Chef-owner of Singapore's two-Michelin-star Odette on why his grandmother would be proud of him
HOW OFTEN DO YOU DO THESE GUEST-CHEF PROMOTIONS?
"Not that often because I try to stay in my restaurant as much as I can. But we planned this one a long time ago, and I knew it was going to be fun. Ricardo [Chaneton, of Restaurant Petrus at the Island Shangri-La] and I know each other from a four-hands dinner that we did about four years ago, when I was chef of Jaan [in Singapore] - he came to do a collaboration as part of a gourmet festival. After that we cooked together in Shanghai, at Unico."
TELL US ABOUT YOUR RESTAURANT, ODETTE.
"It's named after my maternal grandmother. I'm from Auvergne, in the centre of France. It's quiet - very quiet; there are not many people but it's rich in agriculture. They say Auvergne is the cheese board of France; it's the only region in France with five AOPs [appellation d'origine protegee], the official appellation of cheeses. My grandfather had a small farm and my sister, our parents [and I] lived there. My grandmother cooked every day.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR CHILDHOOD
"My memories of when I was a kid are of helping in the kitchen and seeing the amount of emotion and pleasure you can give to people through food made from honest, humble ingredients. We didn't have much money but we always ate well. We used our own products, from poultry to milk, vegetables from the garden and mushrooms because we were surrounded by forests. I learned to cook from my grandmother. She was my first teacher. That's important, because that's where you shape your story and where you learn taste education - as a kid or teenager - and [from that] you learn how to eat."
WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR GRANDMOTHER MAKING?
"I remember the long, slow simmering of the red currant jam she would make, adding vanilla and juniper berries - this perfumed the entire house. I've kept this memory in my heart for many years, and so it's a small gift we give to diners when they come to Odette - a jar of red currant jam, to show them where I'm coming from."
WHY DID YOU BECOME A CHEF?
"Because I wanted to give people pleasure. This is what I'm trying to do every day, from a very involved perspective - to make people happy through good food and good company. Chefs are lucky because we have one of the few jobs where we can do this every day."
HAS YOUR FAMILY EATEN AT YOUR RESTAURANTS?
"Not my grandmother, because she was too old to travel, but she knew what I was doing. She's passed away now, but she's watching over me from up there. My parents came to Odette and they were so proud. It's a long journey, and for them it was such a discovery. It's nice to cook for people you love."
WHICH CHEFS HAVE INFLUENCED YOUR CUISINE?
"I was lucky to work with Michel Bras [at Restaurant Bras, in Laguiole, France]. It was a big eye-opener. I was 18 or 19 and worked there for two years. It's a humble family and they have a sense of respect and sustainability - this was ahead of its time. You learned not only about cooking but also about the value of life. What was amazing was his capacity to handle such a high level of cuisine with integrity and respect for people and the ingredients. I never saw him shouting at people. The first day I went there, he was preparing the foie gras. I said, 'Chef, can I help you?' He said, 'I'm not chef - I'm Michel.' Nobody called him chef, basically. It was a really family kind of atmosphere."
HOW DID YOU COME TO OPEN ODETTE IN SINGAPORE'S NATIONAL GALLERY?
"The CEO of the National Gallery [Chong Siak Ching] used to come to Jaan often and one day she said, 'I have a space for you in our building.' I said, 'OK, I'll come down,' but I didn't go. She came back two weeks later and said, 'I was waiting for you. I'm serious, I have something for you.' I went to see the space and it's a beautiful location. At the same time, I met my business partner - a Singaporean guy. We decided in a couple of weeks - everything was done quite fast. I wanted to do a restaurant that's not too big and really classic yet refined. The next step for me after working at Jaan for four years was to become a restaurateur more than a chef, and being able to shape the entire hospitality product, from the lighting to the decoration, tablecloth, cutlery, plates - everything. We started from a white page, so that was fantastic."
HOW HAS THE RECENT ACCLAIM CHANGED YOUR LIFE?
"To be honest, we were really busy straight away - we have only 12 tables and since day one they have been full. Now, people tend to book earlier - but that's the only thing. I think, for a Friday or Saturday, you have to book a month and a half or two months in advance."
WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE INGREDIENT TO WORK WITH?
"Citrus. I like any kind of citrus and, in Asia, I discovered many types I didn't know about - yuzu, sudachi, bergamot, calamansi. Citrus is such a humble ingredient but the zest of lime, for example, can give a totally new complexity and dimension to a dish." SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST