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Ventures beyond the kitchen
Chef Julien Bompard
Cuisine Service Pte Ltd
CHEF Julien Bompard shocked the F&B scene when he announced the closure of Le Saint Julien, the restaurant he and his wife Edith Lai started in 2003.
"My philosophy is that one should make a change every 10 years; not professionally but at least job-wise," he explains. Before opening his own restaurant, the chef had previously spent 10 years in the hotel kitchen, the last few at the prestigious Raffles Hotel. But after another decade of running his own restaurant, he was getting tired of the incessant challenges of an increasingly competitive business.
One of his biggest headaches was the worker crunch - thanks to the clampdown on foreign workers - which aggravated an already tight manpower supply in the service industry. As good chefs and kitchen staff became even harder to come by recently, chef Bompard knew things would not get better any time soon. Which got him thinking about how he could turn this challenge into a new business opportunity. What if he could offer a one-stop food preparation service that would save time and manpower for other restaurants?
With that in mind, he closed Le Saint Julien in 2013 and set up Cuisine Service Pte Ltd, a central production kitchen that supplies prepared foods to restaurants.
"I'm offering a one-stop resolution. My clients can now minimise head-hunting headaches, reduce operation and food costs, and save on storage and production space," he said. Most importantly, the reliance on chefs and the costs of food development will be reduced substantially.
Chef Bompard capitalises on modern sous vide technology, to prepare food under licensing from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) and an ISO 22000 certificate. His clients meanwhile benefit from reduced cost of sales resulting from savings on rental and expensive equipment in a kitchen. They also save on R&D costs and reduce their risks of food poisoning.
He describes his business strategy as straightforward and based on a concept of "choose, reheat and serve". Working in a 300-sq-m food production unit, Chef Bompard and his 12-man team have created more than 160 items for selection.
Would there be a day when the food he produces for his clients all taste the same? "No. My food makes up of 80 per cent of the client's basic cooking. The final reheating and even garnishing will give each outlet a unique look and taste," he explains. To facilitate this, Cuisine Service Pte Ltd also provides training to all their business clients.
While his current takings are 50 per cent less than what he was used to, Chef Bompard is optimistic. Does he miss cooking in the fine-dining environment? "That is why I set up Scotts 27!" He quips, referring to the reservation-only restaurant housed in a heritage bungalow on Scotts Road, of which he is the consultant chef.
Chef Daniel Tay
Foodgnostic Pte Ltd
FORMER pastry chef Daniel Tay is no stranger to the harsh challenges of the trade. Early in his career, he made his first foray into the food business and failed miserably; his missteps led to the folding of his family business, Seng Choong Confectionery, in 1995. But he bounced back, making a name for himself as the founder of Bakerzin, a homegrown regional chain of boutique pastry cafes.
As a hard-nosed businessman on top of being a pastry chef, it wasn't long before chef Tay ferreted out a potentially rewarding business opportunity. "I fully anticipated a market for food innovation and large-scale food supply contracting."
In 2013, he left Bakerzin and founded Foodgnostic Pte Ltd, a one-stop manufacturing solution for high-quality food products and services.
With help from the Capability Development Grant (CDG), Spring Singapore, chef Tay established a 1,600-sq-m production unit with state-of-the-art food production machinery. And with his reputation and contacts, he soon amassed a client list substantial enough to get production going.
While reluctant to give specific names, chef Tay lets on that most of his clients are well-known restaurants and cafe chains. At the same time he knows that there is no room for complacency in the current, highly competitive market: "We listen to our clients' visions, to really understand their companies and culture, and then work hand-in-hand with their chefs to develop recipes and products that best support their business and express their brand."
To deliver on these tall orders, chef Tay's team has to stay on its toes - staying ahead of the development curve when it comes to the next generation of food products and services, identifying coming trends be it local, regional, or global.
The business revenue for his company is an uneven split with food supply accounting for 90 per cent, and the remaining 10 per cent coming from his e-commerce model. Here, chef Tay remains in the public eye as the creator of the online cheesecake concept, Cat & The Fiddle.
In addition, he recently revived the family brand he lost more than 20 years ago, calling it Old Seng Choong. It sells festive foods and treats such as steamed radish, yam cakes, and mooncakes, celebrating the traditions and rituals that gave rise to these ancient Chinese delicacies. Asked if he would consider putting his foot through the retail market door again, chef Tay replies: "I'm still optimistic about our retail market despite the depressed mood. We just need a good concept, good location and attractive rental as the push factors."
Chef Alfred Ow
Quan Xiang Yuan Seafood Restaurant
QUAN Xiang Yuan is one of the oldest Hokkien restaurants in Singapore. Founded in 1930, the restaurant underwent an organic expansion in its business operations in the late 1970s. Outdoor catering proved to be a revenue generator for the brand, and Quan Xiang Yuan has since become one of the biggest caterers for community centre events, with the capacity to feed more than 3,000 people at a time.
But taking the brand into the new millennium was the responsibility of its fourth-generation family members. They saw the need to diversify in order to keep up with current lifestyles. Alfred Ow, head of operations, foresaw the growing demand for "convenient" authentic, traditional food because most families have lost the art of home cooking.
In 2010, chef Ow and two of the current family members set up Heirloom Foods, a 280-sq-m factory producing frozen foods based on the restaurant's recipes.
Chef Ow recalls the first challenge they faced: "Convincing the older-generation owner to sell frozen food was more difficult than I expected. He was sceptical about the quality and taste of the food after it had gone through the mass production process." Chef Ow made several attempts to prepare the dishes to gain the approval of the patriarch - and finally succeeded.
However, several adjustments were made to the frozen recipes. The preparation methods had to be improved to suit mass production, and health concerns had to be considered as well.
"I had to pay extra attention to the quality, and also bear in mind that people are getting more discerning and health-conscious," stressed chef Ow. Setting up a factory too was not easy.
From the outset, chef Ow had to work with AVA and other government authorities on the set-up, the production flow, and equipment. Finally, with the current eight-man team in place, the company was ready to roll.
The reputation of the Quan Xiang Yuan brand made the distribution of its new frozen food selection less difficult than it would have been for a newcomer. Capitalising on the bestsellers at their restaurant, Braised Pork Belly, Fried Pork and Chicken Rolls - were first sold at wet markets.
It took a couple of years before two more products were introduced. Now, the frozen items can be found even in supermarkets such as Sheng Siong and Prime.
To cope with demand, chef Ow is in the midst of negotiating with a frozen food manufacturing factory in Thailand to ease the production load. "Who knows, we might even start distributing our food to Thailand as well," he chuckled.
Chef Lee Chiang Howe
Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee
IN the aftermath of SARS and the Asian tsunami in 2004, Lee Chiang Howe was not affected by any dampening of business. In fact, business grew thanks to the introduction of new clients from mainland China.
Still, despite the success, he could see that there was a limit to growth in the high-end dining business, which was compounded by the ever-growing manpower crunch. Always trying to keep one step ahead, he began scouting around for other business opportunities.
He had a friend in Taiwan who produced frozen shark's fins for the export market. The turnover of the business was around S$1.7 million. In 2005, they decided to join forces, selling and distributing vacuum-packed shark's fins in the restaurants and shops that they owned. Initially, the products met with a lot of scepticism over quality and taste but the partners quickly hit their first pot of gold - a single order worth S$100,000.
Since then, chef Lee has expanded his market reach; his highly sought-after delicacies of abalone, sea cucumber and shark's fins now sell in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America, Hong Kong, China and, of course, Singapore. And from sourcing through third-party suppliers, chef Lee now has invested in farming, food production and canning businesses through partnerships.
Chef Lee has big dreams and has recruited his daughter, Jasmine, to help. He believes that one does not need to be a good chef in order to enjoy a plate of piping hot and deliciously prepared abalone at home. Likewise, a hotel chef does not need hours to prepare superior broth to braise shark's fins.
Being a chef himself, chef Lee incorporates his own recipes into his selections, introducing a series of sous vide-ready delicacies such as abalone and shark's fins. One has merely to submerge the bag in hot water for a few minutes, cut it open and tuck in - it's almost effortless.
Chef Lee has further developed his own line of canned and ready-packed products with a South Africa-based abalone hatchery and processing company, Abagold Ltd, in response to China's ever-increasing demand for premium delicacies.
Recently, he obtained a distributing licence to promote his products through retail, distribution and e-commerce. Now it seems the business horizon stretches almost endlessly for this father-and-daughter team.