French fine dining 'for the masses'

Singapore - Tucked away in the corner of the Ali Baba coffee shop, Saveur stuck out like a sore thumb.

Sitting alongside stalls selling typical local hawker fare such as chicken rice and char kway teow, the French eatery was offering foie gras and duck confit.

"We felt a bit demoralised but at the end of the day, we knew we must be patient and keep doing what is needed to get the ground going," said stall co-owner Dylan Ong, 26.

Thankfully, things took a turn for the better. The eatery started attracting more customers and business grew by word of mouth.

Mr Ong and his partner Joshua Khoo, 29, now have about 50 employees at two restaurants, up from just three at the stall in the East Coast Road coffee shop.

Both men trained as chefs at hospitality school Shatec and have worked in high-end French restaurants.

With the help of business partner Eric Chiam, 41, they pumped in about $35,000 to set up the stall in May 2011. The idea was to use it as a test bed, to give them a better feel for the industry. It was also less risky than simply taking the plunge and setting up a restaurant immediately."Initially, we were worried," said Mr Khoo. "But we gave ourselves time and we tried to come up with a better menu and more dishes."

The stall became so popular that the duo moved into proper restaurant premises in Purvis Street within a year.

And in April this year, they opened their second branch at Far East Plaza. Despite their success, they kept prices affordable by sticking to their motto: "Provide French food for the masses".

They also never forgot the times spent in the coffee shop. "The hawkers were very friendly," said Mr Khoo. "We miss the people, the chit-chats with the uncles and aunties, and we definitely miss the hawker food."

Mr Ong added: "They didn't see us as competition. They saw us as two young boys so they kept asking if we've eaten and would feed us. They would also help us clear our plates if we were too busy."

The pair were also impressed by the effort the hawkers put into running their stalls. Said Mr Ong: "They are very dedicated and hard-working."

The two chefs, whose parents were hawkers, feel hawker food is a quintessential part of Singapore. Mr Khoo said: "Imagine you don't get to try the local hawker food in future, you'll miss the whole point of being a Singaporean."

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