Sebastien Lepinoy remembers how, some 18 months ago when he first started work at Les Amis, he told the restaurant’s owners that he wanted to cut the menu prices by 40 per cent. “The room turned very cold, and they gave me a look that said, ‘we will be firing you very soon’,” chuckles the 41-year-old chef de cuisine of Singapore’s oldest independent French restaurant. Not only is he now firmly entrenched in the Les Amis kitchen on Claymore Hill, he got them to spend S$1.5 million on a month-long renovation that was spent mainly on gutting and totally rebuilding the kitchen from scratch to his own specifications, including a custom-built, hand-made stove from Charvet – the French Rolls-Royce of kitchens. The stove alone cost as much as a Porsche 911 in France, jokes Lepinoy.
The fact that Les Amis is now mostly fully booked at lunch and a dinner service of fewer than 40 covers is considered a slow night is proof that Lepinoy’s radical move to cut prices, raise food costs but lift turnover has worked. The restaurant is now profitable, its ranking at 13th place in the Asia Best50 Restaurants list is the highest it’s been and it has shaken off its long-held reputation as a canteen for Singapore’s ultra-rich.
Bringing fine dining to everybody has been the mantra driving Lepinoy from the start, when he was transferred from Les Amis’s now defunct Cepage in Hong Kong in August 2013.
At the time, he says, the tasting menu cost as much as S$320 to S$350, which was “over-priced”, especially after coming from Hong Kong. “If you go to New York, say, Eleven Madison Park which everyone talks about, you can have a tasting menu for US$225. The same at Per Se. At Le Bernardin it’s US$198. And they’re full!” Instead, Les Amis was struggling to attract diners, and there were even plans to chop it into two and turn half into a brasserie.
But Lepinoy convinced his bosses to try it his way first. Les Amis’s dinner menus are now priced at S$165 and S$220, with its most expensive degustation menu at S$280. He introduced set lunches priced from S$55. “After a few months, we were full.”
The formula, he explains, lies in volume business. “If you only do 50 customers a day and your food cost is 35 per cent, you have to sell at a high price. If your food cost is 50 per cent and you sell at a low price, if you do 100 covers a day you will have money in your pocket at the end of the year.”
While he’s no fan of the Asia Best50, he acknowledges the marketing power of the awards which has created visibility for the restaurant across all demographics. Which is exactly what he wants. “We want to be for everybody – from young people aged 25 to 30 who have just started work who can have a fine dining experience (with the set lunch); the 30 to 40 group who have just started a family and want to celebrate a birthday, the 40-50 and above, up to the very rich.”
He isn’t worried about turning off snooty and demanding high-net-worth diners who disapprove of eating with the hoi polloi, either. There are enough private areas and more important, “they return because they like the food”.
Who wouldn’t, considering that Lepinoy has a fisherman in France who catches fish only for him. “Seabass and turbot three times a week,” he says, admitting it costs a lot. “The sea bass costs S$100 a kilo.” And then there’s the artisanal French butter Le Ponclet, made with milk from a near extinct breed of cows whose owner vets the resumes of chefs and the size of their restaurants before he will sell his butter to them. Costly yes, “but people really love it”.
They’re also drawn to Lepinoy’s classic, clean traditional French cuisine, honed from his early career back home and 17 years with Michelin maestro Joel Robuchon.
His three years in the one Michelin-starred Cepage (he was heading the L’atelier de Joel Robuchon in Hong Kong prior to that) saw him literally breaking free from the classic Robuchon mould and going hog-wild into experimental mode with ‘innovative cooking’ that some customers liked but others didn’t. Now that he’s got that phase out of his system, his focus now is on going back to his roots of French cooking, which he feels is ripe for a comeback.
Too many French chefs have become smitten with Japanese, Spanish and Nordic cooking at the expense of their heritage, but it’s time to reclaim the mantle, feels Lepinoy. While those styles have their merits, “you don’t need to copy them”. He already sees big name chefs like Yannick Alleno and Robuchon also going back to the basics, and he was astonished when the food at Eleven Madison Park was not the modern cuisine he expected but very fine traditional French cuisine by its chef Daniel Humm.
“He cooks vegetables and duck French style, he serves smoked fish which people don’t eat anymore – it’s all very classic with no presentation, nothing superfluous.”
That would describe his own cooking at Les Amis, with highlights like melting-soft turbot roasted simply on the bone, served with bio-organic mussels, lobster rouelle of shellfish wrapped in spinach in a fish bone sauce, tete a veau (a headcheese made of ox tongue and calf’s head) and baby lamb rack with fava beans and beautiful girolle mushrooms.
Even as most fine dining restaurants steer away from a la carte menus in favour of predetermined tasting menus, Lepinoy is going the other way with an extensive a la carte menu for his exceedingly good value S$80 three-course lunch Formule. It’s slightly more expensive than the S$65 set he used to offer but “we increase the quality and give more choice”.
You get to pick from hot or cold appetisers, mains like Atlantic ocean John Dory and pan-fried Amadai fish. He also wants to get people back into the practice of eating caviar, by offering Les Amis-labelled caviar from Kaviari at ‘takeaway’ prices of S$320 for a full 125gm tin or 50gm for S$150 – prices which only net him a 25 per cent margin. You can eat it in the restaurant with three types of smoked fish and toast, or bring it home with you.
The low-key chef makes it clear he’s not after awards or recognition but just wants to raise his game by making fine dining more accessible and affordable. “I want to be classic,” he insists. “It’s a risk and it’s more work for the staff, but I think it’s what my customer wants.”
This article was first published in The Business Times Weekend on April 18-19 2015.