Cover Photo: Zén

Tatler Singapore sits down with the Swedish chef-owner, as well as executive chef Tristin Farmer to discuss the evolving situation F&B landscape

It was on a late Saturday afternoon when Tatler Dining finally got the chance to re-visit Zén, the newly minted three-Michelin starred restaurant, to have a chat with chef-owner Björn Frantzén and executive chef Tristin Farmer over champagne and a selection of items from their new menu. 

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Chef Frantzén had just flown into Singapore from Stockholm after an 18-hour delay as a result of changing restrictions and missing paperwork to check in on Zén, the sister restaurant to Restaurant Frantzén in Sweden which ranks number seven on the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

“I was here in Singapore on the phone with just about everyone I knew in the travel industry trying to figure out how to get him into Singapore,” Farmer said with a laugh.

The chefs have just finished lunch at Zén, the only available slot they could get on such short notice (the irony is not lost on us), and they look relieved to have a chance to sit down for a few moments before they begin getting ready for the dinner service.

“Björn got in on Friday afternoon and we were able to have dinner at Odette last night. We also plan to visit Burnt Ends while he is here,” said Farmer.

On how Frantzén’s restaurants have held up in the pandemic

As we discuss Frantzén’s nightmarish travel experience, the conversation effortlessly moves into the difference in restrictions between here and Singapore. 

“Sweden was pretty much normal. Besides an 8pm curfew, safe distancing and group size being reduced to four, there was not a lot of changes,” Frantzén said. 

“Even though Sweden is more relaxed in terms of Covid-19 restrictions, the restaurant industry was hit just as hard though and it was interesting to see how both cultures have adapted to that and tried to make it work creatively,” he continued. 

In Singapore, Zén’s team of chefs had no choice but to make it work as well. “We had to learn how to function in the new world immediately or our staff were not going to get salaries; and, of course, we were not okay with that,” Farmer said. 

In fact, many may remember the indulgent caviar uni kombu doughnut the restaurant sold as a takeaway option during our Circuit Breaker period.  

“We were finding ways to keep Zén alive and we came up with this idea to do a luxurious and expensive savoury doughnut that was filled with uni and caviar. We actually only expected to sell about four a day because they took ages to make and it was so expensive. But we were shocked to find that we were selling about a hundred each day. It really helped to pick business back up during that time,” enthused Farmer. 

Frantzén added that both restaurants also share a Dropbox folder with recipes, so that they can maintain their symbiotic harmony while also being given the freedom to adjust meals based on their audience’s unique palettes. 

On sourcing for ingredients and managing pricing

One thing about both restaurants is that they have an ever-evolving menu that is largely based on seasonality and what they can obtain at that point in time. 

“In Sweden, the change in temperature between one season to the next can be very drastic, so produce is very important. However, Singapore’s tropical climate allows us to experiment more. That said, it all comes down to what we can source from farmers and what the prices are at that point in time. So we just have to lead with what’s available” explained Frantzén.

“Uni, for example, has almost doubled and even tripled in price. It’s really ridiculous now. Naturally, we have to adjust our costs, otherwise, it would be bad for business,” said Farmer, who added that ingredients tend to be priced higher when it’s in season in Japan and that it is the opposite in Europe. 

Frantzén nodded and continued, “Most people don’t understand why we need to adjust our restaurant prices and they get frustrated when we do. But with fewer guests dining with us, we have had to add lunch hours to some of the restaurants which translate to more working hours for the staff. Of course, we have to pay them more.”

Another challenge the restaurants faced was a lack of ingredients. 

“Of course Covid-19 really affected our supply chain, and I would actually argue that the trickiest part of the pandemic was when restaurants opened up again and people were wanting to go out and eat. But there were simply not enough ingredients for the restaurants to serve them,” said Farmer. 

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The way Covid-19 has changed work-life balance for restaurant staff

While on the topic of the rising costs of ingredients, labour and more, the conversation moved into how the restaurant scene has been evolving through the pandemic and how it signals a long-term change in the industry.  

“ I see the restaurant scene changing so drastically. A lot of staff have left the industry during this time and the fact is, restaurant prices need to increase in order to pay their employees who are now working understaffed.” Frantzén said soberly. 

He continued by saying that he was seeing more restaurants, particularly in the Paris fine dining scene, closing on the weekends due to staff shortages. 

“There’s this idea in the food industry that we need to make meals cheap, so people will come. However, you make so many losses and you need to stay open more in order to balance that out. And realistically, who is going to pay for that?” Frantzén asked. 

“It’s a new world we are working in where restaurants are an experience and should have the right to charge as so. People need to respect the restaurant as much as we respect our guests, and part of that comes with accepting that things need to change in the industry,” said Frantzén.

On what he’s been eating in Singapore

Frantzén was last in Singapore two years ago, and though he only has 48 hours on this visit, he stressed that he was trying to cram as much of the local food scene into his visit as possible. 

“I love spicy food so if I have more time, I’ll definitely want to get my fill of the local dishes here,” he said before adding that he had a great experience when he dined at the three Michelin starred restaurant, Les Amis, which at that point only had two stars. 

“Yeah, I would love to take him to Hamamoto or Shinji if he had more time here,” said Farmer. “I love omakase dining and exploring restaurants. Some of my favourites actually are Burnt Ends, Art, Sommer, Cloudstreet, and Revolver.”

Before excusing himself to attend to various meetings and to prepare for the dinner service, Frantzén concluded by saying that he sincerely hoped to return to Singapore next year with travel slowly opening up and that he has his fingers crossed that there would be no more lockdowns and that countries would begin reopening to the world once again. 

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