An Afternoon with Yuan Oeij, Chairman of The Privé Group
I arrive a little before the designated time at Privé Keppel Bay, the waterfront dining establishment in hopes of catching a breather to calm my nerves. As I walk around to admire the sprawling harbour views of the Marina, Yuan Oeij, my subject of fascination for the next few hours, enters.
“I am a work in progress,” pausing as if to provoke drama, before resuming his speech in hushed tones contemplating his recent adjustments to his lifestyle—mainly his penchant for a plant-based diet which would be the focus of our foodie conversations to follow. “I want to be satiated. I love to feel satisfied. But I’m working on examining myself mentally and making changes to my life that will benefit me and my house”. Talk about the importance of being earnest. Never before have I encountered a chairman of an F&B group that rounds up 9 restaurants and 3 nightlife destinations to date, speak with such honesty about his weaknesses, costly mistakes in the past, and his acceptance of cosmic interactions.
Life hasn’t always been a bed of roses for The Privé Group’s owner Yuan Oeij. Over Peanut Butter and Jelly Flourless Banana and Oat Pancakes, we discuss in fervent detail, the oversights he had encountered with Stereolab and Wolf during his early beginnings in the food, beverage and entertainment industry. “The mistake I made was in thinking that a new thing could rescue you out of a bad situation,” he admits, a belligerent mindset that saw him putting all his assets into a dying cause in 2011. “With all the time and the effort spent, I could be going on glamorous holidays and driving a Ferrari by now.” Somehow that image and Yuan’s genteel disposition didn’t go hand in hand.
Within 10 minutes of sitting with Yuan, my nervousness has given way to a cheeky corner grin growing radially inwards. He has a way of putting you at ease. We speak of his Hakka roots and he deftly comes clean about his distaste for the traditional cuisine, instead expressing his fondness for chicken rice. Reminiscing about memories of late night hor fun ‘da bao-ed’ by his parents on their way home from the movies and Bak Kut Teh breakfast treats when he did the due diligence of accompanying his mother to the wet markets on weekends; it soon becomes very clear that Yuan, is just like anyone of us—a foodie led by the romantic notions of memory induced cravings.
He eggs us on to give the vegan pancakes a go. I hide my lack of enthusiasm with a polite nod and after one mouthful of the plant-based treat, find myself enjoying it much more than anticipated. For what it’s worth, the lifestyle choice as advocated, didn’t seem so dire or unpalatable at this point. Soon, we are effortlessly guided to the neighbouring joint—Bayswater Kitchen, a nautical themed dining room that recently opened its doors in the last quarter of 2017. There, we shoot a couple of pictures that reveal more of his carefree demeanour. He orders a glass of Madfish riesling, attempting to use that as a prop for his close-up before resorting to quench his thirst ever so quickly. It’s only 11 a.m., and I knew I had found good company.
The meal progresses quickly, with a couple of seafood dishes paving the way for a successful representation of the diner’s seafood-centric concept. There’s a very moreish whipped cod’s roe dip in a shy shade of pink, served with crispy flatbread and a surprisingly tender chargrilled octopus on berlotti beans that fills in the spaces between our conversation that span an interesting array of topics from common chef friends to his baby project: Brown Sugar. And finally, his newest obsession—a 3-year project in the making that aims to make his favourite local dish, Chicken rice into a scaleable brand.
“The old me would want to open something deeply rooted in tradition and create the perfect chicken rice through artisanal ways. But the business side of me wants to scale it up, dominate the world, and make loads of money from it.” Yuan’s mental gears are full swing at this point, before he takes it back a notch with a politically correct remark “just doing my bit for Singapore by bringing chicken rice to the world”. I sense a fearless but not unreasonable motivation in this scheme, backed by a rare and showy business acumen that can only be the result of years of trial and tribulations.
It is not till the (vegan) chocolate cake arrives that Yuan takes a break from the constant chatter to inhale the rich slice. He brags about enforcing special indulgent little vegan treats at all his concepts in order to pander to his sweet tooth. “I have a thing for desserts, and very occasionally I would allow myself to eat something like this.” His weakness unveiling itself in the form of repetitive fork visits through the smooth and luxurious chocolate ganache.
We adjourn to Esquina for a quick bite seeing that it’s one of his favourite places to host friends and overseas guests. A glass of red wine is quickly summoned as Yuan engages in friendly banter with Head Chef Carlos Montobbio, who is so familiar with Yuan’s vegan preferences that he has dishes of innovative alternatives on standby. There’s grilled baby sucrine lettuce with macadamia nuts and romesco sauce to replace the herb yogurt—a light and refreshing insight into vegetarian options at fine dining establishments. In light of Vegetarian fine dining gaining momentum in Singapore, it’s invigorating to witness the green conquest in materialisation.
Our final stop is EMPRESS at the Asian Civilisations Museum, a contemporary space in juxtaposition to its tradition cuisine—also Yuan’s favourite restaurant seeing his penchant for Chinese food. Needless to say, our table is a whirlwind of sweet endings from sticky date and longan pudding to ‘veganised’ (demonised) bubur char-char and pandan crème brûlée. There are no formalities necessary, just a flurry of spooning action as if in a bid to muster up strength for the impending meetings to come.
“Smile. Walk around vibrantly. Whether you believe it or not, you WILL influence people. Succinctly, if you are a role model for others, they will take the bits and pieces of your life that are worth emulating. Hence, my increasing passion for a plant-based diet. It makes a difference to people’s lifestyle and has a positive impact on the world. And although it takes time, it’s fulfilling.” Yuan says before he rides off on his electric scooter. I leave the ‘interview’ particularly light-footed and cladding an imaginary halo overhead. To say that I’ve been humbled by this opportunity is an understatement. Perhaps I’ll even try out that new vegetarian diet that I’ve been putting on hold forever.