Alan Yau is the man who made noodles trendy in the United Kingdom – if not the rest of the world – sending thousands to slurp up meals-in-a-bowl at the ground-breaking Wagamama chain of eateries that the Hong Kong-born restaurant-entrepreneur founded in 1992.
In a career spanning almost 30 years, Mr Yau, 56, has earned an OBE for his contribution to the restaurant industry in the UK, having created some of the most memorable restaurants in London including Hakkasan, Yautcha, Busaba Eathai, Babaji Pide and the temple of Oriental opulence, Park Chinois.
Now, he’s set to spread some of his culinary magic in Singapore with the opening of Madame Fan on April 24, billed as an “etiquette-free” fine dining lifestyle concept which will “usher in a new era for Chinese dining in Singapore”.
Located at the old NCO Club that’s part of the South Beach development, this is his first South-east Asian venture and no doubt eyes will be on him and how he creates a unique restaurant concept that resonates with a dining public already used to the best Chinese food in every permutation.
But given Mr Yau’s track record of showmanship, he most certainly has a trick or two up his sleeve.
You’re a legend in the restaurant business, one who has literally been there and done that. What’s your secret to staying relevant and ahead of the pack?
I do not really think about life that way. It is never a goal when I set out to do a new project, to think if that will keep me one step ahead of the rest. If there is ever an Alan Yau strategy to business then it has to be more about things that drive passion and happiness. That’s the mantra. (In 2009, Mr Yau trained to be a monk in Thailand for eight months). The God particle is very important to me. The very essence of things which gives the heart purified energy and fulfillment, rather than the negative physical consciousness of forever trying to satisfy the human ego with manifestations driven by external existence.
This is your first venture in South-east Asia. What took you so long to get here? And how did the opportunity come about?
There is and has always been a commercial dichotomy about the South-east Asia market, in that it is attractive by nature but never big enough in terms of critical mass to become a first-tier investment destination from the food and beverage point of view. The opportunity came about through an old business colleague.
Your restaurant businesses have mainly been in London, where Chinese food is seen from a Western point of view. What is it like to open in South-east Asia, and particularly Singapore, where your customers are mainly Chinese?
In London, my work and my product were primarily dictated by the market. That’s the key difference to my approach. It’s not about seeking a point of difference. It is about whether you believe you have the ideas to take the food to the next layer. and at the same time, whether you can encode a new set of DNA in these products.
If this is possible, then the challenge is not about whether Singapore is saturated with Chinese restaurants serving a mainly Chinese clientele, it is about whether you define the product layering as special enough, and consistent enough to make it a success.
I actually find the menu development process much easier, compared to Europe, due to the abundance of qualitative ingredients and produce. It is important that it is not about Alan bringing London to Singapore, just the Alan Yau DNA. My overall argument is that everything is transformational.
What are your thoughts on the food trends coming out these days, from farm-to-table to millennial dining experiences?
The trends I enjoy watching are the big ticket players rather than the sexy things. The home dining market with the help of tech disruption excites me. Similarly, mono products with the capabilities to scale is also exciting. For example, I believe the doner kebab market will be big one day. It currently outsells American quick service restaurants (QSRs) such as McDonalds in Germany. And yet it has no brand leader in the segment.
I think farm-to-table is a fad. But the concept of sustainable farming alongside the approach to localisation and provenance is the way forward. I believe millennials are more about mono products and comfort food and the idea of how to pare down the concept to allow the efficiency and honesty to come through.
Ultimately, at this level, it is not about brands or chains. It is about craft and the charm and relevance of the chef owners delivering quality at a personal level.
What kind of dining trends do you foresee in the near future? And what’s your assessment of the dining scene in Singapore, as well as Singapore diners?
I think there is too much political correctness being applied by the city-state. This has made it extremely hard for the soul to manifest. Coupled with this, the inward labour policy has further diminished the ability of the market to enhance the qualitative play. Still, the Singapore dining scene is more dynamic, compared to 10 years ago. There is life beyond chicken rice.
To take Singapore’s fine dining scene to the next level, there are areas to improve. The first would be service. Singaporeans do not see service as a career, just a job to tide them over. In Europe, it is treated with a lot more respect. Fine dining should go beyond the food on your plate. Beyond the craft, it is about service and ambience and creating an experience that is extraordinary and unforgettable.
With Madame Fan, we hope to bridge these gaps. A juxtaposition of tradition against progression is what will usher in a new era for fine dining in Singapore. Trying to contend with Europe’s way of fine dining and applying it to Asian food will not work because the experience is not authentic, it is distant and manufactured.
What other projects are you working on? Can you elaborate more on what Softchow is?
My current career or project is all about Softchow. It is a taste aggregation platform. We validate taste for the foodies so every time you eat, it’s pleasurable. We do this by creating a social network to crowdsource good taste. But we don’t recommend food or restaurants. And certainly we do not do hotels, flights or car hires. We aggregate taste through tastemaker discovery. Ultimately, people are at the heart of Softchow. It’s about everything and anything you put in your mouth. Our mission is to have “No Food Regrets”. Our goal is to propagate and democratise taste through the soft power of food. Our vision is to take every day and make it wonderful because taste can bring you happiness.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.
Photos: Madame Fan