Odette’s chef-owner is scaling new heights – not only is his restaurant tops in Asia, Julien Royer from Cantal, is also the first Singapore-based chef to work with Air France.
Julien Royer has a confession to make. “Alors – for me, you have to know one thing that is funny. I am not a big fan of flying. I’m a bit scared of it,” he told me.
As we stood in the lounge, about to board an Air France flight to Paris, his eyes were bright but weary. It was the distinct look of someone who had been bombarded with congratulatory messages, requests to collaborate and, no doubt, pleas for tables – since his restaurant, Odette, was named Number One in Asia a mere two weeks ago.
“Our reservations system crashed the day after the result was announced,” he divulged. “It has been literally insane, with many different requests and a lot of new friends, I would say!”
Moving up from the fifth spot to become the top restaurant on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list – and the first Singapore restaurant to take that title – was “totally unexpected”, “very emotional” and “a fantastic reward for my team, who have been really working hard.” But, he said, “We also have our feet on the ground – we know that all this is very ephemeral.”
A few hours later, though, his feet were 10km off the ground as he came around to see how I was enjoying my meal. Royer, 36, is the first Singapore-based chef to be invited to work with Air France – historically, one of the first airlines to begin partnering with Michelin-starred chefs – to create meals for first and business class passengers flying from Singapore to Paris.
I was tucking into the grilled scallops, carrot mousseline and saffron nage, feeling very chuffed that I was getting to enjoy Chef Julien’s much lauded creations without having to wait months for a coveted table at two-Michelin-starred Odette.
Other signature dishes that will be available during different periods include grilled kurobuta pork breast with delicatessen-style sauce and green Le Puy lentils; sauteed shrimps with paprika, smoked ricotta cheese and squash mousseline; and braised beef cheek in a red wine sauce, celeriax mousseline and wholegrain mustard.
According to Air France’s Singapore country manager Nicolas Ricard, “the time was right” to bring Royer, whose restaurant is “on our doorstep”, on board so that travellers from Singapore to Paris could enjoy “a unique gourmet experience”.
“Gastronomy is in the DNA of Air France, and as an ambassador of fine French dining in the sky, we are constantly innovating to provide excellent French gastronomy in Air France La Première and Business class cabins,” he said, pointing out that the airline has also worked with Michelin-starred chefs including Anne-Sophie Pic, Michel Roth and Arnaud Lallement.
“It’s like if you were a French footballer and you were called up to play for the national team,” said Royer, who was born in the Auvergne region in central France and trained and worked under luminaries including Michel Bras, Bernard Andrieux and Antonin Bonnet.
The plane truth
But the big question to me, really, was: Could even Julien Royer make airplane food taste good? I mean, I’d had in-flight meals designed by Michelin-starred chefs before, and they were never anything to write home about.
“I was not confident (that I could do it), to be honest,” he said with a laugh, confessing with candour: “Usually, I don’t eat in airplanes because, well, I don’t like the food! I have some water and try to avoid eating on the plane. But I hope we can be one of the rare exceptions, that people will remember the food in the plane was actually tasty. It’s true that there is some physical and logistical barriers that you can’t (surmount). It has to be about making good choices of ingredients, and the produce is key, I think.”
On a plane, he said, “You are not in the most natural way of living so we want to bring some comfort food – some simple and delicious food – to people.”
He would know, since he’s afraid of flying. “My worst experience was when I travelled once from Macau to Taiwan,” he shared. “There was a lot of thunder and it was typhoon season. The plane was shaking like hell. I was so scared. The flight attendant gave me this bowl of noodles, which I said I didn’t want but she still gave me anyway, and I didn’t eat. Then I saw her – this little Chinese lady – eating the noodles while the plane was shaking! I was like, ‘Wow, she’s really hungry.’”
To combat his anxiety, he has a lucky bracelet – a woven orange friendship band he’s worn on his wrist for many years now. It was a gift from his wife, who found it on the ground while visiting Angkor Wat in Cambodia. She always been his source of support, he said. “If I didn’t have my wife all these years, I think I would have never done what I have done, for sure. Because it’s a crazy job. And it’s a job of passion.”
As our plane began its descent into Paris Charles de Gaulle, he mused, “I think we never arrive. I’m never satisfied. I think there’s always a path and a road and room for improvement in every aspect of the dining experience… That’s why we never get bored.”
“The thing about the title of Number One is that it’s so hard to maintain because people keep expecting more,” I said.
“Exactly. So I think it’s important to enjoy it while it’s here. Ultimately, there is nothing above number one, so it’s going to go down. But you have to accept it. It’s already fantastic that one time in your life, you can say, ‘I was up there. It was amazing.’”
Source: Channel News Asia, May Seah