Julien Royer is arguably the most playful of all the French purists. His unembellished style with classical French cuisine and Asian influences is emerging in Singapore as a veritable sensation. Less than a year after opening, his restaurant Odette was awarded two Michelin stars in the Asian capital city. At the same time, he immediately debuted at number nine of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2017, breaking records to become the most successful entry in its history. Today Royer’s culinary place of pilgrimage is ranked at number five of Asia’s 50 Best and 28 of the World’s 50 Best. Royer was a guest chef in the 2-star gourmet temple in Hangar-7 in December – and set off a wave of enthusiastic admiration. This can be attributed to Royer’s unerring integrity. Those who speak to the son of a modest farmer’s family from the French Cantal immediately notice how much Royer’s personality is reflected not only in his culinary art but also in his enviable laconism. Because Royer knows where his roots are. And what’s more: His restaurant not only pays homage to his origins but also to the family member who influenced him the most: his grandmother Odette. “She was the one who showed me how to make people happy and how much joy and emotion you can give them by cooking for them. This is actually what we try to do in Odette restaurant.”
Giant first step
Royer can’t remember ever having been in a supermarket as a young child. “Everything that we needed came from the nature surrounding us. On top of this, my parent’s and grandparent’s generations were able to process and prepare everything themselves! They made their own bread, sausage meat, preserves, they were masters of all kinds of meat processing. We slaughtered the pigs, we collected nuts and mushrooms … We didn’t have a lot of money but we always ate very, very well.” With a family like that and such an accomplished grandmother, it comes as no surprise that Royer wanted to enter the culinary profession. Above all because his grandmother Odette had well versed him in the basic philosophy that was so decisive for him in Singapore, namely “that it’s possible to create something extraordinary from the most the simple products.” Royer took his first culinary step with one of the very greatest: The exceptionally talented young man learnt more than just sophisticated techniques or respect for the integrity of every single ingredient in Michel Bras’ legendary gourmet temple in Laguiole. “He taught me far, far more than that,” said Royer. “He taught me how to be open. It was all about interpersonal relationships, respect for others. This basic attitude of the business is really quite extraordinary and breaks with many of the rules of gastronomy. And in an extremely well-thought-out and intelligent way. What I experienced there influenced me profoundly.”
Where is Singapore?
And not least, it was this eye-opening experience at Michael Bras that evoked Royer’s wanderlust. The young provincial man set off into the world. And so he ended up in the dream island of every French person who yearns for the exotic but doesn’t want to do without the familiarity of home: in French Polynesia. Julien Royer cooked there in the St. Regis Bora Bora Resort. After a year and a half, it was suggested that several selected employees would go to work in the newly opened St. Regis in Singapore. Royer was one of them. “If I’m honest, at the time I didn’t exactly know where Singapore was.” That was back in 2008. Only three years later, Royer was head chef of the Jann restaurant in Swissôtel Singapore.
And from that time onwards, the Cantal-native began to stand in the spotlight himself. In the four years he has been the head chef at Jaan, he has cooked up several awards for the restaurant, including number eleven on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2015 and number 74 of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2015 longlist. And as was so often the case, it was a lucky coincidence here that led to Royer opening his first own restaurant. This was because a regular guest and supporter of Jaan was no less than the businessman Wee Tang Wen, who wanted to be Royer’s future business partner and make his dream of opening his own restaurant a reality.
“The journey from head chef to entrepreneurial restaurateur getting a restaurant on its feet was not an easy one,” recalled Royer on the founding of his Odette restaurant. “After all, a great deal more responsibility is required of a restaurateur, and you also need more distance to everything as your analytical skills are in high demand.” On the other hand, Royer very much appreciates his luck having Wee Tang Wen as his partner, who gives him the freedom to do what he wants in his restaurant. “This is the only way I’ve been able to learn how important it is to put myself into the position of the guest experience and to master the entire planning. This includes the furnishing, the light, the music, the selection of the plates as well as the ambient temperature, the color of the room – you simply have to think of everything.”
This guest experience in Odette doesn’t just take place anywhere. But in the iconic Singapore National Gallery. It was obvious it had to be an aesthetic concept but the bar was set high. Royer therefore decided to leave the decorating part of the interior design to the Singaporean artist Dawn Ng. With a kitchen enclosed in glass and the seating area in pastel colors, the entire interior respects the historically prestigious site on the one hand and, on the other, presents an extremely successful complementing extension to the fresh colors of the meals of Royer’s 6- and 8-course menus.
Naturally, this harmonizes perfectly with the cozy size of the restaurant. Because the Odette has just twelve tables and a small private room that can seat six to eight guests. It goes without saying that these seats are extremely highly prized in Singapore: Odette is booked out up to two months in advance on weekends and up to six weeks on weekdays.
Every one of his dishes has proven to be a culinary sensation, in which Royer combines classical French with Asian. For example, it’s no coincidence that “Comme un Pho”, foie gras with abalone, BBQ eel and yuzu is Royer’s signature dish. Gently sautéed fattened goose liver as the meat symbol of French haute cuisine – that is the first Asian twist. But it’s also taken one step further. The traditionally sautéed foie gras is served in the traditional Vietnamese soup Pho, where its aroma not just unfolds alongside eel and yuzu but is uniquely fused with it. Fun fact: “Comme un Pho” is an acoustic play on “comme un fou”, which translates to English as “like crazy”. And in actual fact: culinary assumptions are really re-scrutinized, which can seem a little crazy to one or the other orthodox gourmet. Royer conjures up sophisticated dishes of delicacies with a large pinch of fusion flair – truly enviable. Speaking of enviable: Executive chef Martin Klein’s Ikarus team recreated every small detail of Royer’s menu – a fact that even Royer himself can’t stop marveling at. “It must be incredibly instructive to work here: to put together entire menus from international top chefs in such a short period of time – that is truly inspirational!”
Loyalty above all else
What is also enviable is Royer’s privilege working surrounded by such a loyal and long-standing team. “I’ve trained people in whom I have the utmost trust. My three sous chefs have already worked with me for many years. Adam has been in my team for seven years, Levin for ten and the third since eight or even nine years. That is leadership and I would simply not be able to manage without them when I have to concentrate on doing something else. Trying out new products for example, starting new trials in the kitchen, selecting new plates and so on. Odette has to keep working with the same quality and the same reliability.” You can assume that the Odette is in the best hands – even if Royer is on one of his many foreign trips. Well, one thing’s for sure: The world-open Frenchman has come to Singapore to stay.