In this pandemic-torn climate, it has been almost two years since we have been limited to small group gatherings. Weddings aside, we’ve all but forgotten what it’s like to be surrounded by friends and strangers, talking freely without masks and clinking glasses over a table laden with food.

We have all felt the itch for social interaction, including the peppy Julien Royer. Frustrated by the restrictions, the chef and brains behind three Michelin- starred Odette jumped at the chance to open a mid-level restaurant serving rustic, traditional French cuisine. Claudine, named after his mother, is in the final stages when we meet at the former chapel turned restaurant at Harding Road.

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Formerly known as The White Rabbit, interior designer Nice Projects has filled the old chapel with colour. The ceiling and its beams are a deep earthy red, and pastel and sage green-coloured seats separate the bar at the far end from the main dining area. Life- size panels of dried flora by Humid House adorn the walls behind mirrors. Each panel is fitted with a slim lamp in the middle.

“This place is really about conviviality and bringing people back together,” Royer explains animatedly. An idea that’s been “germinating” for two to three years, Claudine is his tribute to the food he lives and breathes. Odette presents French cuisine in a more refined fashion, but the fare at Claudine will be casual, with dishes that hold personal meaning to him.

We look over at the open kitchen, a gleaming stainless steel grotto on the far right of the space. Royer leans in closer as he names specific dishes interspersed with anecdotes: the truffade (potatoes sauteed in garlic, parsley and melted cheese) is famous in Cantal where he’s from and the classic chou farci (cabbage stuffed with minced pork) is a recipe from his mother who was vague about measurements.

Also on the menu is a simple smoked herring salad that he says is disappearing from French establishments. These intimate snippets of his life will be incorporated into the menu alongside rustic dishes, natural wines, and a modest cocktail programme.

Claudine will be open for lunch and dinner, where you are welcomed “as you are”. He envisions a mix of diners who will fill the restaurant – families on weekends, solo guests sitting at the bar counter, and couples on dates – as a playlist of upbeat jazz music pipes through the speakers (hopefully). But being the people-oriented person he is, he knows the convivial atmosphere he wants to recreate will ultimately come down to spontaneity and the guests who come by.

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Royer believes people are the most important resource for realising a vision. Although Claudine is his third restaurant – after Louise at PMQ in Hong Kong – it is the first venture where he is an equal stakeholder with Wee Teng Wen of The Lo & Behold Group. Business partners for close to six years, the two men have a strong, trusting relationship and share similar values.

Grateful for the existing communications, marketing and digital strategy teams at Lo & Behold, the ebullient chef can focus on hand-picking the front of house and kitchen crew. Likening them to a soccer team, where teamwork is crucial, he explains, “It’s part luck and uncertainty as you try to gather talents who can complement each other.”

Due to Covid-19, Royer had the luxury of time when the restaurant’s opening was delayed from June to Nov 16. A concept from scratch is challenging enough; creating it amid a pandemic increased the difficulty of arranging the logistics for renovation and staff visas. It took him an entire year to get the opening team together, but he considers it a blessing in disguise.

The first member of the team to begin R&D was chef de cuisine Loic Portalier. The former sous chef at Louise in Hong Kong, who has a deep voice and boyish features, was the first to get into the kitchen with Royer. “He would come twice a week to try the dishes. He had one hour to try six to eight of them,” Royer says with a laugh.

Having trained in classic Michelin- starred French restaurants with chefs like Paul Bocuse, Portalier was part of the opening team for Louise, too. He spent a year experimenting with Cantonese, Japanese and Vietnamese cuisine at various restaurants in Hong Kong as a crash course in something different. He is now more comfortable incorporating one or two Asian elements into traditional French cuisine, just as Royer envisions. The ravioli, for example, is wrapped in wonton skin.

Julien Mercier, Claudine’s executive chef, was the last to arrive in Singapore due to visa delays from Brazil. A long-time friend of Royer’s (the two met when they were in their 20s working in the Caribbean), his stoic, no-nonsense demeanour is the complete opposite of Royer. Also trained in French cuisine with tenures under the legendary Pierre Gagnaire at Sketch, his methodical nature makes Mercier the perfect candidate to maintain structure and organisation within the restaurant.

Doing desserts is soft-spoken Singaporean Jeanette Ow, who lends her deft touch to typically heavy French desserts as pastry chef. Previously of The Dempsey Cookhouse & Bar by Jean- Georges Vongerichten, she joined the team a few months ago and has been busy reinterpreting classic cakes and pastries to suit local tastes. Take ILE FLOTTANTE, which consists of a piece of meringue in a pool of creme anglaise. In her version, she uses an orange blossom and rose water meringue with a crisp layer of pink praline on top that breaks apart to reveal a vanilla sauce underneath.

Managing the front of house are two hospitality veterans who are turning their attention to a singular restaurant for the first time. Restaurant manager Antoine Capelli, formerly part of the re-opening team for the esteemed Raffles Hotel Singapore, is accustomed to overseeing multiple French establishments simultaneously.

With slicked-back hair and a crease- free white shirt and blazer, Capelli exudes professionalism, with his hotel background giving him a keen eye for details. He’s glad for the opportunity to work closely with a small team after years of feeling like a cog in the machine. “For a long time in the industry, it’s been about the chef and not the team. But, we’ve come to an era when all employees are recognised for their work, and it’s a great experience for me,” he says.

The same can be said of general manager, Glynn Tay, who joins the team after a decade at the Marina Bay Sands empire. Her first job after graduating was on the pre-opening team, opening outposts for award-winning chefs such as CUT by Wolfgang Puck and managing Rise, the hotel’s all-day dining restaurant. “It’s very different adjusting from a big organisation, but not having that vast structure to fall back on makes you resourceful,” she quips.

Although it’s been hectic and unpredictable, everyone on Royer’s team shares his excitement for bringing to life a brand and restaurant. Delays with renovation have meant doing R&D sessions between the Ecole hoteliere de Lausanne Campus and Republic Polytechnic, and sharing the small office space at Odette.

Even so, the thrill of birthing an idea is hard to ignore. With Capelli, it’s a chance to rewrite the antiquated way things have been run elsewhere and give each team member ample freedom to express themselves. Similarly, Royer says the process is necessary to reinvigorate his passion. He says, “The danger is getting too comfortable doing the same thing over and over again. You will lose precision, be less detail-oriented and lose focus, but you must be on top of your game with this.”

In the same way that he shows a feverish anticipation, I feel the team he has assembled is the perfect group for him to carry out his intention of reinstating conviviality in dining out and translating his raison d’etre of giving “emotion and pleasure through good food”.

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