Sous chefs Adam Wan, Levin Lau, and Yeo Sheng Xiong have chef Julien Royer’s back as he takes Odette to greater heights.
Not too long ago, Adam Wan, senior sous chef at two-Michelin-starred Odette attended a cooking event with Chef Julien Royer. In the wings, he watched as chef Julien told the audience that it was not only Julien Royer cooking at Odette; everyone behind him puts a little piece of art to the plate and gives it to the guest. “That really inspired me and will stay with me forever,” he says.
Admiration for his philosophy is perhaps why Adam has stayed with chef Julien for a good seven years since they started working together at JAAN. He even speaks in French-accented English, just like his mentor. Motioning to a cup on the table, he says, “For instance, if he needs this, I will place it there before he asks for it. And I’d know if he’s going to do something a certain way. I would say we’re on the same page.”
Adam’s not the only one with such a ringside seat at Odette. Fellow senior sous chef, Levin Lau, has been with chef Julien since their Brasserie Les Saveurs days at St Regis some 10 years ago, and so has Yeo Sheng Xiong, sous chef, save his two years spent in the army.
Working by his side every day, they know what ingredients chef Julien doesn’t quite like (durian, tofu, dried shrimp, fish sauce) and have been able to see a change in his working style. Says Levin, “When I first knew him at St Regis, he was very young and had quite a temper.” Xiong adds, “When he stepped into the kitchen, you’d hear ‘Lao Ban Lai Liao (‘the boss is here’ in Mandarin)!’ Then you’d just hear the exhaust pipes and the pots and pans. That’s it. It was that quiet.” Nowadays, the atmosphere in the kitchen has lightened up, and sometimes it’s chef Julien who tells his three sous chefs not to get too uptight.
Apart from showing him their passion and willingness to learn, understanding his palate has been a key factor to earning chef Julien’s trust. Since their time at JAAN, Levin proved that he was able to be the gatekeeper of taste. He says, “As I got to know what he wanted, he entrusted me with tasting every dish before it goes to him. Getting the taste right is very important. For chef Julien, all the flavours have to be in harmony. If the dish tastes bad, the whole dish is bad.”
“And chef Julien mainly focuses on produce. Cooking technique later,” adds Adam. “Recently, he’s moving towards removing components from the plate. If there’s too much on the plate, it’s going to be confusing for the guest. He always says it’s very important to taste the food that you cook. We need to educate our palates as a chef. It’s our responsibility to taste the food. Taste, taste and taste.”
Says chef Julien, “They know my taste now, for instance that I like to use citrus, that I barely cook the fishes and I don’t like the sauces too thick. But they do try stuff based on some influences from their background as well. If one day they do something that is superb and it can go straight on the menu, why not? I always encourage them to do their trials and highly believe we can do better than the day before.”
He often brings them on overseas assignments to widen their horizons and trusts them to to take care of the restaurant while he is away. But he says it has to be win-win situation, where he shows them how to do things and in return, they each play their part to uphold the quality and consistency of the restaurant. “Levin is the quiet force of kitchen where he takes charge of logistics, the ordering, the recipes. Adam is able to jump in and help with any station such as garde manger, meat or sauce. Xiong focuses on the equipment and turning around the kitchen.”
A stake in success
Xiong, who is the newest among the three in his position as sous chef says the “one team, one dream” motto of the restaurant keeps him going. When he became a sous chef in the second half of last year, he did feel a little inadequate, but he told himself that he was put in the position to become that position. Just as before, when he was a junior sous chef, he would remind himself that he can’t be making simple mistakes and that he had to keep any eye out for the smooth running of the kitchen.
“I had the nickname of a policeman because I would go around checking the place for cleanliness and ask why nobody saw this or that.” Now as sous chef, he hopes to alleviate some of Adam and Levin’s workload and pick up more skills. “It’s hard to step out from just cooking to managing. I see how Adam and Levin plan the menu for instance. It can be tricky, not repeating the garnishes on certain courses, or making sure that the 6th and 8th courses are not similar. But I’m learning from them.”
The fact that chef Julien holds the superiors accountable further ingrains a culture of teamwork. Xiong says, “When we first started Odette, I was taking care of the garnishes and sauces. If something was wrong, he would ask Levin to tell us. We’d fix it but feel bad that we got Levin in trouble and would try not to do it again.”
He says this emphasis on teamwork is even more important now as the restaurant is pushing itself to reach further heights. “Chef Julien puts us in the same mindset and vision to push for three Michelin stars.”
Helping to devise flavour combinations keeps them energised. “Chef Julien likes to give us missions,” adds Xiong. “Maybe he’d suggest a produce item to work with and ask us to come up with ideas. Even if we don’t come up with full dishes ourselves, we get to refine the dishes and help get them ready for production. For instance an oyster dish we did the last time. He wanted to do something savoury and cold using a Vadouvan or French curry spice. We worked on that, talked to each other and came up with ideas until the final plating was done and a new dish was born. That creative process keeps us alive. It’s what we crave for.”
Says Levin, “Another example is our signature dish the Hokkaido uni. It first started at JAAN as a normal uni. When we came here, chef Julien wanted to do a uni bowl with spikes. After one or two years, I thought we could use real uni shell. That’s how we do it today. The dish keeps evolving to the next level and we all play a part.”
All in the family
Although Levin has been a senior sous chef with chef Julien for a while now, he sees himself staying easily four or five years into the future as he’s still learning a lot and there’s never a dull moment. Similarly, Adam has thoughts of working in France to take in the seasons, culture and produce for himself and further hone his palate. But for now, he is happy being in chef Julien’s band of number two chefs. He feels there’s still so much he can learn from chef Julien, such as being able to balance the demands of the kitchen, service staff and guests, and being a a successful chef-owner, not just a chef.
Besides, by now, the sous chefs see chef Julien not just as a mentor, but more like family, someone close enough to even help Xiong choose his wedding wing. But it’s no accident that the Odette brigade are close-knit. Chef Julien says chef Michel Bras used to tell him that you can be the best chef in the world, but if you are alone, you can’t achieve anything as restaurants are all about people. In Adam, Levin and Xiong, he has found the key people he wants to rely on.
“I like to cook with feelings and a certain freedom which may not be compatible with consistency. These guys help me record the recipes, and keep things in order. Sous chefs are really the most important guys. They’re the pillars of the kitchen and of the restaurant. These three are very trustworthy, hard workers with a positive attitude. This gives a very good vibe to the entire kitchen and makes all the difference. ”