,” says Christine Sheares, VP of F&B at MBS.
But there has been a distinct shift over the years from super high end dining, “as you will find that we now offer a more well-balanced and diverse spread of restaurants from the two-starred Waku Ghin to the casual-hip space at The Bird and the nightlife element of LAVO”.
With 45 million visitors to MBS last year (not counting hotel guests), there is a huge catchment to cater to and “we’ve had tremendous success with the recent opening of Black Tap (a New York burger restaurant)”.
Chef Boulud, who is based in New York but makes regular visits to his Singapore outpost credits db Bistro’s staying power to “consistency creating a great dining experience”. He adds, “Even though I am based in New York, I have a very good team, some of whom have worked with me for many years. We keep in close communication on a weekly basis, going through service feedback, finding ways to improve and brainstorming new recipes. In fact, this has been a record year for db Bistro in terms of sales and revenue.”
ARE DINERS IMPRESSED?
As far as serious diners in Singapore are concerned, the consensus is that the more variety, the better. And big names will have at least one chance to impress them enough to return.
Chan Kwai Sum, an avid diner and traveller, says that the greater thrill for him is to snag coveted spots at flagship restaurants, but “I will always dine once at any new restaurant just for the experience especially if the chef is in town to cook.”
Adds Nicola Lee, managing director of a property company: “Most well-heeled foodies don’t always have the time when they travel (to dine at flagship restaurants) on business trips, so having an outpost brings chefs closer to them. “I remember meeting the late Joel Robuchon in Singapore on one of his visits, and he actually asked me which of his restaurants I are in and which I liked or didn’t. He was keen to know his diners’ preferences.”
Consultant anaesthetist Loh May Han says that nothing beats dining at the source but “if these leading names head to our shores, we won’t hesitate to visit, providing we had positive memories of the original.”
As for Marilyn Lum, director of Lum Wen Kay Holdings, “Every celebrity chef brings a style and interpretation of cuisine that is unique. I am definitely as excited about the arrival of Ducasse as I was with Robuchon.”
There’s no doubt that the hunger for new, exciting or just plain luxury dining is as insatiable as ever. If you build a restaurant, they will come. But for how long that remains the million dollar question.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.