What it takes to be Asia’s Best Restaurant: Inside the workings of Odette
Led by chef Julien Royer and general manager Steven Mason, the 25-strong team behind Odette manage 16-hour days – with only one break in between – to stay at the top of their game.
The night Odette was named Asia’s Best Restaurant 2019, chef Julien Royer and general manager Steven Mason did what most winners do – they celebrated with more than a few drinks. “But it was nothing too wild,” Royer was quick to point out. “We had to catch the ferry (out of Macau) early the next morning. We arrived in Singapore at 10pm and went back to the restaurant to drink champagne with the team.”
As historic as the win is – Odette is the first restaurant from Singapore to earn the crown – an award in the restaurant business is just that: A rewarding affirmation from a punishing industry for the hard work and long hours that everyone puts in. By 9am the next day, it was business as usual.
It’s a hustle the team knows well. Long before it was Asia’s Best Restaurant, Odette has had the honour of being Singapore’s busiest fine dining establishment. Since it opened its doors almost four years ago, it hasn’t gone a day without a warm seat in the house.
“With rankings and awards, you must accept that you will win and you will lose. I know that all that is ephemeral,” Royer said when asked about the attendant pressure that comes with the prestigious prize. “What matters is that we must be doing something right because the restaurant has been fully booked since day one. That is the most priceless to us. That is what we constantly work for.”
INSIDE THE KITCHEN
Royer may be Odette’s main man, but like all good leaders, he is backed by a devoted team of about 25 full-time employees. A meal service here is akin to a world-class dance performance that exudes effortless grace and rhythm, from the warm smiles that greet guests as they enter, right down to the spotless gleam of a paper-thin water glass that has been polished thrice.
Behind their balletic fluidity is the ever-unfurling toil of physical labour, precision cooking and precious camaraderie. The team works in collective harmony, each member dependant on the other for the restaurant’s success. They do this 16 hours a day, five days a week.
Royer describes his kitchen’s balance as “fragile” and leans upon his senior sous chefs Adam Wan and Levin Lau, and sous chef Sheng Xiong to ensure that the equilibrium never wavers.
“I make all my decisions about hiring in the kitchen with them,” said Royer. “If one of us has doubts about the person, I don’t hire him or her. This fragile balance is key to our success because everyone here must want to shine as a team, not as an individual. As soon as someone is unhappy, you can tell.” Even at this level of cooking, the adage that a happy cook produces better food remains sound.
The work they do is repetitive and exacting. The complex dishes change daily, depending largely on the produce and the team’s imagination. Royer prefers to buy ingredients in small quantities, which keeps the team creative and prevents waste. One of the perks of being a restaurant renowned for its delicious ingenuity is that every day, distributors from all over the world stream in with produce they hope the kitchen will buy. Today, it was wild asparagus from Italy; yesterday, it was jars of honey from the Philippines.
The team literally hits the ground running from the minute they arrive at their stations at 8.30am. For Royer, who typically arrives a little later at 9am, the first order of business is greeting and chatting with every member of his restaurant. “It’s very important to have a close relationship with everyone here,” he reiterated.
“What matters is that we must be doing something right because the restaurant has been fully booked since day one. That is the most priceless to us. That is what we constantly work for.” – Julien Royer
Lunch is the first priority and a complicated exercise since guests are given the option of a four, six or eight-course menu with a choice of dishes for various courses. There’s also a vegetarian menu and the fact that things don’t always go to plan.
“A lot of what we cook depends on the timing of the deliveries,” Royer added. “For example, today, I wanted to make a scallop with konbu and nage with mint, but the scallops came late, so we are using crabmeat instead. We also wanted to do morels with asparagus and sweetbread, but now the morels are coming tomorrow. Every day we have to deal with this balance, but I love it. I think this is the way to do it. When you don’t order a lot of ingredients, you don’t end up wasting and there is no spoilage.”
On an easy afternoon, the last guests leave the dining room at 3.30pm. Often, however, diners tend to stay far longer. The day before this interview, the last lunch guest left at 5.30pm.
FRONT AND CENTRE
The hierarchy in the dining room, called the front-of-house in industry parlance, mirrors that of the kitchen. At the top is general manager Steven Mason, who is aided by his team of about 14 assistant managers, head waiters, sommeliers, hostesses and waiters. The service they each purvey is built around providing a personalised experience and the ability to read a guest.
“We teach people that when they go to a table, they must see what the table wants. If I start explaining the dish and they’re not interested or focused, then I back off and leave them to their food. If we see them examining the bottom of a plate or glass, we tell them where the glass is from or who made the plate,” explained Mason.
“If one of us has doubts about [a] person, I don’t hire him or her. This fragile balance is key to our success because everyone here must want to shine as a team, not as an individual.” – Julien Royer
Much of the front-of-house work comprises general labour. From the minute the first shift begins at 10am, the team mops floors, cleans tables and windows, prepares the cheese and drinks trolleys, polishes plates and glasses, and adjusts lights to ensure they are angled just so. Two hostesses tend to the over 200 emails that the restaurant receives every day.
After the last lunch guest leaves, the team takes about hour and a half to set up for dinner before they take their only break of the day. During this 40-minute window, the entire staff shares a meal together. “Three times a week we cook and three times a week, on big delivery days, we buy food like chicken rice or noodles,” said Royer.
“We spend so much time together and that makes us family,” added Mason. “We always try to create unity with people. Like family, we may have a fight today, but tomorrow we’re back at it.
“This is not an environment that’s easy to work in – we are always busy and you only get 30 to 40 minutes to get something to eat and then go back to making sure people are happy and smiling and comfortable. So we value our people. This is what hospitality is about, not just for the guest, but for our staff too.”
THE HEART OF THE PEOPLE
Like in any business, people form the cornerstone of Odette’s success. Not only must its managers ensure that employees remain happy and motivated, there are also hundreds of customers whose myriad preferences must be considered. The profiles of 450 regular diners are recorded in nuanced detail, be it special diets, allergies, water, seating or any other idiosyncratic preferences.
“The hardest and most important thing is that everyone who comes to the restaurant has a different expectation, and we have to ensure we adhere to what they want,” said Mason. “With Julien, you’re always working in a style that’s changing and it can be a challenge to keep my team smiling and positive. So I make it a point to learn about them, have fun and laugh. We talk about how we can make things better rather than me telling them how things can be made better.”
“We spend so much time together and that makes us family. Like family, we may have a fight today, but tomorrow we’re back at it.” – Steven Mason
It is obvious that Mason brings the pragmatism to Royer’s passion. “Julien always wants things immediately and I often have to tell him to slow down,” Mason said, giving Royer a jocular side eye. “Like we were just talking about how we can change the bill and Julien is like, ‘change it tonight!’ But I have to understand what’s the best way to do it and what the process is going to be.”
How does Royer think it’s going to get changed, I ask? “He doesn’t know!” replied Mason, and they both break out in laughter.
It is clear both men share a tight bond – they speak in the kind of shorthand that good friends share, shoot each other knowing looks throughout the conversation, and even finish each other’s sentences. They do, after all, spend more time together than they do with their wives.
Their shared commitment to the restaurant’s success shows in the accolades, the constantly busy dining room, and high rate of staff retention. The average rank and file employee stays with Odette for between 18 months to two years, while some like senior sous chef Levin Lau have worked with Royer for the last decade. This is impressive, as employee retention is something restaurants often grapple with, especially with the kind of hours that Odette demands.
Asia’s Best Restaurant or not, the pressure that comes with being at the top of the industry remains because they intrinsically originate from within. “We never allow it to get easy for ourselves. The idea is always to go forward,” said Mason. “We are, first and foremost, a business. What’s more important than any award is having a full, profitable restaurant night after night.”
Royer nods in agreement. “I think we can always do better than the day before.”