The chef-owner of Singapore’s fine dining French restaurant explains what’s important to him now in a time when uncertainty is affecting the hospitality industry the world over
On March 24, 2020, screens lit up and chat groups sprang alive with activity as Julien Royer’s Odette was crowned—for the second year running—the number one position in the annual Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. As content director William Drew and BBC reporter Samantha Simmons reeled off congratulatory statements via an official live stream (which replaced an actual ceremony this year), a small huddle comprising staff, friends and family of Odette toasted to each other—feeling an odd mixture of happiness tinged with the bittersweet knowledge that after the party was over, there would be the harsh reality of adjusting to a world disrupted by COVID-19.
“No one is in the mood to celebrate anything, so we kept things very quiet,” admitted Royer. From March 26, the Singapore government implemented new measures to curb the spread of the virus, including the mandated shut-down of bars and entertainment venues such as clubs and cinemas. While there are no plans to close restaurants for the time being, precautions such as limiting operating capacities are being introduced to reduce the number of patrons that can be served at any one time. “We’re trying to stay positive, but we’re waiting for more instruction. Meanwhile, we’re staying very careful and prudent,” says Royer. “We are very lucky to still be open and still have guests in the restaurant.”
See also: Singapore's Odette Is Asia's Best Restaurant For The Second Time
For now, Odette is surviving against the odds—something that Royer credits to his hardworking and extremely loyal team, particularly chefs Levin Lau, Adam Wan and Yeo Sheng Xiong. “The three of them have been working with me almost for ten years,” he reveals. “It's a really long term collaboration. Without this core team, nothing would happen, to be honest.”
A pastel dream of a restaurant, Odette is the platonic ideal of what it means to be a modern French temple of gastronomy, with the soft touch that comes a culinary philosophy inspired by Royer’s maternal grandmother. Launched at the handsome National Gallery Singapore in 2015, The restaurant quickly gained two Michelin stars the following year, maintaining their sparkle until a third one was added in 2019. Chef-owner Royer, known for his perfectionist and oftentimes demanding character, has worked hard to create this little slice of culinary escapism. Over the last year, the team have been finetuning and reworking recipes as the goal posts continue to shift.
Without the core team, nothing would happen.
“We did a lot of work on simplifying the work that we do, trying to focus on flavour before everything else,” he explains. “Coming up with something creative is nothing—but creating something delicious is very difficult. So my focus for the last 12 months was about flavour and taste.” He describes the simplification of a roasted kinki fish with saffron, where the team have trimmed the number of steps required to plate the course down by five, to maintain the temperature and flavour. It’s these tiny details, he stresses, that are the differences between a dish that is simply beautiful to look at and one that is truly enjoyable.
Now, given the new circumstances, Royer’s focus has shifted to maintaining the restaurant’s role in society as a place for nourishment and restoration—after all, the root of the word restaurant is derived from the French restaurer, or to restore. If there is anything that restaurant shut-downs and temporary closures have taught us, it is that these venues are truly integral to our daily lives—providing spaces for sharing and interaction, to refuel and to gain respite. “I think people are starting to realise that,” says Royer. “We are here, as restaurateurs and chefs, to bring some joy to people and some happiness. The restaurant is still a place of life, and a place of sharing and of caring for people. So, I think it's so important that they continue.”
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“[Winning #1] was a great honour for us because, as you know, Singapore as a little red dot has a lot of competition. There are a lot of beautiful restaurants and I think diversity in Singapore is pretty amazing,” he continues. “So we feel honoured as well as responsible because we do have a message to pass and we do have to lead by example. And this is what we're going to try to do, with humility and we will do it as a team.”
As for what a post-COVID-19 future will bring, Royer remains optimistic. “I think we will all be careful and we will not take things for granted anymore. Hopefully we will all take care of ourselves and take care of each other more—ultimately, in our business this will translate into more genuine experiences and genuine hospitality.”
Odette, 1 St Andrew's Road, #01-04 National Gallery, Singapore; +65 6385 0498; odetterestaurant.com