What's The Secret Ingredient To Chef-Restaurateur Beppe De Vito And PR Maven Lynn Yeow's Success?
When he was growing up in the southern Italian town of Bitonto, restaurateur Beppe De Vito’s mother used to make a dish that was something between a salad and a gazpacho, comprising cucumbers, oranges, stale bread, olive oil and cold water. Sometime later, he happened to be reading Apicius, a cookbook that is believed to date back to the first century AD. In this book, he found a recipe for that exact homespun dish. “Apparently, it’s one of the dishes that Roman Empire soldiers would make when they were on the road,” Beppe recounts with a chuckle.
The weight of tradition and history on Italian cuisine is something that has actually shaped his mindset quite a bit, although perhaps not in the way you might expect. “I don’t subscribe to the philosophy that you must do things the way they’ve been done forever,” says Beppe, who owns the ilLido Group. “A recipe may have been invented hundreds or even thousands of years ago, but when it was invented, it was an innovation. We have to keep evolving. For me, it’s about finding a balance and continuing to surprise people in a positive way. I don’t want to shut the door to change, to evolving with the times. So whatever I do, that door is always open.”
Embracing change has been a key theme in his life. To keep him out of trouble, his parents had started him working at quite a young age, and by the time he was 10 years old, he was already a barista at a neighbourhood cafe, where his boss got a good comedy routine out of this pint-sized employee. “When I stood behind the coffee machine, no one could see me,” Beppe tells us. “So my boss would tell the customers, ‘This is my new automatic machine, you just tell it your order, and it will make whatever you want.’”
That was his first experience of the food and beverage business. An uncle who had attended a catering school further influenced his decision to go into this industry full-time. “He was working a summer job in a hotel, and sent postcards to us that depicted the place where he was. To me, it looked like heaven,” Beppe remembers. That hotel was only a couple of hours away from Bitonto, “but for me it might as well have been the Maldives. I decided that was what I wanted to do, to work in such beautiful places”.
At age 14, he entered a catering school to learn about hospitality operations and management. By 17, he had left Italy and worked at hotels and restaurants all over the world before arriving in Singapore in his early 20s to help with the opening of an Italian restaurant. By 2006, he was launching his own restaurants here. At first, he tried to bring in chefs from Michelin‑starred restaurants in Italy. “But that never worked out,” says Beppe. “They would always complain about the lack of ingredients, the staff, the customers. By insisting on doing things one way, they were failing to understand the local market.”
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He decided to change his strategy, recruiting instead a younger team from Italy and teaching them himself. “To inspire these young people, I had to be in the kitchen with them and dedicate myself to cooking,” the self-taught chef explains of shifting his focus away from the front of the house. “This is fundamentally a blue-collar job where practice makes perfect. You have to use your hands and your mind, and watch, touch, and taste to understand the ingredients. I knew I needed to clock the hours.”
Today, his ilLido Group comprises six restaurants, including the Michelin‑starred Braci, which is testament to Beppe’s taste for experimenting. When he cooks for friends and family at home, he goes to the market to see what produce is available, and lets that determine what he makes. For Braci, he decided to adopt this same produce-driven approach, introducing a progressive Italian menu with dishes inspired by wood- and charcoal-fired cooking methods. “People loved it, and that gave me the confidence to allow myself to be more creative, and work without too many boundaries.”
Being in Singapore for the past 24 years has also helped to open his mind. It is not so much about the local cuisine, although he is quite proud of successfully making chicken rice. “Most Western ways of cooking a chicken overcooks the meat. This local way of letting the chicken rest in hot broth, then putting it in an ice bath is genius. To me, it was an amazing discovery.”
(Related: Braci, An All Freshened Up Italian Restaurant)
As a well-connected transport hub, Singapore is also a great location from which to travel to places where there are farms, fisheries and markets to explore. “In Europe, you can easily go to another town, but you’re still constrained within the same culture. It can be hard to get exposure to something new,” Beppe says. “Singapore is multicultural. There are no qualms here about accepting things that come from somewhere else. That has helped me. If you think of a school as a place that gives you a base from which to grow, then Singapore has been a great school for me.”
Of course, one important reason Beppe has remained based here is his family. In 2009, he and public relations maven Lynn Yeow got married. As a couple, they are not sticklers for certain traditions—for their Venice wedding, they didn’t even bother with wedding photos, and they don’t really celebrate their anniversaries. But from the beginning, Lynn was crystal‑clear about what she did expect from life as a wife. “I’m a true-blue Singaporean, and I’m not going anywhere else,” is how she puts it. “I’ve always dreamed of having a big family, so before we got married, we talked about that. I knew exactly what I wanted, which was to be a mother to many children.”
Today, they parent four sons aged four to 14 (the eldest is from Beppe’s first marriage), and Lynn calls herself a tiger mother, but only for certain things. For instance, she is a stickler for schedules, and insists on speaking only Mandarin to her boys, because “I love my culture and I want my kids to know that”.
If you think of a school as a place that gives you a base from which to grow, then Singapore has been a great school for me.— Beppe De Vito
She started her working life handling marketing and communications for international hotel chains, and eventually realised she was most interested in the F&B aspect of the hospitality business. “I would spend a lot of my pay cheque on good meals,” the ardent foodie says with a laugh. “I realised that was where my passion was.”
At the age of 25, she decided to take the plunge and start her own PR agency, Silver Spoon Communications. “I had no children and no mortgage, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do and decided to go after it.” That venture eventually merged with The Ate Group. In 2016, she left that partnership. Today, Lynn is the co-founder of Loop, a boutique communications agency that specialises in F&B and lifestyle brands. “It’s very small and we want to keep it that way, so we can take on clients we truly believe in.”
Two years ago, she took on a new challenge when she became the executive director of global marketing and communications at Novena Global Lifecare, which is bringing one of its businesses, Novu Aesthetics, into new markets including Europe, Latin America and Southeast Asia via clinics and product sales points. “Helping a local brand go global gives me a lot of personal satisfaction,” she says. “I’m all about supporting local.”
The multitasking expert is also partner and chief operating officer of skincare line Equal Beauty, also owned by Novena Global Lifecare, and partner and chief executive of fine wine distribution company Giron Wines.
Ask her how she manages to do it all, and Lynn credits the people she works with. “I’m really lucky. I’ve always had good bosses and clients that I’m passionate about. I work on gut feel a lot of the time, and that has failed me before, but there have been more successes than failures. I always think, if you really believe in doing something, you should just stand up and run towards your goal.”
It is not difficult to see the differences and affinities between Beppe and Lynn. He can perceive the constraints that come with established traditions, even as he draws inspiration from his heritage; she is an enthusiastic cheerleader for this cultural melting pot, whose story she is eager to champion partly because it is still so unfamiliar to a large swathe of the world.
Happily, on this equatorial island, their passions have blossomed in tandem. The ilLido Group started 13 years ago, with a restaurant of the same name that Beppe wanted to open in Sentosa.
“Back then, Sentosa was nothing like it was today,” Lynn recalls. “Beppe came to me and said, ‘Nobody believes in this idea, do you want to take on the challenge of doing marketing for this restaurant?’” Why did she say yes, we ask. “Because when he talked about it, it was like it couldn’t fail. He believed in it with all his heart, and that passion made it a simple job for me.”
That restaurant became one of ilLido Group’s biggest success stories, and while the fact that it is her husband’s brainchild surely makes it more special to her, it is just one of many Singapore‑based businesses that Lynn has helped nurture from strength to strength through her years in the public relations business.
When she started working with Paradise Group, “they had just one restaurant in Defu Lane”, she says. “TWG Tea had a team of five when I first met them. Today, both brands are proudly flying the Singapore flag in some of the most prominent cities around the world. Singapore may be a little red dot, but we are not quiet. We roar.”