New Japanese dessert salon strives for perfection

Japanese dessert salon Henri Charpentier opened its first overseas outlet in Singapore last Thursday, but it may take up to two months for operations to be "perfect".

The French-inspired patisserie's president Goki Arita reveals that the 80-seat restaurant in Dempsey requires about another seven staff, especially for their table-side dessert performances.

Mr Arita, who was in Singapore for the opening, says: "Our staff from Japan are helping out this month but they will have to go back soon. It is so hard to get new staff here."

So, to cope with the lack of manpower, the alfresco dining area which seats 30, will be used as a waiting space for the time being.

The brand's chef patissier, Takahiro Komai, 41, was also in town for the launch of the restaurant. But it will be executive chef Tomohiko Shimada, 36, who will helm the kitchen in Singapore.

Despite the manpower woes, the 4,400 sq ft chic dessert salon still rolls out picture-perfect sweet treats in a plush setting.

Its signature crepe suzette - sweet, thin crepes served in a hot sauce of fresh orange juice flambeed with Grand Marnier in front of diners - is not to be missed. After all, the brand is named after the famous 19th-century French chef said to have invented this dainty dessert.

And it is a marriage of French finesse with premium Japanese ingredients with its Les Financiers and Les Madeleines (both from $2.90 each, available in gift boxes). These fluffy and moist creations are made with cultured butter developed from raw milk from the Konsen area of Hokkaido.

Other highlights include lemon tart ($7.50), strawberry shortcake ($9.50) and Chocolatine ($9.50), as well as a selection of desserts exclusive to Singapore (see story on facing page).

Hot dishes are also available. They include eggs benedict ($19.50), ratatouille and parmesan cheese tartine ($19), and beef bourguignon with mash potatoes ($29).

Mr Arita, 40, says the company picked Singapore as the first destination in its plans for global expansion because of two reasons: "Three years ago, we started coming to Singapore to study the scene. We've seen that the Singaporean market has accepted Western-style cafes such as Paul and Paris Baguette. There's a huge possibility to be successful.

"And Singaporeans eat six to seven times a day and really love restaurants. There's such a high level of dining."

Mr Arita's late father Naokuni Arita founded the brand in 1969 when it was just a small cafe in Ashiya City, Hyogo prefecture in Japan.

He recalls: "My father was working for a French-style restaurant in Osaka. He was washing dishes when the lights were turned off and a server went to the tableside and flambeed the crepe suzette. When he saw the happy faces, he knew he wanted to make desserts."

Henri Charpentier's flagship store opened in Tokyo's Ginza shopping district in 2003 and there are more than 80 outlets across Japan, mainly in department stores.

They also have factories in Nishinomiya, Tokyo and Yokohoma.

Mr Arita's father also started three other brands: macaron chain Mademoiselle Macaron, which is preparing to retail in convenience stores; fruit cake shop Caju, which closed last year; and C Cube, an Italian-style casual patisserie, which Mr Arita does not rule out bringing to Singapore.

On Caju's closure, he sighs and says: "With the economic situation in Japan, it has been difficult to keep businesses going. Building new brands is also difficult."

The move towards global expansion came three years ago, when Mr Arita became president of the company.

After finding some success in advertising, he went to a patisserie school in Paris for six months before joining his father in the company seven years ago.

"I never thought of joining the family business. But when I was in advertising and had a client who did Western-style cakes, it was very exciting for me," says Mr Arita, who is married to a Japanese lawyer, 36. They have two children, aged four and one.

He adds: "Being in a family business is very difficult. I fought a lot with my father. In my seven years with the company, I never attended meetings in the first four years."

Before his father died of cancer at age 69 in 2011, the older man already had plans to steer the company towards global expansion, something that Mr Arita - who has two elder sisters - is now focusing on.

He has his sights set on expanding in South-east Asia, as well as in Taiwan and the Middle East.

"My father had the same dream. He likes an atmosphere of luxury. I want to show him the scenery in Dempsey. I think he is enjoying and seeing the shop from heaven."

Henri Charpentier at 9A Dempsey Road
Opens daily from 11am to 10pm
Tel: +65 6479-5518.

This article was first published on October 14, 2014.
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