EHL Hospitality Business School is a leading hospitality university with locations in Switzerland and Singapore. EHL’s Institute of Nutrition Research & Development is conducting a series of interviews with world-renowned chefs to explore the current challenges and future innovations in their field. The second in this series of interviews is with highly decorated Chef Sebastien Lepinoy. In the culinary arena since 1990, Chef Lepinoy has built up a remarkable career of being able to transform restaurants and their teams into award-winning establishments. Today as the Director of Culinary & Operations at the Michelin 3-star Les Amis restaurant (Singapore), Lepinoy continues to push the boundaries of pure French haute cuisine dishes that leave an impression in the hearts and minds of his guests.
The 3 Michelin Star Les Amis is the only restaurant in Singapore devoted to focusing on pure French gastronomy. Under Chef Lepinoy’s leadership, his dishes are prepared with finesse and a high level of technicality, displaying true mastery of French gastronomy. The restaurant's uncompromising dedication to delivering a memorable dining experience has not only earned them the coveted 3 Michelin Stars but international recognition from Asia’s 50 Best (Gin Mare Art of Hospitality Award), Forbes Travel Guide (5-Stars), and Wine Spectator (Grand Award) to name a few.
Innovation is often necessary to thrive in the food and beverage industry, especially when expectations are high, as is the case of Les Amis, a three-star Michelin restaurant in Singapore. An ambassador of classic French cuisine, Executive Chef Sebastien Lepinoy has found creative ways - such as coaching and branded take-away items - to manage growth and economic upheaval. Yet he has done so without compromising strong beliefs about the art of service and menu offerings.
While chefs might hire a consultant to help them achieve more Michelin stars, Lepinoy says it is not common for them to receive coaching to become better managers. It certainly wasn’t de rigueur when he was coming up in the ranks. But he sees it as essential.
“You can become a very successful chef, but to become a leader, that’s another job altogether and not something many chefs understand once they make it,” he explains. He meets with his coach every two to three weeks and receives advice on how to effectively run his restaurant and manage his staff. He has also had 360 reviews from his staff, which he said can be painful but helpful.
“Chefs need a coach when their team grows,” noting that Les Amis has 70 employees, 46 of whom work in the kitchen. “It is important to learn how to lead your team, how to collaborate with them, how to keep them motivated. You must learn how to give them responsibility and listen to them at the same time.”
Kitchen brigade system with an R&D twist
The Escoffier brigade system is alive and well at Les Amis. Lepinoy estimates that 80% of his kitchen staff work within this system. The chef attributes his adherence to a kitchen hierarchy and military-command structure to acclaimed chef Joël Robuchon, for whom he worked for 17 years.
However, Lepinoy has also added a new twist to the more traditional approach of running a kitchen. He has three chefs, including a chef de cuisine, who were promoted from within the organization and focus solely on R&D. They have a more creative role, such as developing new dishes and sauces as well as creating new menus and dishes for Les Amis and their partners.
These chefs must not only be creative, but also fully understand his taste, so they can accurately interpret what he wants, often based solely on a conversation. “It is a long collaboration. I am very French, and I do not use spices as they do in Asia with fusion food. They must understand what I like and what my cuisine stands for.”
In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Singapore was in lockdown, Lepinoy developed a concept for take-away items that have become a hit for Les Amis. These items include ice cream, caviar, smoked salmon, cheese, pastries and bread, all specially packaged with Les Amis branding.
During lockdown, his service team delivered orders to guests’ homes, to ensure the delivery experience was exceptional and to stay connected with guests. For example, Les Amis, which is known for its caviar, sold a kilogram of caviar - in small tins of 100 grams - every day. The to-go items were so well-received, Lepinoy continues to sell them, including olive oil, 600 Christmas log cakes and 1,000 tins of caviar annually. These products now account for 5% to 10% of extra income for Les Amis yet take minimal effort to produce.
“It’s like Hermes or Cartier. Not everybody can afford a Hermes handbag, but they can buy something small,” Lepinoy points out. “It’s the same with a Michelin three-star restaurant. Some people come here just to buy our ice cream because it’s that good.”
Dietary restrictions and service deal breakers
There are two areas, however, where Lepinoy does not compromise, even if modern kitchen trends dictate otherwise.
One trend that has surfaced over the past 20 years in high-end restaurants is the expectation that the chef will interact with guests. With more chefs talking to guests, many restaurants no longer employ a maître d’hotel or a chef de rang. The result, according to Lepinoy, is a lower quality of service in the food and beverage industry overall. Reports of poor service inevitably show up in social media reviews, which can hurt a restaurant’s reputation, no matter how good the food is.
“It is the service that makes a guest come back, and it is equally as important as the cuisine,” Lepinoy claims. “I occasionally meet the guests, but my guests will interact primarily with my service team. It’s why my service team is highly trained. They must be prepared to explain everything to a guest as well as I could.”
Another trend is accommodating too many special dietary requests. While Les Amis can usually work with vegetarians, its reservation form on the website states that it may not be able to fulfil guests’ vegan or lactose-free requests. If guests call to discuss dietary restrictions, staff politely advise them that Les Amis might not be able to meet their needs.
“We are a classic French restaurant, and our menu contains dairy and eggs. We try to communicate in advance what our guests should expect. And sometimes, we may not be able to serve them. Ultimately, we want everyone who comes to Les Amis to have the best experience.”