Travelling in this time of Covid-19 can be a real hassle, as Björn Frantzén can attest to. The Michelin-acclaimed Swedish chef and restaurateur of the Frantzén Group recently flew into Singapore to check in on Restaurant Zén, his three Michelin-starred Asian counterpart to the equally decorated Restaurant Frantzén (also number seven on the list of World’s 50 Best Restaurants) in Sweden.
Due to a missing travel document (a very crucial one, in fact), he was stuck in Frankfurt’s airport for a day as Zén’s executive chef Tristin Farmer frantically pulled all the strings he could find to clear his visa. With a sprinkle of magic dust and lots of help from friends in high places, Farmer managed to get Frantzén into the country even though this meant rescheduling their small media get-together to the weekend instead.
When we finally sit down with the two chefs on a late Saturday afternoon, they’ve just finished a lunch tasting at Zén (the only available slot before Frantzén has to fly off the next day) and both look like they’re glad to get a short breather. Having arrived on Friday afternoon, he’s already had dinner at Odette, is doing dinner service at Zén after our meeting and has a lunch planned at Burnt Ends the next day.
The conversation meanders from how Frantzén has held up during the pandemic to the inner workings of the relationship between the two sister restaurants. While Zén in Singapore offered that unforgettable, indulgent Caviar Uni Kombu Doughnut that sold as a takeaway during the lockdown, Frantzén in Sweden operated as per normal given that the country has not imposed any lockdowns (apart from an 8pm curfew, one meter distancing and gatherings in groups of four).
Singaporean foodies have chef Daniel Everts, who joined as the lead for the R&D team for both establishments in February 2020, to thank for the creation of the doughnut. And it’s not just a shared ‘brain’ that gives these two restaurants a uniquely symbiotic relationship; they all have access to a shared Dropbox folder with recipes that can be tweaked according to their audiences and the seasons.
Seasonality, however, translates quite differently to either restaurant. In Sweden, the change in temperature between one season to the next can be very drastic, explains Frantzén, which makes diners more discernible to any change in produce. For Zén, however, the consistent tropical climate here allows the Singapore team more room for experimentation as does the micro-seasons in Japan where most of their ingredients come from.
Farmer professes that they’ve only recently started to plan ahead using a calendar of Japanese micro-seasons as they’ve gotten more knowledgeable about what’s harvested and when. “You have to know specifically what you’re looking for. If you ask the suppliers what they have, they’ll recommend the basic stuff,” he adds. He’s also noticed that an ingredient is priced higher when it’s in season in Japan, whereas the opposite is true in Europe.
On the whole, however, prices of ingredients continue to rise (ask Farmer about the rising price of sea urchin and you’ll get a laugh of disbelief in response). It’s felt especially so now when producers can’t meet the sudden influx of demand due to a shortage of manpower. For Frantzén, one of the biggest ways he’s felt the impact is in his wine supply chain. As places are opening up and more guests return, there isn’t enough to go around.
It’s clear that the F&B industry is going through a reckoning, and for the pair it inevitably means there will need to be a big shift in the way restaurant businesses are run. Their solution — focus on the people by offering higher salaries and a better work-life balance to retain staff. Already, Zén has been implementing a novel system of reduced work hours and has an exceptionally high employee retention rate.
But as we’d expect from one of the top visionaries in the culinary world, status quo is never sufficient. With a certain thrill, they tell us that they’re considering closing the restaurants on weekends, to emulate Parisian fine dining restaurants. If they go through with it, it’ll definitely grab headlines being the first for Singapore’s restaurant scene, for which weekends are when most eat out.