'You see so many egos in chefs because they are being backed by large groups. But there's no ego for me in doing this. We work hard to produce a product that hopefully people will be willing to spend their hard-earned money to buy.'
- Paul Longworth, partner at Rhubarb
Rhubarb le Restaurant
3 Duxton Hill
Opens in Aug
WHEN the time came for him to leave Au Petit Salut to strike out on his own, Paul Longworth picked an unusual partner: his boss.
In August, Mr Longworth, 37, will open Rhubarb, a restaurant on Duxton Road with former colleague Jerome Desfonds and Au Petit Salut owner, Alice Low-Ang.
Mr Desfonds was the restaurant manager at Au Petit Salut, while Mr Longworth was its executive chef. Both men left the restaurant earlier this month. According to Mr Longworth, the three parties will "go in three ways" on the new restaurant, which will operate independently of The Salut Group. Besides its fine-dining flagship, the Salut Group also owns French bistro Chez Petit Salut in Holland Village. It closed its second Chez outlet in the Marina Bay Financial Centre last week.
The plan to run a more intimate venture was something Mr Longworth and Mr Desfonds have been germinating since December last year, says the former. "Au Petit Salut is a big restaurant. We've often thought that if we put the same amount of effort as we did at Au Petit Salut into a smaller venture, we could take the food and the whole experience of dining a whole lot further," he elaborates.
Au Petit Salut seats 100 in a standalone colonial black-and-white building in Dempsey, while Rhubarb's two-storey shophouse space will seat 30 on the ground floor, and 16 in the private-dining room upstairs.
Doing the groundwork
"But, we didn't have any financial backers then, just an idea," he says. Fortuitously, APS's owner Alice Low-Ang was also looking to open a smaller outlet, so the three started talking. "You have to be careful who you go into business with. The restaurant industry is not one that is quick to make a profit. With her experience and business knowledge, we believe Alice is the perfect partner for this," he says.
On why he didn't just stay on and open Rhubarb as an outlet within the group, Mr Longworth says: "Au Petit Salut is what it is, it's been like this for a long time. We wanted to start something from scratch, a platform on which I can really stamp my identity."
Which chef, after all, doesn't dream of opening his own restaurant one day?
"I never rushed my career. I never took a job for its money. One needs to be patient and work his way up - but this was always the goal, from Day One," he elaborates. "Even as a junior cook, I always had my eye on the next section: when I was working on the prep station, I would look at the fish section, then when I got there, I wanted to get onto the meat section."
After starting in London's iconic Blueprint Cafe, Mr Longworth built his career on a string of French restaurants such as French brasserie Racine and one Michelin-star Club Gascon before moving to Singapore in 2009. Here, he was the opening head chef of restaurant and wine retail store Oenotheque by Wine Universe at Millenia Walk before moving over to helm Au Petit Salut three years ago. Mr Desfonds, on the other hand, has worked at Michelin star restaurants in Norway, Ireland, Belgium and France and was the restaurant manager at Nicolas le Restaurant before heading the service team at Au Petit Salut for the last three years. Having both lived in Singapore for five years now, Mr Longworth believes that he and Mr Desfonds now "have a good base to do it ourselves".
"You need to understand the local demographics, suppliers, staff, culture and pricing and how you're going to get staff and customers before plunging into a new restaurant," he says.
For instance, instead of building a fully open kitchen with counter seats as current dining trends prescribe, "which makes conversation difficult for groups of more than two", only the kitchen "pass" will be kept open and visible from every table in the restaurant, says Mr Longworth. The pass is where the food presentation is checked and finalised by the kitchen before it is handed over to the service staff. It is usually manned by the head chef.
And though Rhubarb's menu will bear hints of Mr Longworth's classical French training and his love of fruit, he says of his ultimately category-defying cuisine: "We don't care what the trend is, whether Spanish or Peruvian food is in right now. We don't want to follow trends blindly and be left outdated after they have come and gone."
Expect, thus, a small but carefully curated menu that changes as often as possible to give him carte blanche for experimentation. Lunch sets will start at $42 for three courses, while a la carte options will cost from $15 to $30 for starters and $30 to $36 for mains, and degustation menus of $128 and $138 per person. A "very small selection" of Au Petit Salut favourites will be brought over, such as his signature pigeon leg and breast served with rhubarb and rose puree and nut-encrusted grapes a la Aussignac (the latter named in honour of his mentor Pascal Aussignac), and a duck confit served with pumpkin, vanilla and honey-roasted pears.
Black tiles and stainless steel in the kitchen complemented by earthy stone and copper fittings, carpeted floors and rhubarb-hued accents in the dining area will give the half-a-million-dollar outfit a fittingly luxe feel.
"Ultimately, it's not about being your own boss, but having the freedom to do what you love, then you don't need to find security in anyone or any restaurant group," he says.
"You see so many egos in chefs because they are being backed by large groups. But there's no ego for me in doing this. We work hard to produce a product that hopefully people will be willing to spend their hard-earned money to buy.
"That, for me, is all the compliment I need."