Chia Tek Yew, executive director of Majuven and owner of restaurant Portico, wasn’t always into food. “I worked for many years in Hewlett-Packard’s consulting division and travelled frequently to Palo Alto, where HP’s headquarters were based, and I got exposed to the area’s good food, good restaurants and the wine belt in Napa Valley,” says Chia of his initial exposure to the world of food and wine. Since then, he has gone from casual gourmet to silent restaurant investor to an active owner, over the last seven years. He shares his experiences in and insights into the restaurant business.
How has it been moving from a silent investor to a restaurant operator?
I have learnt that for a restaurant to do well, its investors must be supportive of the chef and the team. While chefs are good in the kitchen, they are also learning how to manage the business side of things and, coming from a business background, that’s where investors add value. We provide that second voice that supports them; we are older, more well-travelled, and act as their eyes on the ground outside of Singapore. Each time I come across an interesting dish when dining out either in Singapore or overseas, I’ll make sure to share the idea with the team.
Sounds like a great exchange. Any memorable meals you’ve had recently?
My top city for dining is San Francisco, and my favourite restaurant there is a place by the ferry terminal called Slanted Doors, named after its all-glass doors that open up to the harbour. It’s owned by a Vietnamese chef who does interesting French-Vietnamese food. You can order a bottle of wine and sit there, watching the boats come in, like you’re in your own backyard. I visit it whenever I’m in the city.
What do you look for in a restaurant?
The places that I want to return to are those with good ambience. There’s a lot of good food and great service in the world; you can go to any Michelin restaurant in Europe and get good food and great service, but, to me, they are very stuffy. They are not places you’ll want to go over and over again. And Singapore is not a big enough market for one to go after the one-off customer. That’s why at Portico, we focus on getting all three right: good food, good service and great ambience. It also sets the barriers to competition higher.
How does your background influence your approach to running a restaurant?
There are lessons in the venture capital business that you can apply to the F&B business. In the VC business, it’s never about a product; it’s about the team. You get the right team and you back them and make them stay. There are investors who have money and recruit team members as employees, who come and go. Whenever they go, business drops. They then get a new team and business goes up. It’s cyclical, so the only people who can survive are those with deep pockets. On the other end are the chef-owners who try to build an empire around themselves. This is difficult as empire-building costs money, then you have to train people who either become your partners or your competitors. I’m somewhere in between with Portico; I become partners with the chefs.
Portico has started incorporating more local produce into its menu in recent months. How did the interest
The interest came from my wonderful team of chefs, led by head chef Nixon Low. This team would personally go to farms to check out the produce and the farming methods, before selecting the right supplies for the restaurant. While touring the farms, they get inspiration from the farmers on recipes and different ways to use the produce. Through such close interactions, our team has built strong collaborative relationships with these local producers, and we will continue to work with them on upcoming menu changes and in culinary events. We currently serve a pan-seared sea bass that is delivered to us daily from a farm in Pulau Ubin. The dish, and many others, come garnished with herbs and vegetables from our edible garden on our own patio. We are also experimenting with a honey-based kaya, as well as considering putting local quails onto our signature menu.
Why the strong support for local producers?
Apart from lowering the restaurant’s carbon footprint, we are also keen to understand the true sources of our food supplies, as it is our responsibility as a restaurant to ensure that we provide the freshest of ingredients to our clients. This is no different from us treating all who come as guests in our home, which is a concept we’ve kept to over the years, entirely, rather than pick a dish apart (laughs).