You don’t want to play poker with Sebastien Lepinoy. He’s a high stakes player – so high that you will break into a sweat at the extent of his wager and his single-minded, laser-point focus that shows you he has no intention of losing.
And his gamble has paid off. Big time. On Tuesday night, three years after earning two stars in Singapore’s inaugural Michelin Guide for Les Amis, Chef Lepinoy walked away with its highest accolade – three stars – capping off a daring four-year gamble to put the classic French restaurant at the top of the culinary heap.
His was a strategy not for the fainthearted, as he pushed food costs beyond the comfort zone – 60 per cent to almost 80 per cent at times, versus the industry norm of 30 per cent. He pulled out all the stops – super-premium French ingredients, black truffles in every amuse bouche, everything from bread to ice cream made in-house and sauciers hired just to do that one job – to the point that he was even testing the threshold of the Les Amis group’s top management.
”You know how whenever a chef gets an award, they always say ‘thank you’ to their team,” says the soft-spoken Chef Lepinoy with a wry smile. ”But for me, it’s better to say ‘thank you’ to the boss. Because without them and without their trust, you cannot do anything.”
The Story Begins
For the 45-year-old Chef Lepinoy, the road to three Michelin stars began nine years ago, when the Robuchon alumnus left his mentor in 2010 after 17 years to head the now-defunct Cepage restaurant in Hong Kong – the Les Amis Group’s first foray into fine dining overseas. He won a Michelin star for his efforts but between 2010 and 2013, he was still trying to find his own culinary identity after literally growing up in the shadow of the maestro since he was 18. ”In the beginning my food was very much like Robuchon, so I tried to explore different cuisines. I started to do more innovative and fusion cooking, using a lot of Japanese ingredients – it was a mix of French and Japanese.”
But feedback from guests that they preferred his classic French cuisine got him thinking that he should focus on this route. ”By the last six months of Cepage, I was more focused on French ingredients and buying less Japanese.” It so happened that the tsunami disaster occurred at the time and guests were avoiding Japanese produce, so he took that as a sign to focus more on classic French. And when he moved to Singapore to take over the kitchen at Les Amis, his plan was to do more of the same.
But the first few years in Singapore proved difficult for him creatively. ”The previous chefs were not from France and they were using different ingredients – it was more a Japanese fusion mix.” And more important, his first goal wasn’t so much about ingredients but about filling the restaurant. He introduced a S$45, two-course express set lunch with the objective of lowering the prices enough to get more bodies into the restaurant. ”I was not focused on extreme quality then, it was just about trying to run the business.” But it worked, and gradually, he was able to raise prices and start pushing up the quality, although not at the level it is now.
The Road To Three Stars
Chef Lepinoy first got wind that Singapore was going to get its own Michelin guide in November 2015. ”Immediately, I began to change everything. Our food cost started to grow. I hired more staff. We had 20 then, and now we have 30 to 32. We had no choice. We had to go to two stars immediately, not just one. Because from my experience with Cepage, I knew the importance of Michelin stars and the impact of one star versus two stars is very different. With one star, you can only attract local customers. When I was in Hong Kong I only had local people. The tourists who come from Europe and the US, they will not go to a one Michelin-starred restaurant. That’s why we had to immediately aim for two stars or else we lose a lot of customers (potential).”
When he failed to get the third star last year, Chef Lepinoy raised the stakes again. ”I made it clear (to the owners) that this is our last chance to get the third star. My strategy was to focus on French seasonal ingredients and make sure that every guest gets to experience it. For example, when we had black truffle in season, I offered it to all guests as an amuse bouche regardless of the menu they chose. Even if they picked the S$128 set lunch, they still got black truffle in their amuse bouche. My food cost for lunch was almost 80 per cent but for other menus it was a bit less.” He adds that during the peak November-December period it worked out fine as ”we were still making money”, but in the months of January and February when business was bad for the whole F&B industry, ”some people were sweating”, he deadpanned.
Was he worried that this high-stakes gambling would go belly-up?
”No. I was very confident about my food, and the dining experience. And also, after almost 30 years in the kitchen, I know what (Michelin) is looking for.”
Championing French Haute Cuisine
Unlike other French restaurants in town, Les Amis is the only one devoted to classic French haute cuisine, which he says is easily misunderstood by the younger crowd as staid or old-fashioned. ”That’s why I don’t like to call it classic but I prefer to say it is pure haute cuisine. By this I mean we do everything – the bread, the ice cream – and we focus only on French ingredients and the French seasons. Right now, there are only five restaurants in the world that do haute cuisine: Michel Guerard’s Les Pres d’Eugénie, L’Ambroisie in Paris, Le Normandy in Bangkok, L’Osier in Tokyo, and Les Amis.
”Even Alain Ducasse or Yannick Alleno are not classic, they are modern. My cuisine is not fashionable but it is about the ingredients. Because of the simplicity, it is very difficult to do and not many chefs want to do it. It requires more knowledge and much more cost. You have to change the menu every season, and you need to have a tasting menu and also a la carte. Most restaurants now only have one menu.”
But why pick such a difficult cuisine to do? ”Because it is about preserving French culture,” he says simply. ”It’s my identity.”
To chase the fourth star, which does not exist, he says seriously. ”I am only at 75 per cent of my capacity, and I want to take my cuisine further.” And he also hopes to build on the three star pedigree with consulting projects either here or overseas, to build up the business and justify the high costs that his cooking requires. He has also been approached by Singapore Airlines to be in its culinary panel and is in talks with them. If he could, he would also like to open a slightly more casual, one Michelin star concept, so he can offer his signature roast chicken and steak tartare that he used to serve at Cepage, and bring back the customers that he had before Les Amis raised its prices.
As for resting on his laurels to bask in the glory of his three stars, the stoic chef shakes his head. ”I will be in the kitchen, because right now I am very busy with the new Autumn menu which we will launch in 10 days’ time.”
(RELATED: A day in the life of Sebastien Lepinoy)
This article was originally published in The Business Times.