It is often the case that economic growth signals a parallel ascension in the local dining landscape. And nowhere has this been more evident than in the Singaporean fine-dining scene, which has picked up considerably in the last decade, especially with the addition of the Michelin Guide, which has cast a starry sheen on the city state’s culinary portfolio.
The number of restaurants in the country has also swelled in tandem with the increased appetite for new epicurean experiences. Between 2010 to 2020, the number of restaurants in Singapore rose from 8,000 to around 13,700 F&B establishments, marking a nearly 50% increase.
This makes attaining the No 1 restaurant spot in a market that is highly competitive and hugely crowded a massive accomplishment, to say the least. And no restaurant has done this quite as successfully as French fine-dining haunt Odette, located at the National Gallery Singapore.
Launched in 2015 by acclaimed French chef-owner Julien Royer, Odette has gone from strength to strength since its inception, topping the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2019 and 2020 and hitting the No 8 spot in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2021, the highest ranked restaurant in Singapore. The restaurant is also a three-Michelin starred eatery, putting it in an enviable, vaunted position with a select few restaurants around the world.
What is perhaps more interesting about Odette – for many Malaysians at least – is that Royer’s top two personnel in the kitchen are both Malaysians!
Meet Odette’s executive chef Levin Lau and head chef Adam Wan, both Malaysians from humble backgrounds who have worked their way to the top of one of the world’s best restaurants.
Who they are
Lau is the executive chef at Odette and traces his roots to a small Chinese village in Kampung Batu 5 in Dungun, Terengganu where he grew up.
“In that area, we were known to embody a relatively Malay culture, which is why I can speak Malay very well,” says Lau.
Lau started cooking from primary school, and would often help his mother cook Chinese or Malay food for the family’s daily meals. Gradually, he grew to become extremely familiar with the spices and other ingredients used for both cuisines.
“My mother showed me how food can taste so different with different cooking methods. And so from a very young age, it brought me great joy to cook for everyone,” he says.
Odette’s head chef Wan meanwhile grew up in a very down-to-earth home; his father was a carpenter and his mother a tailor.
“My parents were both extremely humble and hard-working. I was mostly taken care of by my grandmother, and I spent my days following her to the market, helping her to start the wood fire at home and watching her whip up my favourite dishes like dumplings and wonton soup,” says Wan.
It was Wan’s formidable grandmother who deeply impressed upon him the importance of food – not just as a form of sustenance, but as a way of unifying people.
“My grandmother was always the one who would single-handedly cook for the whole family so that everybody’s stomachs would be filled when they came home.
“She showed me that food can be the binding force that brings everybody together to enjoy each other’s company,” says Wan.
When they grew up, both Lau and Wan decided to pursue culinary arts in Singapore and through a fortuitous chain of events, ended up meeting the redoubtable Royer.
“After my last job, I decided to join one of the most luxurious hotels in Singapore called St Regis. From there, I met chef Julien and we worked side by side for almost 3.5 years before moving on together to Jaan Singapore. Our journey in the hotel line came to an end when chef Julien decided to open Odette in 2015 and opened the door for me to work with him there,” explains Lau.
Wan meanwhile worked with Royer in Jaan as a commis chef and so impressed Royer that when he opened Odette in 2015, he offered him a position as a sous chef.
Both say Royer’s influence on their career and even the way they think about food has been more crucial than they could possibly have imagined.
“Working alongside chef Julien since the day I met him in 2007, I have learned what it means to lead by example, to stay open-minded, and to always learn from others, regardless of our positions.
“It is a very different culture here at Odette, where we are always free to share our experiences with one another, where we are always heard,” says Lau.
Wan meanwhile says: “Chef Julien has played a pivotal role in shaping me to become a better chef, teaching me to cook with my heart and to bring authenticity to the table.”
What they do
So what do Lau and Wan actually do all day at one of the world’s best restaurants? Surely, there are expectations at play and a whole host of responsibilities on their shoulders?
Yes, there are. But having worked with Royer for so many years and hitting their stride at Odette, both are finely attuned to the demands of the job and have perfected their skill sets in the past seven years.
“I start the day by discussing with chef Julien the finer details of the menu, briefing both the kitchen and service team and making sure the entire team is on top of all special requests from the guests of the day. I am also in charge of making sure every detail on the plate is accurate and of the utmost quality.
“My role is to prioritise the satisfaction of every single one of our guests’ experience. To do this well, I also have a team who work tirelessly in the kitchen to ensure that we deliver only the best to our guests.
“As the head chef, I do my best to create a healthy and happy working environment, with a high standard of discipline as I recognise the importance of a team who truly enjoys working together,” says Wan.
Lau meanwhile is responsible for overseeing the restaurant’s logistics on a daily basis and managing kitchen operations.
Integral to his role is sourcing ingredients from all over the world and making sure the eatery’s inventory is in tip-top shape.
“One thing I’ve learned is the importance of managing food costs as well as cultivating relationships with suppliers all around the world, to ensure that the produce that we import is of the highest quality,” he says.
In terms of the actual food, Wan says the team functions “like a puzzle” where every person holds the clue to forming a whole dish and consequently bands together to complete a meal.
“At Odette, we work together as a team to create most of the menu together. We believe that every staff brings a slice of their beliefs, passion and experience to the table, and comes together to create something special – much like a puzzle, where we need each other’s input to create a bigger canvas,” Wan explains.
Wan and Lau have also been responsible for creating some of the dishes on Odette’s menu. For Odette’s fifth anniversary, Wan created a dish of Hokkaido king crab with a refreshing cucumber-tarragon sorbet and a thin layer of Riesling-tosaka jelly.
“Crab trimmings were also wrapped in a traditional dumpling (a favourite food of mine growing up) and served in a clean crab broth made from the shell,” explains Wan.
Lau meanwhile says one of the dishes he has created is the Bafun Uni, a bold reimagination of one of Odette’s iconic signature dishes.
“This dish features a harmonising rich creamy uni offset by smoked iwashi tartare, a delicate crunch of piquant finger lime, and Nashi pear, topped with a cloud of uni-infused mussel foam and Kristal caviar,” says Lau.
Both Wan and Lau agree that their Malaysian backgrounds have helped them considerably in navigating the intricacies of working in a French fine-dining restaurant located in the heart of South-East Asia.
“We utilise many spices, herbs, and citrus flavours native to our geographical location in our cooking. My Malaysian background has definitely helped in terms of identifying flavours, familiarity with spices, and utilising the best Asian cooking techniques, especially in cooking broths,” admits Wan.
As they both come from Malaysia, they share a strong bond fortified by their roots.
“It is nice to have a fellow Malaysian on the team. We update each other on news from Malaysia and take references from the ingredients and cooking styles from Malaysia together,” says Lau.Sense of satisfaction
Ultimately though, both Lau and Wan say there is a huge sense of pride that they feel working in one of the best restaurants in the world, especially given their humble backgrounds.
It is telling of how far they have come and the realisation of their potential and dreams.
“For me and even for our team in Odette, working together in one of the best restaurants in the world is a dream come true. The journey has not been as easy as many others might think, but we have learned a lot as a team and we are always striving to do better,” says Lau.
While the Singapore dining scene has become so cosmopolitan that it is far easier for a fine-dining restaurant to thrive in Singapore as opposed to Malaysia, both Lau and Wan say the potential in Malaysia is unlimited and they foresee that things will only get better here.
“Part of the reason why it is much easier to establish a fine-dining restaurant in Singapore is because of the ease of imports. But in the last few years, the fine-dining scene in Malaysia has grown by leaps and bounds. I believe it will eventually grow to the level that Singapore is at,” says Lau.
Wan says one of the limitations that Singapore has (that Malaysia doesn’t) is space and the fact that 95% of ingredients have to be imported, another reason he believes the Malaysian restaurant industry’s potential is manifold.
While Lau and Wan are both content and grateful for their careers and lives in Singapore now, both have never forgotten their humble roots and say coming back to Malaysia is not out of the question for them.
“If I am presented with an opportunity in Malaysia, I don’t see why not. I will always be grateful for my roots in Malaysia. For now, I still have a long way to go and learn here in Singapore, and we’ll see where this leads me to,” says Wan.
In the future, both have dreams of bringing Malaysia to even greater heights.
For Wan, this means continuing to do a good job and epitomising the discipline and skills of a new generation of Malaysian chefs who are making the country proud.
For Lau, meanwhile, his hope is that eventually he can pay homage to the traditional food of Malaysia.
“I hope that in the future, I will be able to start my own restaurant together with my culinary buddies and bring back past heritage flavours of Malaysia, so I can preserve and share them with generations to come,” he says.