Immanuel Tee never saw himself working in a coffee shop.
To most young chefs in Singapore, the 27-year-old chef's resume is the stuff of envy. He got his culinary diploma from At-Sunrice, spent several years working for Andre Chiang at Jaan and Restaurant Andre, as well as now-defunct Guy Savoy at the Marina Bay Sands, before clinching a stage at two-Michelin-star Pastorale in Belgium.
At just 25, he was promoted to the head chef position at modernist restaurant Keystone in the heart of the Central Business District.
But it all came to a sudden halt last year, when Keystone shuttered for good following a rental hike. Mr Tee was left jobless.
He scoured the market for investors to start his own restaurant, but when talks with potential partners didn't pan out and he couldn't cough up the more than $300,000 typically needed to fund a restaurant, he dug into his savings to go it alone in the most unlikely of places - a Bukit Merah coffee shop.
But it wasn't just any old coffee shop. Call it Kopitiam version 2.0 if you will: All of the 170 seater's tables are covered with blue-and-white chequered tablecloths.
In place of traditional hawker fare, stalls dish out German pork knuckles, French beef bourguignon and grilled Cajun prawns that are more commonly seen on restaurant menus. You can wash them down with craft beers instead of the usual Tiger or Heineken. And the best part? Nothing costs over $20.
The coffee shop even has a name: Salut, which is French for "hi", but also intended as "a salute to the customers for giving us a chance and the tenants for coming up with such original, tasty food", says Chua Kiat Tat, who runs the coffee shop on behalf of his father.
His family acquired the entire space two years ago after nine other landlords before them failed to make it profitable, he says.
"We're surrounded by so many coffee shops with famous stalls in them, so we were forced by circumstances to differentiate ourselves," he says of the decision to position the coffee shop as a low-cost start-up platform for local food entrepreneurs.
Rents vary according to stall size, but average $4,000 per month. "By keeping rents low, tenants won't have to stint on the quality of their ingredients, so we can bring restaurant-standard food to customers at an affordable rate. It's a win-win for diners, tenants and us as coffee-shop operators."
Mr Chua's family runs German stall Stew Kuche, and the other six units are tenanted out to a seafood stall, a dessert shop, a healthy-juice stall and the latest three additions - noodle stall Mian, fried-chicken specialists Two Wings and Mr Tee's Immanuel French Kitchen.
Additional conveniences such as a centralised payment system and joint events such as an Oktoberfest buffet are still being worked out.
The long-term goal is to grow with existing tenants to duplicate the set-up in other coffee shops around Singapore, hopefully as early as next year, says Mr Chua.
For Mian's Karen Cheng, the good tenant mix and vibrant synergy among them was what attracted her to the space when scouring for a brick-and-mortar base for her food truck, The Travelling Cow.
Two Wings' Jeremy Loh originally eyed a stall at a neighbouring coffee shop, but an unplanned meal at Salut convinced him to sign up on the spot.
"It was packed with young people who looked like they didn't mind spending more, it was like nowhere else I'd been to," says Mr Loh. But for a concept like this to work, careful management is needed, he reckons. "There must be no competition between stalls," he says. For instance, he considered selling fried fish fingers, but was dissuaded from it to avoid cannibalising neighbouring seafood stall Seasalt's business.
Tenants say the concept wouldn't work in any neighbourhood either. The Bukit Merah venue works because of its proximity to office towers and high-density condominiums in the area.
Western and Asian expatriates fill the space at lunch, while families heading to nearby Ikea and Queensway Shopping Centre stream in on weekends. Tenants are also banking on the under-construction Park Hotel Alexandra, just a few paces away, to bring in more traffic.
The sweaty, hard slog aside, Mr Tee believes that a coffee shop makes for a more conducive training ground for young chefs. "In a restaurant, chefs can hide all day in the kitchen, but in a coffee-shop stall, you have to face your customers daily. You have to swallow your pride and take in their comments, good or bad."
Says the soft-spoken, amicable chef, who hopes to open further stalls under the Immanuel brand: "It will always be my dream to be in fine dining, but it's tough to do it in Singapore. One has to be realistic."
One stop for foodie treats
Immanuel French Kitchen
Blk 119 Bukit Merah Lane 1
Hours: 11am-10pm (Tue-Sun)
At this humble 4 metre by 5 metre stall, Immanuel Tee and Nate Yip turn out classic French bistro fare such as chicken liver pate, Burgundy escargot and beef bourguignon - all for under $18. Mr Tee was previously head chef of now-closed modernist restaurant Keystone while Mr Yip is a fellow stagiaire from his 2011 stint at two Michelin-starred Pastorale in Belgium.
Prior to opening, Restaurant Andre and Guy Savoy-trained Mr Tee clocked in a further six months in the kitchen of Le Bistrot Du Sommelier.
The duck rillette served with bread and baby gherkins ($8) is a throwback to the latter restaurant's highly popular charcuterie offerings, while the braised pork belly served with an onsen egg and potato foam is a take on Keystone's $34 kurobuta pork belly, except that the $15 coffeeshop version is made with local pork instead.
Though now in more modest settings, there are still some things he won't compromise on, such as using only French butter, milk and cream in his cooking, says Mr Tee. Or sous-vide cooking his chicken breasts, done both to keep the usually dry meat extra juicy as well as to raise awareness of the increasingly popular cooking technique among regular dining folk.
On the blueprint is a gourmet French-inspired burger with gruyere cheese fondue and onion confit in a homemade brioche bun. We can't wait.
A permanent homebase for two-year-old food truck, The Travelling Cow, Mian - as its name suggests - takes all the popular favourites from the truck and serves them in larger, dine-in portions that you can now eat with proper utensils.
The Cow's classic ramen burger comes with four Asian fillings at Mian - beef bulgolgi, spicy barbecue chicken, chicken and crab salad (all $12) - along with regularly-rotated weekly specials such as a wagyu burger patty served on a bed of penne ($16) and newfangled creations such as the cheesy ramen bites ($6), a trio of deep-fried ramen-crusted dumpling filled with nutty emmental cheese.
Pastas (all $12, inclusive of soup) also vary in flavours from a piquant seafood laksa linguine to the lighter sesame cold soba with portobello mushroom and watercress.
With the week-old brick and mortar up and running, the food truck will be free to serve as a platform for more innovative menus and collaborations, says its founder Karen Cheng, who tied up with Japanese restaurant Hashida for a pop-up along Scotts Road earlier this year. Watch this space for more.
12-3pm, 6-11pm (Tue-Sun)
Its decidedly modern menu may look like a local take on Kentucky Fried Chicken, but Two Wings is really Jeremy Loh and Samantha Lim's attempt to revive a 40-year-old recipe from Mr Loh's granduncle, who sold fried chicken rice sets in a Toa Payoh Lorong 5 hawker centre until he retired seven years ago.
Incidentally, Mr Loh claims, the recipe is also the same one his granduncle's brother-in-law used to start Carona Chicken, now a chain with 10 outlets in food courts islandwide and three in Indonesia.
Mr Loh trained for six months under his granduncle before he and Ms Lim opened Two Wings in May. The couple sells around 150 wings on weekdays and up to 300 on weekends.
The first thing that strikes you about his wings is that they are much larger than the 80g to 90g wings you usually get.
That's because Two Wings specifically uses Brazilian-bred chickens that yield mainly 100g to 120g wings, says Mr Loh, coyly declining to reveal what goes into the batter for its slightly bitter, though shatteringly crisp chicken skin that he claims can stay that way for up to four hours after frying.
This article was first published on June 21, 2014.
Get The Business Times for more stories.