Thaddeus Yeo: The Most Likeable Guy Imaginable
Is it possible to develop a deep fondness for someone you have just met? Thaddeus Yeo, who is thirty-nine, possesses an invigoratingly warm exuberance that is rather intoxicating. Although he has a penchant for black clothing, today, he is wearing a white polo T-shirt that gently hugs his chiselled biceps, cerulean blue trousers, and Jack Purcell sneakers. Thaddeus has worked hard for his hulking physique, spending countless of hours at the CrossFit box. The fact that he has been doing it for 5 to 6 years shows his commitment to fitness, but there is also a vanity aspect that isn’t surfeit.
ZoukOut is coming, and Thaddeus’s incurable sweet tooth and dessert indulgences have been placed under strict restraint. “I love EDM, and I’m a huge fan of Tiësto.” He breaks out in an excitable manner, before flashing a megawatt smile. Interestingly enough, he hasn’t gone to Lollapalooza, despite naming his second restaurant after the music festival, which takes place in Chicago. “I’m not into crazy rock and roll. It’s just not my scene.” His confession isn’t surprising to me – Thaddeus doesn’t have a lingering appeal of a “bad boy”. Instead, he has a congenial mien, beguilingly boyish looks, and speaks with a sonorous finesse befitting of an English (Linguistics) major. He even has a minor in philosophy and art history.
As Thaddeus sidles up to me at Lolla, one of Singapore’s hottest restaurants – a title which doesn’t come easy in a scene that almost prides itself on relentless brutality, I discover that Lolla isn’t his first foray into the F&B industry. “In my late 20s, I opened a hole-in-the-wall French bistro called Le Bistrot with a business partner. I was in charge of front-of-house, while he [my business partner] was the chef. It was a good experience because neither of us had any at all. We had to learn the ropes and that gave us the confidence to do something more.”
Presently, Thaddeus still gets his hands dirty at Lollapalooza to combat the pervasive manpower crunch. When I ask if he has time for other pursuits, he admits with delight: “I spend way too much time on Instagram and Pinterest – more of a voyeur, than a contributor actually. I like to look at beautiful things, nothing food-related at all.”
WY-LENE YAP: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
THADDEUS YEO: [laughs] An astronaut. Strangely enough, a construction worker too, because I wanted to build a nice home. Nothing entrepreneurial at all.
WY-LENE: When did your interest in the culinary arts begin?
THADDEUS: I know it’s a cliché, but everyone wants to open a café or restaurant. Growing up, food was always important, and eating well was a part of family life. So at a young age, I had many opportunities to try good food and that made me curious. My dad was also a very particular eater. Perhaps, it is hubris? I don’t know… but I thought maybe I could recreate those wonderful experiences that I had… and make them even better. In my late 20s, I opened a hole-in-the-wall French bistro called Le Bistrot with a business partner.
WY-LENE: I assume Le Bistrot is not around anymore.
THADDEUS: It lasted for 10 years. When the business was tapering off at Le Bistrot, we closed it down to focus on Lolla. There was sort of an overlap. It took two and a half years before we opened Lolla – the concept, location, business plan, etc. The menu was ready but we wanted to have the right space. When we first opened at Ann Siang Road, it was relatively quiet, yet it was on the cusp of becoming a trendy hotspot. I am not sure if you know this, but before we took over the space, it used to be a shop called Asylum.
WY-LENE: I used to shop at Asylum!
THADDEUS: They had such great stuff! When they were closing down, I went to their sale with my business partners and Chris [Lee], the owner of Asylum, recommended that we take over the lease. It was perfect. But we had to do a lot of renovation work, which took two and a half months instead of the usual 3 to 5 weeks.
F&B is a sexy business – people do it out of vanity, and there is also a certain glamour attached to it.
WY-LENE: How many business partners do you have?
THADDEUS: Six. Hian Tee [Pang], Chin Sin [Lee], and I are the ones who run the business. Hian Tee founded Lolla’s Secret Supper, a guerilla-style private dinner event that he did for fun, so we decided to turn that concept into a restaurant. Lolla’s Secret Supper is still ongoing actually. F&B is a sexy business – people do it out of vanity, and there is also a certain glamour attached to it. Reality TV has definitely played a part in propagating that. I mean, you could invest in aluminium manufacturing… but that’s not sexy.
WY-LENE: Right. It’s also cool to be a chef.
THADDEUS: It is such a blue-collar job.
WY-LENE: Well, everyone wants to be the next MasterChef… and they wouldn’t mind dating one too.
THADDEUS: People say things like: “I find a man who can cook so sexy.” [laughs] It sounds trite, but I guess it’s popular culture.
WY-LENE: Do you have a favourite restaurant?
THADDEUS: In Singapore?
THADDEUS: That’s such a tough question… I own two. [laughs] How can I be honest? Of course, Lolla and Lollapalooza!
WY-LENE: [laughs] I expected that answer.
THADDEUS: I like Chinese restaurants, and Singapore has a great number of them. The Jade Palace at Forum is really good – the food, service, everything. It’s so old school, but I love it. Japanese restaurants are really expensive – I do have my favourites, but I don’t go that often. It’s probably cheaper to fly to Tokyo than to have a big meal.
WY-LENE: Shinji and Waku Ghin are extremely pricey.
THADDEUS: Outside of Singapore, I like Paris very much, especially their bistros like Le Philosophes in the Marais. I am a huge Woody Allen fan, so maybe that’s why I enjoy the Parisian experience. I always watch Midnight in Paris whenever I fly. That being said, I know a lot of people feel that London and Spain are the culinary capitals of the world.
WY-LENE: Why the name “Lolla”?
THADDEUS: It’s from Lolla’s Secret Supper. Hian Tee also has a company called Lollapalooza that imports and distributes champagne. It has nothing to do with the music festival although they both have the same name.
WY-LENE: Have you gone to the music festival before?
THADDEUS: No. I’m not into crazy rock and roll. It’s just not my scene. Actually, Lolla’s Secret Supper was named after Lollapalooza. And before we opened the restaurant, we were toying with the name “Lolla’s Small Plates”. Eventually, we went with “Lolla” because it sounded sexier. Lolla is like the bad younger sister, and it’s more sophisticated and upmarket as compared to Lollapalooza. Both of them are complementary to each other.
WY-LENE: I am aware that the Sea Urchin Pudding has been highly raved about and is the go-to dish at Lolla. What is your personal favourite on the menu?
THADDEUS: I like the tripe as it reminds me of my dad and growing up days. My dad loved offal, and my mum would cook a Chinese-style tripe dish with soya sauce. That’s comfort food to me. At Lolla, we do it differently – it’s braised and charcoal grilled so it’s crunchy on the outside, yet it melts in your mouth.
We are not trying to make an effort to be different, we are doing whatever feels right.
WY-LENE: What makes Lolla so successful? Your restaurant has garnered stellar reviews.
THADDEUS: It is a whole confluence of different factors. I think the location does play an integral part in its success because we are in the centre of Chinatown. The concept of having small plates is also another contributing factor. Nowadays, many small-plates restaurants are Spanish and they serve tapas. However, for Lolla and even Lollapalooza, we are not cuisine specific. It’s about the ingredients and produce, which parallel the culinary trends – and the Sea Urchin pudding does exemplify that because it’s not a Spanish, or French, or Japanese dish. The menu and the angle of the restaurant typify the Singapore experience for many people. Our entire team is Singaporean. We are not trying to make an effort to be different, we are doing whatever feels right. For example, if you go to France, every restaurant is French but they don’t sort of think: this is French food. They just do what they do. In all of Asia, Singapore is doing exactly that at the moment – this is food, and this is the way we see it.
WY-LENE: We don’t have any limitations in terms of our heritage, as our roots are not so ingrained in us.
THADDEUS: Yeah. Even the way we speak… maybe people in their 40s to 60s are more conscious about sounding too Singaporean, but these days, Singaporeans are very confident and it trickles down to every part our lifestyle. I think we see ourselves as a part of a larger tapestry; we are not just Asian or Chinese… we are Singaporean… whatever that means.
WY-LENE: Where do you source your ingredients from?
THADDEUS: We use the same suppliers like any other restaurant in Singapore. The fact that we are ingredient-centric has raised a few eyebrows when we first started because Singapore doesn’t have a farm-to-table culture. But we do have strong logistics links with the rest of the world – for instance, fishes are flown in from Japan every day. Ingredients come from Europe twice a week, and from Australia three times a week. Basically, the world is our farm.
WY-LENE: What do you think of Open Farm Community?
THADDEUS: It’s definitely something we’re doing as well. However, we don’t try and emphasise farm-to-table as a lot of it is more than just being ingredient-centric. It’s about light carbon footprint and sourcing local. We try… but it has to be good. If local tomatoes are great, then we will serve them. However, local tomatoes do not taste good, so we get organic cherry tomatoes from France.
WY-LENE: Earlier this year, you opened Lollapalooza. How’s business coming along?
THADDEUS: It’s tough and really competitive. Everyone eats out, but there are so many times that you can eat out. It’s a fixed pie.
WY-LENE: Keong Saik Road has many nice restaurants and bars.
THADDEUS: Yes. We don’t offer a big cocktail selection as we are very wine-centric. We have around 150 to 180 different labels, and many of them are champagnes.
WY-LENE: Are you profitable?
THADDEUS: By the end of the year, Lollapalooza should be profitable. It’s still relatively new as compared to Lolla, which is much more established. Many tourists also frequent Lolla because when they google Singapore restaurants to try, Lolla pops up in the search results.
WY-LENE: Is there a difference between the two in terms of pricing?
THADDEUS: They are both the same.
WY-LENE: What is the distinctive difference between Lolla and Lollapalooza then?
THADDEUS: The dining experience. We have received comments that Lolla is fun, has great energy, and the music is loud. But many people could not have their business lunches or dinners, and if they wanted a quiet and romantic place, Lolla doesn’t quite fit the bill. We definitely saw a need to address that gap, which is why we opened Lollapalooza.
WY-LENE: How about the clientele?
THADDEUS: There’s a lot of passing back and forth. Both restaurants have their own set of fans – it just depends on what the customer’s preference is.
WY-LENE: What are your thoughts on the current F&B scene?
THADDEUS: I like that we have plenty of choices. To be honest, I haven’t been trying new restaurants recently; maybe it’s my personality as I’m a creature of habit.
WY-LENE: Well, it happens with age.
THADDEUS: [laughs] Thank you for bringing up the age thing.
WY-LENE: You look really young by the way. I thought you were 32!
THADDEUS: Awww, you’re so nice. Would you like a glass of champagne, or a bottle perhaps?
WY-LENE: What do you see as the key threats to the industry?
WY-LENE: How about rental costs?
THADDEUS: Rental costs are high, but people can make it work. Manpower is really the issue.
WY-LENE: How do you cope with the manpower crunch?
THADDEUS: I do a lot of things myself. On weekends, I host at Lollapalooza. I don’t really have a choice… I will take the orders, clear the plates, etc.
WY-LENE: Wow, okay.
THADDEUS: I wear the uniform too. You can’t sit around and hope everything will work out. You need to be very hands-on. It does make a difference and people can see there is a face and personality behind the restaurant – it’s not just a chain someone is throwing money at.
WY-LENE: What advice would you give to someone who wants to open a restaurant?
THADDEUS: You don’t have much time for social commitments. Running a restaurant takes up your evenings, weekends, and public holidays. And I’m not talking months, but at least a year. As a boss, I can’t show that I’m tired too…
WY-LENE: You have to lead by example.
THADDEUS: Yeah, I let my staff go on their holidays first, even though I am dying on the inside. Thankfully, I do have staff to take care of certain aspects, and that allows me to organise my time to a certain degree. If you look at the younger Singaporean staff these days, quite a number of them have domestic help, yet at the restaurant, they need to clean and wash the glassware. If they’re not prepared to do that, then being in the F&B industry is not suitable for them.
WY-LENE: How many staff do you have?
THADDEUS: In total, 30. We do employ a lot of Singaporeans and pay them above the market rate. The tough part is retaining staff. Singaporeans who enter this industry do have hopes of having their own business down the line, so it’s inevitable that we’re part of their stepping stone.
WY-LENE: Are there plans to open more restaurants in the future?
THADDEUS: Yes, we do. There are opportunities in KL, Bangkok, and Jakarta, but it’s not that straightforward.
People may view food bloggers with a certain disdain or distrust, and on the flip side, sometimes with too much adulation.
WY-LENE: How influential have food bloggers become?
THADDEUS: Food bloggers have become very influential because of the speed at which they post as compared to traditional media. Print is the slowest. 8 Days and SG magazine are amazing – I don’t know how they do it with one-week deadlines. But you can’t fight with a blogger who eats at the restaurant and two hours later, the review is up online. People may view food bloggers with a certain disdain or distrust, and on the flip side, sometimes with too much adulation. But I think most people look at them with an objective mindset, and to keep abreast of what’s happening in the scene.
WY-LENE: Do you think food bloggers have bastardised restaurant reviews?
THADDEUS: Maybe 5 years ago, people would have been more wide-eyed: Oh, Lady Iron Chef said this restaurant was good, so it must be good. These days, people are not stupid and they are aware the review may not be legit.
WY-LENE: Has anyone famous stopped by?
THADDEUS: Local celebrities, famous chefs, the Food Network people, etc. Quite recently, Stephen Hough, a classical pianist, dined at Lollapalooza. No one knew who he was, but I was star struck. When I used to run Le Bistrot, Stefanie Sun came to my restaurant, and I couldn't take her order because I could not stop giggling. [laughs] I hope one day she will come to Lolla or Lollapalooza!
WY-LENE: When I say “Food Porn”, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
THADDEUS: Ummm… Nigella Lawson? I have a visual of her licking her fingers.
WY-LENE: Interesting answer. What foods do you not eat?
THADDEUS: I have an adventurous palate, but I wouldn’t go to a vegan restaurant. It’s just not my thing… although I do like vegetables.
WY-LENE: Let’s talk more about CrossFit. How did you get into it?
THADDEUS: One of my customers who was in great shape introduced me to CrossFit. At that time, I was going to a regular gym, but I wanted something different. CrossFit is like Olympic weightlifting and it has a bit of bodybuilding as well. It has all the aspects of athleticism.
WY-LENE: Who has influenced you the most in your life?
THADDEUS: I don’t know… there’s no one really.
WY-LENE: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
THADDEUS: I would prefer to be taller. [laughs] It’s horrible being 170cm. On a more serious note, I am quite happy the way I am. Life has been kind to me.
WY-LENE: When was the last time you felt most broken?
THADDEUS: Last year, when we were renovating Lollapalooza and I had to deal with the contractor. Anyone who has had contact with the construction industry would not say: Oh, what a wonderful experience! Let’s do it again. It was frustrating, and I felt a lot of pressure because I had to make things happen.
WY-LENE: Do you have any hidden talents?
THADDEUS: I play the clarinet. I’m not good, but I do it with great style.
WY-LENE: Finally, given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
THADDEUS: I don’t want to sound overly sentimental, but my father passed away when I was 19. It would be nice to have dinner with him, so that I can tell him he doesn’t have to worry about me. I think he will be proud of what I have accomplished.