Julien Royer: Respectfully Yours
To get to know Julien Royer, you’ve first got to know those around him. This isn’t to say that the 34-year-old chef and owner of Odette—the fresh-faced, over a year old local establishment which garnered a 2-Michelin Star rating for two consecutive years in a row—is aloof or enigmatic. In fact, he is perfectly down to earth. Warm and cheerful in conversation, the former head chef at JAAN who trained and worked under world-class culinary maestros like Michel Bras, Antonin Bonnet and Bernard Andrieux, is graciously affable. Julien repeatedly exhorts me to try Odette’s food and most importantly, experience the hospitality of his team. His constant and unfailing mention of their contribution to Odette’s mercurial rise, makes it is clear that his crew of 30 staff are never far from his mind. “Alone, I am nothing”, Julien declares firmly, his French accent richly tingeing the words with an air of irrevocable truth. It’s an accent that slips occasionally on particular words, into Singaporean inflections, reflecting the relationship and regard that he has for his mostly local staff. Veiled references are made to ongoing running jokes among the lot, and Julien animatedly recounts (complete with spitting noises) his recent, unceremonious introduction to stinky tofu, brought back from Taiwan for him by his kitchen staff. Lee Jia Ling or ‘Ling’ as she is known, is Odette’s assistant restaurant manager who is approaching her fourth year of working with Julien. She first met him as a guest relations officer, and since moving over, her experience at Odette has been like no other. “I’ve had a few jobs now, not just in F&B, but this is the first workplace that I’ve been in where everyone’s just so happy to be here. Work can get tough and there have been very difficult moments, but everybody faces the challenges and really pulls through together... it’s special.” Ling breaks unexpectedly into raw emotion and tears up, before quickly gathering herself to add how Julien is always ready to crack a joke or two to brighten the mood. “He doesn't care about his image with us.” In Odette’s kitchen where the air is suffused with a clean, lively sweetness that sings of the freshest produce from land and sea, I watch Julien and his crew prepare for the upcoming lunch service. He tosses out short instructions in a familiar manner over his shoulder, trusting that his casual directives will be carried out. Parrying the occasional enquiry with assuring patience, Julien and his kitchen move as one, with graceful yet purposeful intent. It dawns on me that I’m observing the synchronised harmony of a ‘family’ at work, rather than a military exercise with a drill sergeant. Witnessing the natural and confident actions of his staff, I think I understand a bit more about who Julien Royer really is.
TEO REN FENG: What’s a secret ingredient of yours?
JULIEN ROYER: It comes from the citrus family. I like Calamansi lime, and for something that is so small and humble, it can change the entire body of a plate. Another of my favourites is Yuzu.
REN FENG: What’s your first memory of food?
JULIEN: The smell of bread baking and tarts being made. My grandmother Odette was a very good chef. She knew how to cook everything, especially tarts. There are favourites that I will always remember: one is her apple tart made with brown sugar and honey that we harvested ourselves, and her prune tart that she made with a sugar pastry set between brioche dough. The third is her rhubarb tart. The smell of the jam as she cooked it slowly in an old copper pot would make you go… [sniffs deeply and sighs]
REN FENG: Have there been any flavours that you’ve tried and struggled to replicate in your own kitchen?
JULIEN: Actually, the most significant flavour I can think of is something that is very difficult to explain. It’s the ‘cleanliness’ that you find in some Japanese cuisines. What I really admire about Japanese food is how most of the time, they don’t use seasoning. It’s just the juxtaposition of consuming a product that is almost untouched or raw, and yet when you eat it, there is a sensational ‘explosion’ in your mouth. Kaiseki cuisine has a real sense of subtlety, femininity, and elegance—a kind of ‘perfect elegance’. We are seldom able to reach that level of balance and perfection.
REN FENG: You said going to Japan for the first time was like “a slap in the face”.
JULIEN: Oh yeah, big time. I think any chef that goes there… learns. You see the level of attention to detail, the passion behind every single person involved in the process—even from the most basic food to high-end dining—it’s crazy. I found it very inspiring and very, very touching.
REN FENG: Do you aspire to achieve those levels?
JULIEN: We try to reach that level of perfection by respecting our ingredients and reinstituting their natural tastes, but we’re also creating as a team and it’s not easy because it takes time and the right people to understand. Alone, I am nothing. It’s about people, you know? We try to provide a genuine hospitality where people feel comfortable to stay and enjoy in the simplest way: good food, good wine and good company.
REN FENG: You’ve mentioned that it is important to “continuously broaden your worldviews and expose yourself to differing perspectives”. What do you think of individuals like sushi master Jiro Ono from the documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, who spend nearly every waking moment purely dedicating their lives to the art of a particular food?
JULIEN: Especially when you talk about Japanese chefs, to master the art of cutting, slicing and treating a fish is something that takes years and lots of sacrifices. We are a bit different in French cuisine because you learn the classics at school: the DNA of French cuisine like how to braise, how to make a sauce, stock, jus, etc.… but after that, how you want to use that foundation is up to you. You can choose to do something very classical or progressive and crazy, or you can specialise in producing the best steak in the world, which will take you many years to achieve. It’s a question of personality I guess. On my part, I am very curious, so we try to be very aware of what is going on. We taste a lot and try different things, and what I’ve found very special about this job is that you can discover and learn something new every day. You can cook something new almost every day. Spontaneity is really important. But this profession is very wide. When you mention people like Jiro, I can only admire his kind of craft—it’s like an athlete who’s dedicated his life to achieving perfection.
REN FENG: You’ve quoted Pierre Gagniere, whose mission statement is: “Facing tomorrow but respectful of yesterday.” How much does that statement resonate with you?
JULIEN: I think what he says is very true. As chefs with French training, it’s important to master the classics and the essence of it before you can evolve into something more personal. Drawing on the past, old techniques and basics form your foundation, but it’s up to you to make something of your own—something that is up-to-date with what people want to eat: nowadays people prefer to eat lighter, healthier and faster.
The food at Odette is probably less pretty than before, as we focus a lot more on taste and flavour. My number one priority is the ‘pleasure of eating’.
REN FENG: How do you sense the appetite and tastes of diners?
JULIEN: That takes time. It was only after 2 or 3 years of being here that I’ve come to understand the preferences of Singaporeans. They like food with strong tastes, with umami, and the smokiness of charcoal—it must be punchy.
REN FENG: Do you create your cuisine with that in mind?
JULIEN: No, we find a balance. We all have different tastes, so I work with my team—who are mostly local and more familiar with what people like or dislike—and come to a consensus together. My sous chef, Levin, hates sour things, while I love them. So when we taste dishes together and find a median point, there is a good balance that will suit everyone's palate.
REN FENG: Is there excessive, unwarranted focus on the way food looks?
JULIEN: Ah, yes, more and more so. The food at Odette is probably less pretty than before, as we focus a lot more on taste and flavour. My number one priority is the ‘pleasure of eating’. If it is beautiful, fine—but I’m concerned about why there are too many good-looking dishes nowadays. One of my first chefs told me: “You first eat with your eyes, but then you eat with your tummy.” Sometimes we forget about the second part [laughs].
REN FENG: Do you feel that this trend to focus on the visual will affect the way the upcoming generation of chefs will turn out?
JULIEN: Yes. In fact, it already does—there are people who specialise in plating with tweezers and don’t actually know how to cook. That’s the sad reality, which is why I really spend the time to make my team taste what they are producing every day to refine their palate. Even putting salt in water to boil—I want them to know the difference so they have some criteria, and it becomes a habit.
REN FENG: How would you describe taste to someone who has lost their taste buds?
JULIEN: Ah, this is a crazy question. It reminds me of the chef of Alinea, [Grant] Achatz, who is a 3-Michelin star chef, and one of the top in the world. He lost his taste buds, and yet he still cooks at such a level. I always wondered how he did it, and the answer is that he relies on the people around him. But I would relate taste to sensuality, to touching and feeling, to the emotions.
Michelin stars are just one of the many forms of recognition. As a restaurateur and a chef, the only testament is whether or not your establishment is full every day—that's the biggest award ever.
REN FENG: What sets Odette apart from the other restaurants that didn’t receive Michelin star ratings?
JULIEN: Michelin stars are just one of the many forms of recognition. As a restaurateur and a chef, the only testament is whether or not your establishment is full every day—that’s the biggest award ever. If you can sustain that and take care of your team, then you can create a ‘family’, which we are trying to do here. What sets us apart is people know that Odette isn’t just about me, but my team as well. Some of my crew have been with me for 6 years now, and it is a lot less pressure for a chef when you have so many good people around to rely on. Otherwise, you’ll go crazy. [laughs] I’m also surrounded by people who have given me a lot of help, freedom and advice to create this experience, like my business partner [Wee] Teng Wen, and our marketing and PR teams. Odette is a team effort, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without their support.
REN FENG: How important is teamwork to your success?
JULIEN: I remember this sentence from Alain Ducasse in a documentary. He said, “The best chef in the world is one whom people don’t realise if he is in the kitchen or not—because there is no difference.” I don’t want to be away from my kitchen, but I get what he means: If you're surrounded by great talent, maybe people even better than me, then it is fantastic because we all grow together. When I was working for Michel Bras, I wasn’t very open-minded yet, even though I was working hard and pushing myself. And he told me, “You can be the best chef in the world, but if you don’t have a great team with you, you will not achieve anything. You will not succeed.” So my main priority is to ensure that everyone in the team is happy because that is the key success of any restaurant.
REN FENG: I notice that your kitchen is mostly made up of locals/Asians. Has that been a conscious decision?
JULIEN: Yes. Probably 70% of our kitchen is Singaporean, and we have one guy from Indonesia and a girl from Taiwan. I always keep in mind the notion of transmission of knowledge, especially in the kitchen, because it keeps the staff motivated. Ultimately they are going to leave to create something of their own, but when they’ve been with us for a long period, a sous chef leaving would still mean that we have continuity since he would have trained the next-in-line, the chef de partie or recommend someone suitable to take his place. There is trust and respect.
REN FENG: Do you have a work philosophy or mantra that you use to motivate your staff?
JULIEN: “Lead by example” is one, and just being open-minded and listening to their feedback. It is difficult to communicate effectively because we all have different characters. Good communication is extremely important.
REN FENG: What are your hopes for Odette in the future?
JULIEN: I hope to be recognised as one of the… I don’t like to say best restaurant, but one of the dining icons of Singapore. And I’d like us to be recognised as the restaurant that provides people with genuine and sincere hospitality and food.
REN FENG: Is there a part of you that wants to make your mark in France?
JULIEN: I am very happy to be in Singapore right now, since it is one of the most exciting cities to be in for food, with a mix of cultures, opportunities and people. You really cannot say that people are not crazy about food in Singapore, because they are. For me, it is not important where you are from, but to pay homage to what your family has taught you and showcase that in your work. That is what I am trying to do, even though I am not working in France. My parents know exactly what I'm doing and why I'm here.
REN FENG: Have they visited Odette yet?
JULIEN: Yes! Twice when they were here in February this year: once for lunch and once for dinner. That was very special—very special.
REN FENG: Do you think your grandmother would have appreciated and paid for a meal in a place like that?
JULIEN: I think so, yes. My grandparents did not go out to eat very often because they could not afford it, but if there was a special occasion worth celebrating, they would do it properly. She would wear her most beautiful dress and go to church before heading to the restaurant. It would be an elegant affair.
You have to respect the people around you to be able to succeed.
REN FENG: What would your grandmother think of your food and Odette?
JULIEN: I think she would see how sincere we are in our approach. She would also like the truth of it. I come from a humble background, and because we didn’t have money, we learnt the value of hard work. I’m sure she will recognise that you cannot do this [gestures to the restaurant], without working very, very hard. She taught me that nothing comes for granted or for free, and it is never just about one person. You have to respect the people around you to be able to succeed.
REN FENG: “Respect” is a word that I come across a lot in my research on you. What does it mean to you?
JULIEN: When I was a child, respect was something that was instilled in me, so it’s central to who I am. I have to respect people, respect life, because it is a basic rule of communicating with others and if you want to understand how to live. There is no communication, no progression and no invention without respect.
REN FENG: I like your phrase “no invention without respect”. How does that show in your cuisine?
JULIEN: We have a special relationship with produce because we are not going into very difficult food philosophies, but more towards what we call, “essential cuisine” and going back to the essence of what our job is: honest produce and hospitality. You have to understand the produce—touch, feel, and really respect it before you can create something out of it. You cannot just chop away without thinking. We cook using our hearts and minds, so that our cuisine can be easily understood and appreciated by people.
REN FENG: Finally, any other dreams you want to accomplish?
JULIEN: My grandmother made me realise how much joy and happiness I can give people through our food and hospitality, and my dream was always to have a restaurant. I am living it now and I am really very fortunate because at 34 years old, I have time. My story has only just begun, so who knows what the next step is?
Edited by Wy-Lene Yap