Meet the five Odette chefs who helped Julien Royer achieve Michelin success
In celebration of the restaurant's fifth anniversary, chef-owner Royer wants his well-loved team to take the spotlight. In return, they share how his mentorship has impacted them.
How do you define a restaurant’s success in this day and age? For chef Julien Royer of three-Michelin-starred Odette, it’s a kitchen that runs faultlessly even when he isn’t around.
This month, as the restaurant named in tribute to his grandmother celebrates its anniversary, he’s confident that he’s achieved this. Five years in, Royer has built what is perhaps his strongest team yet – some members, such as executive chef Levin Lau, chef de cuisine Adam Wan and sous chef Yeo Sheng Xiong, have worked with him for a decade.
“We have grown together. They have become more than staff members to me,” he said. And, “Nowadays, I can take a day off or go on holiday and have no worries because I know the restaurant will be running very well and the standard will be the same as whether I’m here or not. I think this is truly the success of what a restaurant is in 2020, because you can’t be here always.”
And so this year, in light of the pandemic putting a damper on collaborations with other feted restaurants around the world, he’s come up with a different idea for celebrating the anniversary of the restaurant at the top spot of 2020's Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list.
“I told myself, ‘Why don’t we do it with our own little stars here?’”
In a three-day event named Marchands de Bonheur – “Merchants of happiness” – held from Nov 20 to 22, five of Royer’s chefs will take the pass, presenting their own dishes created with the chef-owner’s guidance.
“All of them have great talent, and all of them are the backbone of what we do on a daily basis. And without those people, there would be no restaurant, no story, no success. So, it's a way to reward them, make them shine and push their creativity,” he said.
In fashioning the menu for the anniversary dinner, each of the five chefs got to pick an ingredient that is currently in season, and craft a dish celebrating it.
Royer himself will also serve two of his signatures: The pigeon, a dish that has evolved via different permutations over the years, each more delicious than the last; and the langoustine, his favourite seafood, cooked very gently to highlight its natural sweetness.
The chefs have “been working on the dishes for the last few weeks, testing and refining and working as a team,” Royer said. “This is the beautiful thing about it – alone, you can’t do much, but when you are surrounded by great people like they are, you can.”
Who are the people who make up the heart and soul of Odette, and how do their dishes illustrate their journey with the restaurant? We got to know these talented chefs, rising culinary stars and purveyors of gustatory pleasure.
EXECUTIVE CHEF LEVIN LAU
Having been part of Royer’s team since 2007, Lau, whose father ran a market vegetable stall, knows all the ins and outs of kitchen management.
Even though he’s the strong, silent type, he isn’t without a sense of humour. For the anniversary dinner, the 35-year-old is presenting a playful tribute to Odette’s longstanding signature uni dish.
Instead of serving it in its shell, he’ll serve Hokkaido uni in a spiked glass bowl instead, with Osaka sardine tartare smoked with cherry wood for some unctuous fattiness, and finger lime that’s also from Japan. It’s topped with uni-infused mussel foam and Kristal caviar. “There’s a twist on the flavour, but the dish looks almost the same,” he explained.
The creation is inspired by his appreciation for Japanese ingredients and their provenance, a passion cultivated through trips to Japan with the restaurant’s suppliers to source for produce as well as to cook at events there with Royer and the team. “I really respect how they treat their ingredients carefully, starting with the farmers,” he said.
In the 13 years that he’s worked with Royer, Lau has learned to read him so well that he can always tell when his chef has tasted the one thing that’s particularly offensive to his palate: Dried shrimp. Whenever he detects it in food, “he makes a face”, Lau divulged with a laugh.
That, Royer protested, is because Lau loves putting dried shrimp, fish sauce and other pungent Asian elements into his own cooking.
On Lau’s part, it will forever be a mystery, he mused, why the French love their stinky cheeses but not hae bee and durian.
CHEF DE CUISINE ADAM WAN
What happens when you spend more time with your French chef than with your family or friends? Your English takes on a pronounced French accent, and it’s disarmingly unique.
Born in small-town Malaysia, Wan recalls building wood fires and visiting wet markets with his grandmother as a child, which motivated his food aspirations.
He has worked with Royer for nearly 10 years now, and has risen through the ranks to become his right-hand man in the kitchen, picking up a command of French along the way – which certainly helps in building rapport with suppliers.
For his dish, he wanted his French culinary training and his Chinese heritage to meet on a plate, while paying homage to one of Odette’s signature dishes, the Normandy Brown Crab.
He’s chosen to present a dish of Hokkaido king crab served two ways: Cold and hot. There is crab meat accompanied by a cucumber-tarragon sorbet and a layer of Riesling and Tosaka seaweed jelly; and then Chinese-style crab dumplings in a warm broth. “Dumplings are one of my favourite foods,” the 30-year-old said.
He has also made sure to incorporate one of the philosophies he’s absorbed from Royer: Respect for ingredients. The dish “uses every single part of the king crab to make sure there’s no wastage”: Broth is made with the shell, and crab trimmings form the dumplings’ filling.
It’s a tribute to the fact that “we cannot cook good food without the farmers, fishermen and other producers,” Wan said.
At the same time, “This is a really good opportunity to show my Chinese heritage in a French restaurant… I always tell myself, ‘Never forget where you come from.’”
SOUS CHEF YEO SHENG XIONG
The name on Yeo’s chef’s jacket reads “Naka Xiong”, but it’s really a nickname that Royer bestowed upon him: “Naka” is how the French chef pronounces the Mandarin conversational filler words “na ge”, which Royer says he used to hear Yeo utter all the time.
Yeo, who began his career with Royer at 19, has since embraced it fully – when he travels for work, it’s easier for chefs in other countries to pronounce than his actual name.
The 29-year-old is obsessed with the seasonality of produce, something that he credits Royer with helping him appreciate.
“The kitchen smells different every season,” he said. “Right now, when it's in between autumn and winter, you start to see cranberries… chestnuts. You see all the root vegetables. I really love celeriac. If I smell celeriac in January, it brings me back to November and December, like when you smell bak kwa at Chinese New Year.”
In a country where we have no seasons, the 29-year-old has come quite a long way from his childhood growing up on his father’s fish farm in Kranji. He now oversees the restaurant’s research and development processes, and mentors other cooks.
Even so, he laboured over the dish he wanted to present because, he quipped, it’s “going to be served in the restaurant where (Royer’s) grandmother’s name is on the wall”.
When the chefs were asked which ingredients they wanted to work with, he was the first to shoot his hand up and “chope” Alba white truffles.
Showcasing the seasonal delicacy, his dish also features Pu-erh tea-smoked egg, celeriac puree, Vin Jaune-buckwheat sabayon, crisp pancetta and Piedmont hazelnuts.
It’s a comforting yet elegant dish that mirrors the stage of maturity he’s grown into as a chef.
“I used to be really angsty and I thought that yelling was the best way,” he said. “But when (Chef Julien) saw me yelling, he would go, ‘Calmez-vous’, which means ‘calm down.’”
JUNIOR SOUS CHEF JONATHAN GAN
Gan is a self-taught cook whose love of Japanese culture is inscribed on his arms in the form of anime-inspired tattoos and the proverb, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.”
The attention to detail that the Japanese are known for is something he seeks to emulate, so he spends even his days off reading up on culinary methods, learning techniques of butchery and preservation.
Moving from Whitegrass to Odette in 2017, the 27-year-old was keen to learn about French cuisine, and Royer’s style taught him an appreciation for “light and clean-tasting flavours”.
For the dinner, he’s presenting a dish of wild turbot from Brittany, one of his favourite fish to work with. He brines it, then poaches it in French butter, serving it with Jerusalem artichoke puree finished with a mussel beurre blanc.
He makes sure to add that it’s “garnished with lemon zest, capers, bits of lemon segments and parsley”, because he’s only recently moved up from the garnish station to being in charge of proteins.
Not bad at all for a chef who’s had no formal culinary training and learnt everything on the job.
PASTRY CHEF LOUISA LIM
You’d think that having dedicated her life to pastry, she’d be a fan of all things sugary, but 28-year-old Lim says she really doesn’t appreciate overly sweet desserts.
That’s why her creations are delicate, restrained and never cloying – the perfect ending to a tour de force of a meal.
For the occasion, the Le Cordon Bleu Paris graduate, who trained and worked in France for four years, has spun a creation using chestnuts.
As it’s autumn and they are in season, chestnut mont blancs immediately sprang to mind. She then decided to add a citrus element with Corsican clementines. Along with toasted hazelnut meringue, the end result is a plate that combines “everything I like in a dessert”.
In keeping with Odette’s design aesthetic, “When I’m creating a dessert, I always bear in mind the words feminine balance,” she shared.
You could call it her personal act of mild rebellion: “I’m one of the few girls in the kitchen, so I prefer to add a feminine touch,” she said.
An environment with “a lot of male energy” does “get daunting sometimes”, she said. But, “I always tell myself to stay focused and take pride in whatever I do.”
Odette is at 1 St Andrew's Road #01-04.