Fried chicken and burger joints were once a transient training ground for those keen to get their first job in the food industry. But now, local and international chefs and restaurateurs are opening upmarket “fast food” eateries for a new generation, in what is a burgeoning dining trend in Singapore.
BJORN SHEN & ANTHONY YEOH – BIRD BIRD
At age four, Bjorn Shen had a clear vision for his future: “I wanted to be a snowman,” he says deadpan. By five, he’d settled on becoming a rice cook. Unsurprisingly, his second dream was the more realistic of the two, and closer to his destiny. Today, Shen is the owner-chef of Middle Eastern diner Artichoke, and premium fried chicken restaurant Bird Bird.
The bad boy of Singapore’s culinary scene, Shen had an image of a chicken wing tattooed on his left forearm after opening Bird Bird in 2015. While the ink remains, the eatery has since moved to Frankel Avenue. It now offers a more family-friendly dining experience than its predecessor in Ann Siang Hill, which Shen admits was risqué. “It showed that people aren’t always ready to buy whatever you are selling,” he says.
In February 2017, Shen brought on Anthony Yeoh of Cocotte fame as group executive chef, to help steer his vision for his restaurants. “Bjorn is very creative,” says Yeoh. “Where I’m complementary to that is I’m able to take his ideas and translate them into something tangible for the business.”
In Bird Bird’s case that meant a refined menu with three variations of fried chicken: Southern, Bangkok and Lebanese. There’s also a Vietnamese version in the pipeline. “We spent a month searching through purveyors of poultry before settling on Sakura chickens,” says Yeoh, who conducted blind taste tests. The hormone- and antibiotic-free birds “took on the flavours of our brine better, and gave us nice fat drumsticks,” says Shen.
There are also sharing plates. Think: curly fries, salads, and a mac and cheese that is beautifully light and creamy. For dessert, the signature soft serves and donuts can be eaten individually or together. Shen’s favourite? A warm donut topped with almonds. He also makes a range of homemade lemonades.
A natural creator, Shen relishes his role as mad scientist, while Yeoh plays good cop to his outlandish cop, and ensures the smooth running of their day-to-day operations. While they appear to be in stark contrast from one another, both opened their debut restaurants in 2010, and have a love of fried chicken that dates to their childhoods.
“What’s interesting is it was almost like it was predetermined,” says Yeoh, who recalls a collaboration Cocotte and Artichoke did together several years ago. “We called it Bird Day Party,” says Shen. “We walked around with buckets, handing out fried chicken to people.” Somehow, it seems the party is just getting started.
JOHN KUNKEL – THE BIRD
American restaurateur John Kunkel’s first job in the food industry, at age 15, “wasn’t about cooking at all,” he says. “Like most good decisions in life, it was about a girl. Her father ran the restaurant, and working there was my lead-in.” The ruse was a success. Kunkel got the girl and, fortuitously, fell into a career that would ultimately see him earn international acclaim.
As chef-turned-founder of restaurant group 50 Eggs, Kunkel is the man behind the James Beard-nominated and award-winning Yardbird Southern Table & Bar in Miami. Outlets followed at The Venetian in Las Vegas and, recently, Marina Bay Sands in Singapore – where it’s known as The Bird. Another will open in Dubai soon. “We are officially the ambassadors of Southern cuisine,” says Kunkel. “Many times, we’re giving people their first glimpse of Southern cuisine, and we’re all for it.”
Based in American homestyle cooking, the star of The Bird’s menu is fried chicken, which is made according to a 100-year-old recipe belonging to Kunkel’s grandmother. Unlike most Southern fried chicken, no buttermilk is used. Instead, a thin, crispy crust is achieved with a spiced flour mix. The chicken is brined for exactly 27 hours, tossed in spiced flour, and then fried.
Two “Cadillac-size pressure fryers”, worth around US$30,000 apiece, were imported from the US specially. “That’s the one thing I’ve deviated on my grandmother’s fried chicken, she had a little skillet to work with,” says Kunkel. And just like grandma, they never use frozen poultry. The Bird’s chicken is free-range, hormone-free chicken and sourced from a supplier in Singapore.
Many of the other ingredients, such as smoked trout roe, are flown in from the States. “We wanted to feature some of our really special Southern purveyors,” says Kunkel. The bacon is sourced from the “rockstar of the ham world” Allan Benton in Tennessee, whose bacon takes around five weeks to make, using traditional methods. South Carolina’s Geechie Boy Mill supplies the grits for the Shrimp n’ Grits, and Carolina Gold Rice provides the heirloom grains used in the Low Country Laksa.
This attention to detail, and “tenacity, I’m very hard-headed”, has seen Kunkel amass half a dozen eateries – including the newly opened Chica, a Latin-inspired concept in Las Vegas. “The restaurant business is not easy, you have to love it to stay in it or it will chew you up,” says Kunkel. “But if you have passion for the industry, then it’s about perseverance and moving forward.”
Sometimes, progress means taking a moment to acknowledge the journey. “Being back in Asia is a great feeling,” says Kunkel, who travelled the continent during his twenties. “I practiced martial arts for years and ended up moving to Taiwan to continue my study; I think I saw too many Bruce Lee movies,” he laughs. “Those lessons of discipline and focus play a part in my life and my business these days, without that I think I would have had a very different path.”
SERENE CHUA & HO SONG EN – WOLF BURGERS
Two years ago, The General Burger at Carvers & Co on East Coast Road was named one of Singapore’s best in the Asia Burger Challenge. It was an exciting moment for the neighbourhood eatery, which opened in 2013. And the unexpected accolade sparked an idea: “The team decided to create a gourmet burger at a more accessible price point,” says founder and private banker, Serene Chua. “Hence, Wolf Burgers was born.”
Together with her co-founders – former private equity professional Ho Song En, head chef Sarah Lin, and musician-turned-manager Soh Wen Ming – Chua opened the first Wolf Burgers outlet in 2016 at Suntec City Pasarbella. A second one followed in April at Changi City Point. And a third location will open at Marina One later this year. They also offer catering and delivery for parties. Wolf Burgers’ expansion has been exponential for good reason: Top-notch fare.
Produced in-house, using a secret recipe entrusted only to a select inner circle, the high quality Australian beef patties are freshly ground and cooked daily. Fish and vegetables are sourced from South-east Asia. “The buns are custom-made by a friend of ours, who uses a recipe we developed to deliver the right patty-bun-condiment ratio,” says Ho. “We also make our own blend of artisanal coffee and milkshakes.”
Another secret to Wolf Burgers’ success is listening to their fans. “We take our customer and staff feedback very seriously, and conduct regular food tasting sessions on existing and new products,” says Chua. The menu also caters to local tastes with uniquely Singaporean items such as a salted egg mayo chicken burger, and pandan white chocolate ganache waffles served with coconut ice cream.
“Although we started off as a burger place, we are still evolving,” says Ho. “We are consistently developing new products. We will be launching a new breakfast line, and a wider range of desserts,” he says. There’s a build-your-own burger concept in the works, along with a limited edition wagyu beef patty. “We are also looking at ways to collaborate with chefs in Singapore to create innovative products,” says Ho.
New technology ensures they continue to stay relevant in a market that is always on the lookout for something new. The Wolf Express app cuts the time it takes to order and pay, and means people no longer need to queue – instead, they simply arrive and collect their food. But their biggest achievement: “We are proud to say we are a homegrown brand,” says Chua.
SYLVAIN ROYER – 25 DEGREES
He has worked in Michelin-star restaurants, so why would French chef Sylvain Royer want to run a burger joint? It began with a desire to make good food available to everybody. “When I look at where I love to go for lunch or dinner, I can’t afford to go to a Michelin-star every day, that’s only for the elite,” says Royer, the Bangkok-based general manager and chef de cuisine at R&B Lab. The group runs about 10 restaurants in the US and Asia, including 25 Degrees, an upmarket burger bar concept that originated in Los Angeles, which R&B Lab brought to Bangkok and now Singapore.
Royer also noted that, “People do not have much time to eat now.” His solution was to offer a reasonably priced, premium burger made from fresh ingredients. “The burger had turned bad,” says Royer, who believes its reputation was tarnished by big-name, international fast food chains. “I thought, we have to do something, we have to take back the burger!”
The son of a charcutier, Royer grew up in Reims, France – the Champagne region’s largest city, and a gastronomical wonderland. For Royer, a career working in food was inevitable. “I always knew that I was not a guy who would spend a lot of time at school,” says Royer, whose father inspired him to become a chef. “My whole life, I saw my father in the kitchen.”
Royer landed his first job at age 15, preparing staff meals at La Garenne in Reims. “Staff food is the worst,” he laughs. “Most of the time the chef doesn’t even want to budget for it.” His first night ensured the entire restaurant team knew who he was – for all the wrong reasons. “I cooked spaghetti bolognaise but I didn’t mix the pasta well. When I served it, the pasta was stuck together and everyone shouted at me. I said, ‘OK, OK, next time I’ll do better!’”
Today, Royer is as fastidious as those chefs he once cooked staff meals for. At 25 Degrees in Singapore the hamburger buns are made by a local artisanal baker, using Royer’s recipe. “It took six months for us to find the right guys to do this.” The patties are made in-house, using 200 grams of pure Angus beef, which is flown in from the US. Sauces are also made from scratch, and the onions are caramelised during a 12-hour process. “This is not a burger you would find at a fast food outlet, we use quality ingredients,” he says.