Guest chef: Laughter on the menu for the chef-comedian behind Teppei

SINGAPORE - Bookings for this restaurant open only once every three months and seats are snapped up within the half-hour. No, it is not Noma - it is not even a Michelin star restaurant.

The restaurant in question is Teppei, a little 400 sq ft counter-seating Japanese restaurant on the ground floor of Tanjong Pagar's Orchid Hotel. Up to 21 diners pack in elbow-to-elbow nightly for a taste of its affordably priced omakase. To maximise its popularity, the restaurant launched three new offshoot brands in rapid succession over the last six months: Hanare, an affordable Japanese buffet restaurant, was launched in March just a stone's throw away along Tanjong Pagar Road; Hana-Hana, a yakitori grill opened in the unit just adjacent to its flagship in May; and takeaway joint Teppei Syokudo rolled up its shutters a week ago in Takashimaya's basement food hall.

Just how did this relatively unknown - even slightly scruffy - eatery catapult to the title of Singapore's most coveted restaurant in just three years?

"I serve food, and humour," says owner Teppei Yamashita, 33, with a grin, which he flashes as often as his parting words to every customer, "see you tomorrow!"

"My thinking is that food must be enjoyable. If a couple come in fighting, but end up laughing by the time they finish dinner, then I have achieved my aim," he elaborates.

It helps, too, that at a time when omakase in high-end Japanese restaurants can go for between S$200 to S$350 a head in Singapore, a 16-course meal at Teppei can be had for less than half the price.

A la carte menus are the highlight at lunch, which draws snaking queues from the area's office crowd, and though the same menu is extended till evening, it is the omakase that most people go for at dinner: a S$50 set gets you a minimum of 12 courses, the S$60 comes with better grades of meat, and the S$80 set includes seasonal specials, a sushi course and when you think you've had enough, a bowl of his signature bara chirashi. (Or make like a regular and ask for the off-the-menu S$100 option that gets you all the frills and then some.) Flavours range from the conventional to the unthinkable, such as koshihikari rice grains puffed like popcorn and served on the stalk, or a chawanmushi filled with sweet corn and cheese. Banter from the chef is complimentary.

Why not raise his prices when he could be making double? "I'm not that skilled," he says with abrupt honesty. Then he grins, and you realise he jests. "I'm not a chef, I'm a comedian."

Then, more seriously: "A lot of my customers are able to pay S$200 but it is enough for me to charge S$100. I want customers to leave satisfied, I want them to come back tomorrow."

He is able to keep prices low, he says, through a combination of negotiating with Japanese suppliers and buying in bulk from them, as well as importing most of his seafood directly from Japan.

Humble origins

The irony is that the eldest son of retired rice farmers never actually aimed to run a restaurant - let alone be a chef.

The Fukuoka native spent his youth training to be a chiropractor with the ultimate dream of being a baseball coach. But it was during a part-time stint at a sushi bar at the age of 18 where he watched mentor Hirakawa Akira "turn food into magic" that he decided to leave his vocational college to enter the restaurant industry. A few stints at a kaiseki restaurant, a fugu eatery and then a kappo-style restaurant in Tokyo later, he found himself on a plane to Singapore at the age of 23.

His first post here was at the now-defunct Tenjaku in Millenia Walk, a high-end sushi restaurant run by a Japanese restaurant and real estate group. By the time that restaurant folded five years later due to a slump in the group's property business, Chef Yamashita had already worked his way up to the post of head chef and restaurant director.

"I've always wanted to run my own company since I was 23, and I told myself I would do it by the time I was 30. I was 29 when Tenjaku closed - it was a sign," he says. He decided to stay on in Singapore because the Japanese economy was still sluggish in 2010, and he had already amassed a close community of friends in Singapore, along with his wife Serena, 37, who was then a part-time waitress at Tenjaku. "I thought I'd try something, and even if it didn't work out, I was young enough to start over again," he explains.

He then spent over a year scouting for a small nook to call his own in the heart of town. "Everywhere I looked, the units were too big," says the chef who knew, from day one, that his would be a counter seating-only restaurant.

"Even three years ago, the manpower situation was very tight. I wanted a place that I could manage on my own even if I couldn't find any staff, and where I could survive and grow slowly" he adds.

The original concept was also to run a casual izakaya, rather than serve omakase. "In 2011, Japanese restaurants in Singapore were either really high-end restaurants or really low-end, there was nothing in between," he observes. "By creating a mid-price restaurant with high-quality food, I could expand the window of customers who come in."

But three months into operations, it was the customers "who made me change to omakase-style dining", Chef Yamashita recalls. Regular patrons - mostly Japanese expatriates on the baseball team he practises with every Sunday - started asking him to "send out any food he likes", which he did, on condition that they came at 6.30pm before regular dinner service started. Word got around so quickly that he ended up offering two dinner seatings at 6.30pm and 8.30pm daily.

On why he didn't want to move to a larger space to accommodate eager diners, Chef Yamashita says it all boils down to pragmatic concerns over managing manpower, a perennial problem for the F&B industry, and food quality. "I never rush to expand, things come to me naturally," he says.

The 1,000 sq ft third-floor shophouse unit in which Hanare sits came as a bundle with the 400 sq ft space he uses as an office just above, while Hana Hana came as an offer from the landlord when its previous convenience store tenant moved out early this year. Teppei Syokudo, meanwhile, happened after several talks with the head honcho at Takashimaya, who is a regular at his flagship Teppei restaurant.

His next target is to establish a central kitchen - the food for Hanare and Syokudo are currently outsourced to a food manufacturer who executes his recipes - along with "several other outlets", one of which may involved Japanese whisky, he hints coyly without revealing more details.

The ultimate goal, he says, is to move into a management role by the age of 40. "I told my family that's why I have to work hard now to establish a system," says the father of two - three-year-old son Koki and one-year-old daughter Koko. He only shuts the restaurant for 10 days out of the whole year to return to Japan over the Chinese New Year holidays. Offers to franchise his brand regionally have also been coming in fast and furious, but he hasn't made up his mind about taking them up, he teases.

Maybe if you come back tomorrow, he might tell you.

See you tomorrow, maybe he'll tell you then.


This article was first published on October 11, 2014. Get The Business Times for more stories.