Chef Julien Royer explains why he is leaving Jaan to become a partner in Lo & Behold Group’s new fine-dining restaurant.
Tell chef Julien Royer that his leaving Jaan has been big news among the food-loving crowd in Singapore, and he looks surprised. “Really? I think only a few people know that I’m leaving. But I can feel that a lot of people have been coming in the last days or weeks, to say ‘bye’ and wish me luck,” he says.
Jun 12 was his last day at Jaan, after a four-year stint at the fine-dining establishment at Swissotel The Stamford. He adds that as a chef, “it is very touching. I’ve been building a strong relationship with my guests, and we have a lot of followers and regulars.”
He began thinking about running his own restaurant last year. “It is the desire of every chef, when you reach a certain maturity, to want to work for yourself, to be able to sharpen your product, and to mould your product in line with your identity,” he says. “It is difficult to be able to do this in a hotel, because, at the end of the day, you are just here for a certain period of time. But with your own restaurant, you are starting from scratch, and you can give it an identity and personal touches.”
Chef Royer will be joining the Lo & Behold Group in July. (The group is behind dining establishments such as The White Rabbit, The Black Swan and Tanjong Beach Club.) Together with founder Wee Teng Wen, the two will be partners for the group’s new fine-dining restaurant. While they are contractually not allowed to reveal the location, it is understood that it will be on the ground floor of The National Gallery, and will open to the public in December.
Chef Royer says he had been approached by others before to start his own restaurant, but nothing worked out. “It seems like a trend for people with some money to want to have their own place, but they don’t realise what it takes to run an F&B establishment, especially a high-end one,” he points out. “It requires sacrifice and investment, both financially and in people. I didn’t feel any connection with them. I know what it takes; just opening a restaurant will not work.”
He cites the example of how some people would spend 90 per cent of the budget on a chandelier, rather than on other aspects of a restaurant, such as providing the chef with a decent-sized kitchen, which is more important.
But he found a connection with Mr Wee. The two met through mutual friends in February last year. “I like that Teng is a people guy. His focus is on people, and at the end of the day, what we do in the hospitality field, is to serve people, giving them an experience, and you need the right people to do that. Teng is focused on that, which matches with my style of management.”
Mr Wee says: “Julien and I clicked. I loved his food, naturally, but really respected his management style. As a leader, he is empowering, kind and knows exactly how to motivate his people.” He adds: “Culturally, he is the perfect fit for The Lo & Behold Group. His people-centric approach and desire to create exceptional experiences for his guests were completely aligned with the company.”
Chef Royer says he and Mr Wee would spend much time discussing what they wanted to do together, how to do it, where and when. “He wasn’t in a rush to do something with me, and I wasn’t in a rush to open a restaurant either,” he notes.
This will be the group’s first foray into fine dining. “I was never on an active lookout for fine-dining opportunities. Fine dining is not for the faint-hearted and success is very much dependent on talent,” says Mr Wee.
Chef Royer handed in his resignation the day after the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony in March, where Jaan was ranked 11th. “I’m very fortunate to work at Jaan, and I will always remember this time, because this has been an important period of my career. At the end of the day, people come and go. The hotel is sad to see me go, but they have been very understanding. I leave the company on good terms.”
Both parties declined to reveal the name of the new restaurant, but Chef Royer reveals: “The name has a strong and deep meaning for me.”
He adds: “I’m still a chef, and cooking will still be my main duty, but at the same time, there are differences. I’m able to control not only the food which will still incorporate high-quality ingredients, but also the overall experience.”
He already has ideas for the menu, which he says, will still be his style of food but “with some surprises”. There will be signature items such as his mushroom tea which he has been serving up since day one. He will also have a say in the restaurant’s interiors. Although the restaurant will offer fine dining, the atmosphere will not be a stiff one.
“Fine dining can be very cold, serious, and almost masculine,” says Mr Wee. “We want to create a place for people to enjoy a great meal in a beautiful setting that is warm, elegantly comfortable and distinctly feminine.” They are working with Universal Design Studio in London and with local artist Dawn Ng on this project.
Awards and accolades aside, Chef Royer says what has been memorable for him at Jaan has been the ability to have “a strong team” working with him. Some of his staff have been at Jaan as long as he has. He declines to say if the team at Jaan will be following him. “All I can say is that I will have some great people with me.”
When I met Chef Royer on Thursday, he said that the restaurant has been fully booked for lunch and dinner on Friday. “We will have a good last service, and I’ll bring my team out for beer later.”
Asked if he would shed a tear at the end of the night, he quips: “No, I’ll try to control my emotions.”
This story first appeared in Business Times on Jun 13.