Les Amis a magnet for innovative chefs
Owners of Wan Chai French restaurant Cépage, which closed in the summer, opened a new seafood concept last week in Central. While Cépage offered Michelin-style fine dining, Le Port Parfumé, the latest venue from Les Amis restaurant group, is modelled on a French bistro and specialises in locally caught fish (hence the Gallic name for fragrant harbour).
Cépage's head chef Sebastien Lepinoy and pastry chef Cheryl Koh have been lured to Singapore to head up Les Amis' eponymous flagship restaurant. The move makes sense considering both restaurants share the same enticing formula of sophisticated food and slick service mixed with an unstuffy atmosphere - a recipe that has made Les Amis as popular with food writers in the region as it is with regular customers.
Les Amis has also been a nursery for talented cooks who have spread their wings across the region. Lepinoy, who was head chef at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon Hong Kong prior to Cépage, and Koh are the latest in a long line of alumni that includes Ignatius Chan, owner of renowned restaurant Iggy's.
Les Amis, which celebrates its 20th anniversary next year, was at the forefront of the French fine dining scene in Singapore when it opened in 1994.
Award-winning sommelier Chan, and chef Justin Quek, who'd worked his way around several classical French restaurants in France and Britain, were the brains behind the concept. With Chan's experience, the restaurant became known for fine wines as well as Quek's cuisine.
"Ignatius and I drove the operation for 10 years," says Quek, who now runs his own restaurant Sky on 57 at Marina Bay Sands, where he combines classic French cooking with a Chinese influence. "We were the first stand-alone, fine-dining French restaurant with a great wine list in Singapore."
Quek says what he gleaned most from his time at Les Amis was wine knowledge and how to pair wine with food. "I tasted a lot of great wines in those 10 years," he says. "I remember the first New Year's Eve menu with truffles, caviar and lobster on the menu paired with Krug Champagne, Chevalier-Montrachet by Domaine Leflaive, Chateau Latour and Chateau d'Yquem."
Both Chan and Quek left and sold their shares at the end of 2003. Chan set up the now famous Iggy's, while Quek opened a restaurant in Taipei. Following his departure, Belgian Gunther Hubrechsen took over as head chef, and continued to uphold Les Amis' reputation.
Hubrechsen left to set up his own establishment, Gunther's, in Singapore. Gunther's is another fine-dining experience, this time in a converted shophouse. It is much loved by businesspeople, tai tais and romantic couples, alike.
Janice Wong, named Asia's best pastry chef at the inaugural Asia's 50 Best Restaurants awards, worked a six-month stint under Hubrechsen at Les Amis following her training at the Cordon Bleu in Paris.
Wong, who now owns the acclaimed 2am: dessertbar in Singapore, says: "Working with Gunther on the line was my most memorable experience of working at Les Amis. From him, I learned about the balance of flavours and right pairings of ingredients in each dish.
"What I've taken with me to 2am: dessertbar is the importance of team spirit in the kitchen and that a choice of fresh produce and ingredients is key to a good dish."
Sebastien Lepinoy's appointment marks the end of an 18-month search since head chef Armin Leitgeb left in May 2012 after working there for almost four years.
Under Leitgeb (who has since moved back to Austria), Les Amis joined the exclusive Le Grandes Table Du Monde, an honour which is usually reserved for the winners of Michelin stars.
Pastry chef Daniel Texter, who previously worked at Noma, left a few months after Leitgeb (Texter is now helming Adriano Zumbo's new bakery in Melbourne). So Lepinoy has brought over Cépage's Cheryl Koh, a Singaporean who began her career at the Raffles Hotel.
Since joining in September, Lepinoy has put his own stamp on the menu, introducing Japanese influences. "In Singapore, Japanese cuisine is well received," he says.
"So I decided to use familiar Japanese ingredients and a lot of my dishes are Japanese-inspired." These include angel hair pasta with lobster, crispy sakura ebi (cherry shrimp) and a touch of parmesan; pan-seared Hokkaido scallops with teriyaki sauce, pan-seared foie gras and French river eel accompanied by citrus fruits and dashi broth; and daikon velouté with black truffle.
But the ethos of the restaurant will remain the same, despite the changes.
"Les Amis means 'The Friends', so we exist to create a warm and welcoming environment without the pompous facade that the fine-dining image commonly portrays," says Lepinoy.