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Pandemic opportunities for millennial chefs
A JOBLESS chef couple who's starting a kitchen sharing concept so they don't have to worry about retrenchment. A pastry chef who built a viral bakery business during Circuit Breaker. A private dining chef who sold granola as a last resort and now can't keep up with the demand. A head chef who quit to launch his own line of XO sauce.
Circuit Breaker was a scary time for the local F&B industry and chefs' livelihoods, but for some, the stop gap measures they took to earn money have since led to new business opportunities that they didn't know existed. Especially now, as home-based businesses (HBB) flourish and dining out (and in) becomes the main entertainment for travel-starved Singaporeans. As the appetite for new things to eat grows, so too are young chefs closer to making their dream of running their own business a reality.
Where once the gold standard for a chef was to toil in Michelin-starred restaurants around the world until they found rich investors to invest in the restaurant of his or her dreams, it's no longer the case for millennial chefs. Particularly in this climate when even the top restaurants around the world are toppling like bowling pins.
"We live in a different era now," says Christopher Kong, the Seattle-born chef who started the private dining outfit Dearborn from his home a year ago. "You don't necessarily need the big backers that you once did in order to get your name out there. Working for top chefs and restaurants demands all of you if you want to flourish, but that's not for everyone. We live in a world where word-of-mouth is louder than ever with social media, and everyone can find their market and niche. There has never been a better time to be an entrepreneur. If you know what you want, and you are confident that you know how to do it, why not just cut to the chase?"
Having worked in restaurants from NoMad in New York to Waku Ghin, Chef Kong speaks from personal experience. He and his Singaporean wife started Dearborn in early 2019 "as a low-risk way for me to develop a brand, find my cooking style and meet investors before opening a brick and mortar restaurant".
Dearborn was a hit, until Covid-19 knocked it for a loop. Circuit Breaker meant no customers and no income. His wife had been working with him, so both were out of a job.
Shifting into survival mode, he decided to sell granola. "During Dearborn, we made granola for guests to take home for breakfast the next day. So many guests asked us to sell them more, but I didn't want to then. But (during CB), I thought why not give it a go, to make some income. When we first posted, it took about 30 minutes to sell out. Now it takes less than two minutes sometimes." The business did so well that he's since moved into a production kitchen in the CBD "to scale up and introduce other delicious products, and I'm really excited to have customers buy our jars from our own shop window". He's also stopped private dining, "as having strangers in our home would make me uncomfortable in the pandemic". But who knows. If he becomes a granola magnate, he might well open a proper restaurant sooner than he thinks.
Unlike chef Kong, Shirlyn Song sold cakes and Peranakan food at a pop-up 'pasar malam' during CB as a short-term gig while on no pay leave from Gallery & Co, where she was head pastry chef. But instead of going back to work as planned, she found herself jobless when the lifestyle cafe went into liquidation. "My colleagues and I were caught off guard because we had been told to take no pay leave in order to keep our jobs," she says.
Her husband Pan Jiajian was also out of a job because Boufe restaurant, where he was head chef and shareholder, folded in June. It was during his last month there that he set up the 'pasar malam' pop-up for out-of-work chefs to cook meals for takeaway and delivery.
Its unexpected success - and her job loss - spurred them to create their own kitchen-sharing/dining concept, which will launch in November. Besides serving hot food and desserts for dining in or takeaway, a key element is the kitchen-sharing facilities which will be open to other chefs who want to start their own businesses as well.
"It was bad timing that both of us lost our jobs, but complaining or waiting passively wasn't going to help," says Chef Song, who worked previously in Waku Ghin. "We always planned to start our own business someday, but we wanted to gain more experience first. Given how Covid-19 has disrupted everything, we decided to speed up our plans."
It would be easier to find other jobs, "but given the restaurant business model, career progress is slow", she adds. "If our end goal is to have our own business, we need to take some risk. Otherwise, we might just end up getting retrenched again and again if Covid-19 drags on."
Wyman Wong, Maxine Ngooi and Will Chng have always wanted to run their own outfits, and Covid-19 has given them the nudge they needed.
Waku Ghin alumnus chef Wong had been frying up pad Thai and other spicy treats at the same 'pasar malam' as Chef Song and her husband during CB, and is now partnering them in their upcoming concept. "I'm grateful that the pop-up business turned out quite well, surprisingly," he says. "It helped me tide over that difficult time, and the response helped me see a glimmer of opportunity from this crisis."
His long-term goal has always been to open his own eatery, and he was in the middle of a long travel break when the virus struck. "Crisis or not, I know it's a matter of time before I go independent, but Covid-19, in a way, accelerated it." Sure he's worried, and is making extra sure that everything is planned carefully, but he feels he's also found the right partners to make it work.
Chef Ngooi's departure before Vianney Massot Restaurant closed down for good may have been a prescient move for its former head pastry chef. Now, she's at the helm of her online bakery Tigerlily Patisserie, although she's lucky enough to have the backing of her former employers, the Ebb & Flow group, which owned Vianney Massot.
"The most significant advantage of an online shop is that it costs a fraction of a brick-and-mortar business," says Chef Ngooi, adding that Tigerlily was conceptualised and launched within eight weeks. Far from the glamorous Michelin-starred eatery she's used to, Chef Ngooi and her baker operate out of Ebb & Flow's dark kitchen located at its Hong Kong Street premises.
Tigerlily is focused on old school European bakes with her own twist, including a Peranakan-style curry sausage roll, chocolate babka and maple pecan cruffin.
"During Circuit Breaker, I noticed that not only were more people baking simple bakes from home, there was a surge in demand for such products," says Chef Ngooi of her business strategy.
Starting with a sweet and savoury box for takeaway or delivery, her priority is to assess customer feedback and tweak the products accordingly. The long-term plan is to expand the menu to include a la carte choices, celebration cakes and entremets. A physical space is of course in the pipeline. And while she knows she will miss the excitement of restaurant service and working with plated desserts, "who knows, under the right circumstances, maybe Tigerlily could evolve into a dessert bar?"
With a background in business management studies, being an entrepreneur was always at the back of Chef Chng's mind even as he cut his teeth over the past six years at restaurants such as Meta, Kimme, the now-defunct Wild Rocket and, most recently, Roketto Izakaya.
The idea for Umami Boy came about as a way "for home cooks and consumers to get hold of great quality condiments and sauces of restaurant or even fine dining standards", says Chef Chng. The recipes for his XO, Mala beef and Mala mushroom sauces are adapted from his year-long stay in Taiwan in 2019, where he had been posted by Roketto to spearhead a restaurant project Hualien. "I got to learn more about Chinese cuisine techniques and flavours, while also working with production kitchens to produce Asian condiments."
He's well aware of the risks, "but the desire and passion to grow my own brand are driving me".
Considering he's been operating for barely a month, business has been picking up, with a lot of support from industry friends and chefs. "Covid-19 has absolutely opened my eyes to new possibilities," he says. "Before CB, I would never have considered the possibility of operating a food business leveraging e-commerce."
He recently collaborated with a fellow chef to package his sauces with homemade carrot cake, and the plan is to do more with local talents. And of course, there's the ultimate goal "to scale up production and have (our own) retail space".
Success and competition
One of the first pandemic successes has to be Mohammed Al-Matin's online bakery Matin Patisserie, whose boxes of plum galettes and kouign amanns fly out of his production kitchen faster than he and his small team can make them. The ex-Noma pastry chef has doubled his production since he started delivery orders during CB, and he's in the process of opening a proper pastry shop with dine-in options.
But for him, Covid-19 did not influence his decision to go into business as he already enjoyed several successful pop ups before CB. But if the pandemic taught him anything it's to "never give up", he says. "If it's good, there will always be support." On the downside, he says he's had to contend with "copycats" and that now, "everyone wants to be a baker".
While he could potentially make higher profit margins by sticking to a production kitchen and deliveries, he's adamant about opening a proper patisserie. "I hate being associated with an online business because many people classify me with home bakers and that drives me crazy."
The proliferation of amateur home cooks and bakers during the pandemic can be a bugbear for professional chefs who get lumped into the same category.
Take it from ex-Artichoke chef Lee Yum Hwa, who started his own private kitchen Ben Fatto 95 in 2018, "I was able to differentiate from restaurants based on the exclusivity of operating out of a private dining space," he says. "But with so many home-based businesses operating in the retail space, it's harder to differentiate the products. Most people seem to gravitate towards cheaper and convenience foods."
Chef Lee's signature artisanal pasta was virtually the stuff of legend at his private dinners, but he hasn't hosted any since Circuit Breaker. Instead, he has devoted himself to his passion, rolling out esoteric and laborious handmade pasta and sauces for sale to customers to assemble at home.
Like Dearborn's Chef Kong, he believes "you can still establish yourself on the road less travelled". The crisis also gave him an unexpected fillip when he collaborated with Michelin-starred Nouri to offer his pasta on the restaurant's CB delivery menu. They were an instant sellout, and elevated him "from Instagram chef or hobbyist, to a professional pasta maker. It certainly opened me up to a new market and also lent some credibility to the work that I do".
For now, he says, "I plan to continue with the retail model and see where it takes me, since Covid is not going to go away any time soon."
While he currently earns more than he would as a line cook, the tougher competition posed by home businesses might be an issue. "If the situation dips, I may have to resume private dining." But for now, the allure of artisanal pasta is still high on Italian food lovers' lists.
A new mindset?
While it may not be big money, the opportunities are there for those who have the stomach for risk. But the majority will still stick to the security of employment, not to mention the buzz from being in a large kitchen, which most of the solo operators miss.
Still, as the pandemic takes its toll, and creativity takes a backseat to business survival, young chefs may well rethink their priorities.
"As chefs, we're taught to put in the hours, sacrifice health, money, family and all that, and the industry will take care of you," says Alastiar Tan, head chef at Michelin-starred Labyrinth. "But the pandemic changed all that. A lot of chefs in the 27 to 30 age group all dream of opening their own place one day, but there's a sense of urgency now as Covid-19 puts things in perspective. Many are biding their time, waiting for the opportunity. For me personally, CB put me back in touch with why I started cooking in the first place - not for accolades but to make customers happy."
- Dearborn Granola: dearborn.sg
- Tigerlily Patisserie: tigerlilypatisserie.com. WhatsApp: 88891851
- Ben Fatto 95: benfatto95.com
- Le Matin Patisserie: lematinpatisserie.com
- Umami Boy: @umami.boy