Les Amis: The game changer

Les Amis: The game changer

The list of people who have passed through the restaurant and kitchen doors of Les Amis in Shaw Centre reads like a who's who in Singapore's food and beverage scene.

These range from restaurateurs and chef-owners to sommeliers and pastry chefs, all of whom have worked at the upscale French restaurant over the past 20 years.

This month marks its 20th anniversary.

Les Amis was a game changer from the start, when it opened in Shaw Centre back in 1994. At the time, it was one of Singapore's first independent, high-end restaurants not located in and run by a hotel. Other posh restaurants in those days included La Tour at the Shangri-la and Raffles Grill at Raffles Hotel.

The restaurant, set up by four friends, made headlines with its fine French cuisine and exquisite European wine list of more than 500 wines at the time. It paved the way for the opening of more stand-alone high-end restaurants here.

Les Amis marked Singapore's shift towards more independently run and owned restaurants, which in turn added vibrancy to a dining scene that had previously been limited to upscale hotel restaurants and mid- to lower mid-tiered chain eateries in malls.

Mr Peter Knipp, 59, food and beverage consultant and organiser of annual gastronomic festival the World Gourmet Summit, says: "Les Amis is the birth place of the independent fine-dining restaurant. It has provided a lot of talent to the industry, from training existing talent to those just starting out, and continues to be one of the industry leaders. It is one of Singapore's heroes in the food and beverage scene."

The spokesman for the Les Amis group, Mr Raymond Lim, 36, says "the desire to own and run a fine-dining French restaurant" drove its chairman Desmond Lim to set up Les Amis.

These days, the group runs 24 restaurants islandwide including five Peperoni Pizzeria outlets, upper- mid-tiered French restaurant Bistro Du Vin and fine Japanese shabu shabu restaurant Shabu Shabu Gen.

It began with just one restaurant - Les Amis - and four partners: Mr Lim, who owns a securities firm, gynaecologist Chong Yap Seng, chef Justin Quek and sommelier Ignatius Chan. The name Les Amis, which is French for The Friends, seemed apt at the time, as it was a place "for friends, by friends".

Chef Quek, who is behind Marina Bay Sands' Sky On 57, and Mr Chan, who with his wife Janice Wong run modern European restaurant Iggy's at Hilton Singapore, had become friends while working at The Oriental in the 1980s and had dreams of opening a restaurant together.

Mr Desmond Lim, 57, had first met then-sommelier Mr Chan in the late 1980s, at Fourchettes, a now defunct French restaurant at The Oriental hotel (now the Mandarin Oriental Singapore) where Mr Chan was working. Mr Lim, an avid wine lover, was a regular diner there and found a fellow wine enthusiast in Mr Chan.

The three of them teamed up, together with Dr Chong, a friend of Mr Lim's, to set up Les Amis. Chef Quek and Mr Chan ran the restaurant.

So popular was it back then that a reservation was necessary to secure a table. It is still highly recommended these days too.

Chef Quek, 52, touted as Singapore's most progressive and talented chef at the time, said of the dishes served during the early days at Les Amis: "We were one of the first to have white truffles from Alba and serve cappuccino-style soups. Other things on the menu were a char-grilled cote de boeuf, slow-cooked salmon in champagne sauce and lobster capellini in lobster oil."

Other novel items included a Japanese green soya bean soup shot which started warm and ended chilled, with a refreshing hit of mint, which he served at Au Jardin, which was part of the restaurant group.

Les Amis was also one of the most expensive restaurants in town at the time. Its New Year's Eve dinner in 1994, for instance, was priced at $990.40 nett a person, about $300 higher than the ballroom feast at The Raffles Hotel. The pricey menu was attributed to high costs including white truffles priced at $4,500 a kg and prized wines such as a Chateau Latour 1961 and Chateau D'Yquem 1975.

Mr Chan, 50, says of Les Amis' 20 years in the business: "It is not easy to have a restaurant, especially a Western-focused one, be able to withstand the test of time."

Chef Quek and Mr Chan left after 10 years at the restaurant. Another partner, Mr Low Check Kian, who is in the finance industry, joined the group after their departure.

There have been five other head chefs at Les Amis since chef Quek's departure, each of whom have put their stamp on the restaurant.

Their efforts paid off. In 2007, Les Amis debuted in 83rd place on the much-watched World's 50 Best Restaurants list, that also ranks restaurants 51 to 100. It was absent in 2008 but re-entered the list in 60th position in 2009, and in 2012, it was ranked No. 53, its highest ranking to date. The restaurant was also inducted into Les Grandes Tables du Monde, a prestigious gastronomy organisation where membership is widely recognised as one of the most respected international accolades after a Michelin star.

The chefs at Les Amis might have come and gone, but the one thing that has set the restaurant apart is its service. Mr Royston Soo, 55, director of the restaurant, has been with the group since 2000. He says that he always reminds staff to take pride in being hospitable.

The restaurant has a database of regular customers and their preferences, and he urges his team to make it a point to try and remember people and their likes.

On how the group maintains its service excellence, Mr Lim the spokesman says: "Service has been important from Day One. It was never an afterthought because it is key to the dining experience."

After the group opened Les Amis, it then went on to open Cafe Les Amis at the Asian Civilisations Museum in 1996, which relocated to Botanic Gardens two years later and has since been renamed and reconceptualised as Casa Verde; then its second fine-dining French restaurant Au Jardin in 1998.

Au Jardin closed last night after 16 years. The group did not renew its lease, given the current trend towards more casual and hip dining and the high cost of running a fine-dining restaurant.

In the early noughties, the group opened another high-end restaurant, The Lighthouse, at The Fullerton Hotel. It closed in 2003 and the group does not run the current restaurant of the same name at the hotel.

The group also expanded aggressively into the mid-market dining scene. By 2004, 10 years after it began, it had a portfolio of about 10 restaurants which included a bistro, a steakhouse and a Japanese restaurant.

However, not all of its concepts have worked. For instance, its gourmet deli, Lazy Gourmet, was "ahead of its time", says spokesman Mr Lim. It opened in Shaw Centre in 2002 and closed in 2007.

Its high-end Vietnamese restaurant Annam, which opened in 2011, also did not last. It closed last year due to poor business. The group's first Hong Kong restaurant, upscale French restaurant Cepage also did not take off. It closed last year after opening in February 2009.

Although the group has moved into the mid-tiered restaurant segment, service, its spokesman says, still remains a priority, even though manpower is scarce everywhere in the industry.

Lessons the group has learnt over the years include the price sensitivity of Singapore diners, who respond well to value-for-money offerings; as well as not to open concepts that are too personality driven, such as the now defunct Sebastien's at Greenwood Avenue, which was named after its managing partner Sebastien Reullier.

But the group has also chalked up many successes.

The constant lines at its casual Vietnamese noodle bar chain Nam Nam, with outlets in Suntec City Mall, Wheelock Place and Raffles City, tell a success story. Two more outlets are slated to open this year, including one at Plaza Singapura.

Bistro Du Vin will be opening its first overseas franchise outlet in Manila later this year. Bistro Du Vin in Hong Kong is run by the group.

The group is looking to grow its brands overseas, and will also open more restaurants, all of which are joint ventures, in Yangon and Ho Chi Minh City, later this year.

Some accolades over the years for the groups' efforts in the local food and beverage scene here include Mr Desmond Lim being named Tourism Entrepreneur of the Year in 2009, and his Asian Masters Icon Award for the group's contributions to Singapore's F&B industry.

Last year, he decided to lower prices at Les Amis because he felt that they had been artificially inflated here due to the introduction of celebrity-chef restaurants.

Prices now start at $150 a person for a five-course dinner, and from $45 a person for a set lunch. The most expensive meals are priced at $280 a person for dinner and $120 for lunch. Previously, for dinner, prices started at $200 and topped at $300 a person.

Spokesman Mr Lim says: "We wanted to stick our necks out, to be the first high-end restaurant to decrease prices because we felt that prices here had become unsustainable."

Asked if Les Amis restaurant actually makes money, he says: "It breaks even."

While the market for high-end restaurants may have declined over the years with the rise of less stuffy dining options, diners and industry professionals still say some fine-dining restaurants will continue to stand the test of time.

Mr Knipp says: "Les Amis is one restaurant that has embraced its presence and rarely did it fall. It has a singular vision and does not sway from it."

Follow Rebecca Lynne Tan on Twitter @STrebeccatan

Learning from Les Amis

"I had never worked in a restaurant before, so working at Les Amis, at such a high level, was very intense. The kitchen was hot and small and my pastry station was next to the grill. I had to plate the desserts very quickly so that things such as ice cream would not melt. It was stressful but I enjoyed the fast pace of the kitchen."

Daniel Tay, 44, a pastry chef who worked at Les Amis for 1 1/2 years, from 1996 to 1997. He went on to found, and subsequently sell, the Bakerzin chain of patisserie-restaurants. He currently runs Foodgnostic, a food development and manufacturing company

"I was one of the lucky few that had the chance to work with three different head chefs - Gunther Hubrechsen, Thomas Mayr and Armin Leitgeb - in the four years that I was at Les Amis.

Not being culinary trained, being under the tutelage of each chef was invaluable as each of them had different cooking styles and techniques.

I learnt methods such as sous vide, confit, curing and smoking and also the sequence of firing dishes on the stove. It was there that I learnt how to plate dishes and work with suppliers and establish good relationships with them."

Joseph Yeo, 32, who worked at Les Amis from 2006 to 2010. He is now the chef-owner of SPR MRKT, a bistro in McCallum Street

"Les Amis is where I made many of my dreams as a pastry chef come true. Highlights for me include creating a wedding dessert buffet which included a seven-tiered, 1.7m- tall wedding cake, and coming up with the most expensive dessert I have ever made. It cost $88 a serving. The dessert was a dark chocolate parfait with raspberry jelly, hazelnut nougatine, home-made hazelnut praline with fleur de sel, and milk chocolate chantilly, shaped like a rose."

Pang Kok Keong, 39, a pastry chef who worked at Les Amis and Canele from 2004 to 2010. The pastry chef is the co-founder of the Sugar Daddy Group, which is behind patisserie-restaurants such as Antoinette and Pique Nique

"I worked at Au Jardin for eight years, where I was exposed to gourmet produce from white truffles to ceps, for the first time. I learnt organisational skills and how to constantly push my limits. It was tough at the beginning to produce perfection all the time, but it taught me to be disciplined."

Benjamin Tan, 38, who worked at Au Jardin from 1999 to 2008. He is now the head chef of modern European restaurant The White Rabbit in Harding Road

"It was there that I learnt the basics of French cooking, a respect for quality ingredients, and the art of food and wine pairing. Working there also gave me opportunities to work with international chefs who were in town for promotions."

Daniel Sia, 38, chef-owner of The Disgruntled Chef in Dempsey Hill. He joined Les Amis in 1996 and was part of the opening team for Au Jardin in 1998

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