Les Amis pays for staff to dine around the world – so they love their craft more
It's all part of investing in talent, said Group chairman Desmond Lim, as he reflects on surviving 25 years in fine dining and launches four new concepts.
Running a restaurant is notoriously difficult business. Especially so in lean and competitive times such as these, in a spoilt-for-choice-food haven that is Singapore. Which makes the story of Singapore’s very own fine dining grand dame Les Amis all the more remarkable.
This year, the homegrown establishment – known for its impeccable service, who’s who clientele and fine French cuisine – is celebrating its 25th birthday.
Twenty-five silver years, that is, since stockbroker Desmond Lim together with his friends Dr Chong Yap Seng, chef Justin Quek and sommelier-turned-restaurateur Ignatius Chan opened Singapore’s first independent European fine-dining restaurant, right in the heart of Orchard Road.
In a time when high-end restaurants were only found in luxury hotels, Les Amis was the renegade breath of fresh air. And its inception, way back on Mar 15, 1994, ended up changing the face of high-end dining in Singapore forever.
For quarter of a century – over white linen tablecloths and polished silverware, enveloped in attentive table service and softly lit, hushed rooms – many a birthday, anniversary or proposal has been celebrated in Les Amis.
"We want to give every one that walks through the door a special experience... Not a snooty kind of service."
And what worked from the very start – exacting cooking techniques, refined, discriminating ingredients and a tremendous wine list the likes of which Singapore had not seen before – is still being served up at the restaurant to this very day.
Armed with two Michelin stars since 2016 (the year the awards were first given out locally), Les Amis is currently headed by French chef Sebastien Lepinoy.
It has cemented its place as one of Singapore's foremost fine dining institutions. And laudably so. Just ask any one from its well-heeled stable of regulars, new converts and overseas fans.
So what is the secret ingredient in Les Amis' recipe for success and longevity?
Lim, who serves as Chairman of the Les Amis Group, tells CNA Luxury it’s simply about a commitment to quality.
"Besides delivering top quality ingredients, the other is service," he said. "Not just professional (service) because that’s a given. But service with a certain warmth and sincerity."
"Not a snooty kind of service," he explained with a smile. "We want to give every one that walks through the door a special experience especially if you've come from a far."
Les amis (which translates to "the friends") indeed.
As simple and unassuming as it may sound, the genial 62-year-old knows exactly what he's talking about. After all, the Les Amis Group isn't just surviving 25 years in Singapore's F&B business, it's thriving.
To date, the group has grown from its single flagship establishment to 22 restaurant concepts (as of August this year) and 29 outlets in Singapore (as of June this year), offering everything from French and Japanese cuisine to popular pizzerias and a chain of Vietnamese noodle bars.
The group also has 30 overseas concepts including joint ventures and franchises in Hong Kong, Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia, with more expansion plans in the pipeline. Today, the group has within its portfolio a whopping 32 brands.
"Whatever we do, we want to deliver something very good, something of quality at every price point," said Lim. "We want to be proud at all levels."
Looking back at the last 25 years, Lim told CNA Luxury that the Les Amis Group’s other vital secret ingredient is constantly investing their best asset – their employees. For him, it's all about nurturing and grooming the next generation seeking to grow their culinary career and giving them that platform to learn and shine.
"This business is all about people – whether they are in the kitchen or upfront," he said. "I think over the years, that has not changed. The challenge is: How do you motivate them and to retain them?"
"I believe you have to allow staff to fly as high and as far as they can go, even if that means leaving the organisation."
He explained: "I believe you have to allow staff to fly as high and as far as they can go, even if that means leaving the organisation. Some staff have gone and some have even come back. And for those who haven’t come back, we still keep in touch."
Indeed, some of Singapore’s notable culinary wunderkinds – like one Michelin-starred Corner House's Jason Tan, dessert chef Janice Wong, Antoinette's Pang Kok Keong, Ola's Daniel Chavez, and El Fuego By Collin's Koh Han Jie – have honed their talents at Les Amis.
Lim likes that Les Amis is "a good training ground" and is delighted to "find our alumni all over the place".
“I am just as excited today as I was 25 years ago when I come across raw talent,” he said with a smile.
And it's raw talent that he is more than happy to invest in. In ensuring that service standards are up to par, the group believes in organising fully funded trips to various parts of France, Rome, Naples and Florence in Italy, San Sebastian in Spain, and Tokyo for their chefs and service staff to dine in restaurants and meet food producers, such as Mons fromagerie – a cheese producer in the Loire Valley and caviar producer Kaviari. These are open to all staff across the Les Amis group, not just the flagship restaurant.
"We want to deliver something very good, something of quality at every price point."
"We hope these trips will allow our staff to develop a greater appreciation and understanding for their craft," said Lim. "And inspire the team to deliver memorable experiences for our guests."
Lim is also all about focusing on the next generation as the group continually works alongside educational and training institution partners. To show support, the Les Amis Group raised and donated S$1.08 million in 2014 during their 20th anniversary to back scholarship programmes for students from Temasek Polytechnic and the Institute of Technical Education.
ALL ABOUT ASIA
Indeed, for the down-to earth Lim, this 25th year in an ever-evolving industry is now about concentrating on home.
“Where we sit in Singapore – multi-racial, multi-cultural, right in the heart of Southeast Asia – I think there is so much more to offer here,” he said. “I’m looking forward and am so excited to present more humble food from our region”.
According to Lim, this next chapter is all about exploring Asian and local Singaporean food.
“I don't want to see the inevitable demise of our food culture because the younger generation cannot carry on the legacy of their parents' food business." he said. "It's very hard work so I do understand. But there is just so much potential right here."
And he’s putting his money where his mouth is. This year alone, the group will be introducing four new concepts – a Peranakan restaurant called Indigo Blue Kitchen, a Japanese izakaya called Yujin, an Asian eatery Uncle Wok which serves wok-based dishes and sustainable restaurant Kausmo, helmed by Singapore female duo Chef Lisa Tang and Front-of-House Manager Kuah Chew Shian.
"Today, (the F&B industry) has got a momentum of its own – a young breed of restaurateurs with fresh ideas," said Lim. "So the challenge for a 25-year-old group like us is: How do we refresh ourselves and remain relevant?"
“Where we sit in Singapore – multi-racial, multi-cultural, right in the heart of Southeast Asia – I think there is so much more to offer here."
Will a young 20-something-year-old couple be excited about the cuisine that they're seeing on the plate today or will they be more excited with the theatrics of all –like smoke billowing out to provide picture-perfect Instagrammable photos? Or do they really go into the flavours of the food, the sauce, the quality and the history of the ingredients? These are just some of the questions Lim finds himself constantly asking.
"This is the challenge for us," he admitted. " But that said, we won't compromise. We won’t put something on the plate that we won’t be proud of. Something that I won’t enjoy eating myself."
It is undeniable how much Les Amis has contributed to the Singapore dining scene. Indeed, she is the doyenne that not just survived but flourished in a time before celebrity chefs and Michelin stars.
Ask Lim what the two Michelin stars they currently hold truly mean to the restaurant and the man is refreshingly candid.
"We won't compromise. We won’t put something on the plate that we won’t be proud of."
“I think stars are important. But it’s certainly not the 'be all and end all',” he said. “What the two stars have brought us is a change in our profile of diners. We are now seeing a younger crowd as well as tourists who hail from the East like Japan and Korea. It’s a more Asian crowd, which is great. Overall, it’s a more international audience."
He does admit that the stars will always come with a “certain pressure of having to maintain" them.
“But to be honest, what we deliver on the plate and on service will never change, with or without the star,” he said.
So what’s next for Les Amis? Perhaps the elusive third Michelin star?
“It’ll nice to have the third. I'd be lying if I didn’t say so,” he said with a smile. "But like I said, before, it's not the 'be all end all'.
"I think life goes on, whether we get three stars or two stars. I don’t think anything will change at all. What's most important to me is that our values will always be reflected in our service and in our food.”