Shades on, dressed in a black shirt and with a backpack casually slung over his shoulder, Immanuel Tee could fit right in with the suited executives in the CBD.
But the 29-year-old is really a down-to-earth millennial who prefers taking the bus when shuttling between the four casual French eateries he owns, and who keeps a hanky in his pocket to mop his brow so he won’t “keep wasting tissue”.
This is the young chef-owner behind Garcons in Upper Thomson, which opened in June, and three other outlets – Timbre+, Essen@ Pinnacle and Alibabar Hawker Bar. His first job was at buffet restaurant Asian Market Cafe at Swissotel the Stamford Singapore.
The bright-eyed Tee, however, had his sights set on Jaan up on the 70th floor, helmed by Taiwan-born chef Andre Chiang then. “I found Andre on Facebook and would text him every day, asking if I could work for him,” shares Tee, who had read about Chiang in food magazines.
“I found Andre (Chiang) on Facebook and would text him every day, asking if I could work for him.”
– Immanuel Tee
Three months later, his efforts paid off, and Tee spent a year at Jaan before following Chiang to be part of his opening team for Restaurant Andre.
“It was not easy,” says Tee sheepishly. “The level of stress was very high and I was yelled at all the time.” But he soon rose from assembling ingredients to helping out with appetisers, and went on to stints at Le Bistrot du Sommelier and Guy Savoy. In 2014, he became chef de cuisine at former fine-dining outfit Keystone in Stanley Street.
It was during this time that Tee opened his eyes to things happening beyond the kitchen and on the larger dining scene.
“So many restaurants were opening and closing because they couldn’t keep up,” says Tee, who saw relatively untapped potential in affordable French fare. He started Immanuel French Kitchen in late 2014 and By The Fire, a Western grill concept in April 2015, before deciding to work together with fellow chef Enoch Teo, and rebranding the latter as Garcons. Immanuel French Kitchen was closed as part of the consolidation.
With overhead costs kept low, Tee gets to be creative with French-style classics like duck leg confit and foie gras, which he sells at coffee-shop prices. The fatty duck liver, for instance, is coated with black miso and sits in a bowl of dashi broth. It’s a pairing that strays from the usual fruit compote and brioche combination, yet it works, as the light consomme lends a natural sweetness that balances out the rich dish. This dish has put Tee in the spotlight.
In 2015, he was one of five semi-finalists representing Singapore at the San Pellegrino Young Chef (South-east Asia) competition. He was the only chef from a coffeeshop background, competing against Kirk Westaway from Jaan and Andrea de Paola from &Sons Bacaro. Tee served a tender braised pork belly with potato foam and a soft egg from Garcons’ menu, which was praised for its use of sound techniques and interesting flavours.
(RELATED: Kirk Westaway was once our Chef to Watch, too.)
Though Tee is set to grow his business model in the next few years, it remains his “dream to go back to fine dining one day”. When that happens, he plans to serve the same food Garcons does, but in a “Nordic setting, with natural light and lots of wood”.
The business-savvy chef is just waiting for the right time.