Cover Sebastian Lepinoy (Image: Les Amis)

Les Amis is the only restaurant in Singapore to currently hold three of the industry’s highest ratings for food, service and wine

While we might easily presume that nothing is more essential to the success of a restaurant than the food it serves, the quality service at today’s top establishments is perhaps their most underrated resource. It’s also one of the hardest to exploit, even for one of Singapore’s most established fine dining restaurants.

But all the hard work paid off for Les Amis when it was honoured with a five-star rating on the 2020 Forbes Travel Guide last week, making it one of only 79 restaurants in the world, and one of 35 restaurants in Asia-Pacific bestowed a “5-Star" rating. Alongside Tetsuya Wakuda’s Waku Ghin, it is one of only two restaurants in Singapore to achieve the top nod for excellence in hospitality from the independent luxury travel guide this year.

(Related: How Les Amis Thrives In Singapore's Volatile Dining Industry)

This achievement makes Les Amis the only restaurant in Singapore to concurrently hold three of the industry’s highest ratings, as it is also one of only two restaurants in Singapore with three Michelin stars, while its wine selection, which boasts an inventory of 7500 bottles, mostly from the Old World, garnered the Grand Award from Wine Spectator.

Less obvious is the fact that it has taken the French restaurant five years to achieve Forbes’ highest rating for service, a goal its director of culinary and operations, chef Sebastien Lepinoy, had been eyeing since he took over operations of the entire restaurant. “I said during a meeting in March 2015 that I want five stars from Forbes because it is very difficult to achieve,” Lepinoy tells Tatler Dining, noting how its strict criteria and detailed analysis of each restaurant it reviews, which includes a 20-page report on the team’s assessment, are more focused on the facilities and service—from the reservation to the reception to the dining experience. “If your food isn’t as good, you might get four stars but not five,” he posits.

Service, he declares, is as important as the food. “I've always compared the running of a restaurant to that of an airline company,” he continues. “You can eat at a three-Michelin starred restaurant in Hong Kong or Paris and the food is exceptional like you would expect. But if the service is okay—I will not say bad—but not significant, you will not go back.”

(Related: How Design Firm AvroKO Started Its Own Restaurants And Bars)

Sky’s The Limit

Expounding on the point, Lepinoy notes how at Air France, meals are designed by chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants and can be “quite beautiful”, while the quality of the seats in business and first class is on the same level as Singapore Airlines. “But you will always go back to Singapore Airlines because of the service,” he muses, citing details like how the stewardesses make an effort to be on the same eye level as the seated passenger when addressing their concerns.

He also feels that many two- and three-star restaurants around the world have not been focused enough on elevating their service over the last twenty years, reminiscing how service in the '80s and '90s "was very strict and rigid" and often intimidating. “Sometimes, you almost have to show your credit card to enter,” he quipped.

Of course, he’s aware that the approach to delivering a fine dining experience has evolved the last decade with more establishments adopting a more interactive and even casual experience. But he is quick to reaffirm the importance of ensuring professional service, particularly if diners are there for a business meal. Not all who dine alone are lonely and craving conversation, he shares, adding how one of the worst things the staff could do right after guests are seated is to ask if they wanted still or sparkling water. Even before they’ve had a chance to get comfortable, someone is trying to sell them something, he deadpanned.

Other noteworthy yet often overlooked initiatives Les Amis has applied since 2015 include a standardised light cologne (that they get from Chanel) for the male staff and perfume (from Versace) for the women, which he explains is applied only to their backs so that it doesn’t overwhelm the guests. No aspect of the service, it would seem, is too insignificant. Staff are required to visit the dentist twice a year. And, in line with his airline analogy, he even had the coaching company (Stafford & Chan) that works with Singapore Airlines, train his staff “how to walk”—which is in hindsight not too out-of-the-ordinary when you consider how some of the world’s best restaurants have had professional dancers educate their service staff on the finer points of moving with grace. Fact is, the in-depth training sessions cover topics ranging from providing anticipatory service to reading the body language of their guests.

This is all part of the talent development programme Lepinoy and his team conceived five years ago, which is aimed at providing opportunities for the staff to hone their skills and build on their reservoir of knowledge. As such, key team members have spent weeks in France with top producers the restaurant works with—from Mons Formager Affineur to Kristal Caviar to Truffe Plantin—"mastering" a deeper understanding of the products they serve. 

It’s a huge investment for an independent restaurant, shares Lepinoy, but he truly believes it is all worth it at the end of the day.