GAGGAN: CLOSING WHEN IT'S 10
In the ever fickle dining world, is a 10-year lifespan for restaurants considered too long?
That has been the hot discussion topic in the food and beverage scene for the past week, after chef Gaggan Anand said that he plans to close his progressive Indian restaurant Gaggan in Bangkok when it turns 10 in 2020. Gaggan has been No. 1 on the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list for three consecutive years.
His remark comes as a shock as many expect the seven-year-old restaurant to receive a Michelin star when the guide launches in Thailand in December.
In a Bloomberg article, Anand, 39, said that after a restaurant passes the 10-year mark, it "becomes a brand". He has plans to expand to Japan and has other restaurant investments in Bangkok.
His bold move follows the likes of the two-Michelin-starred Noma in Copenhagen, which opened in 2003 and closed last year, with plans to reopen in a different location this year. Another institution, elBulli in Catalonia, Spain, which opened in 1964, closed in 2011 at its peak.
Call it a clever marketing tactic or a foolhardy dream, Anand's words have met with mixed views from chefs and restaurateurs here.
A restaurant needs to reinvent itself every four years, whether it is renovation or new dishes. Since day one, the only thing that hasn't changed on my menu is the strawberry cheesecake.''
WILLIN LOW, chef at Wild Rocket, a 12-year-old modern Singaporean restaurant
Not all agree that 10 years mark the end of a restaurant. After all, there are foodie institutions going back more than a few decades that diners remain loyal to, such as the 88-year-old Chinese restaurant Spring Court in Upper Cross Street and the 46-year-old Indian fine dining restaurant Rang Mahal at Pan Pacific Singapore. Others have also revolutionised themselves with new concepts.
A few think that Anand has a point, but find his decision extreme and even overly dramatic. Although restaurants may close for all sorts of reasons, deliberating shutting one down on the grounds of principle is an extraordinary choice, they say.
THE FIVE-YEAR ITCH
Bjorn Shen, 34, chef-owner of Artichoke in Middle Road and Bird Bird in Frankel Avenue, believes that there are certain milestones - two, five and eight years - when it comes to restaurants.
He says: "Get through two years and you've done something right. At five years, boredom sets in. You either fade into oblivion or keep on top with media and customers.
"After that, it takes a few more years to push yourself beyond the clouds, to the point where you become untouchable. We're trying to make it there."
Artichoke turns seven this year, and is the same age as Gaggan.
There were many teething problems for Artichoke, such as learning to cope with crowds and equipment breaking down. He says: "I think we hit our stride at the four-year mark. Before that, I'd been wanting to close the restaurant every week."
Many chefs have considered closing restaurants, for various reasons ranging from personal boredom to lack of business. But many have also pushed through.
Chef Ryan Clift, 40, of Tippling Club in Tanjong Pagar - which turns 10 in August - considered shutting the restaurant after six years at its previous location in Dempsey. He says: "We almost closed because of the market at that time. People were losing jobs. It was a big gamble to reinvest millions of dollars into the new location."
HOW MUCH TO CHANGE?
Chefs and restaurateurs all agree that change is key to the longevity of a restaurant here, regardless of the cuisine.
VLV's executive head chef Martin Foo, 50 - who has been in the industry for almost 30 years - is cautious about how far one goes with making changes. VLV is a modern Chinese restaurant in Clarke Quay.
"Traditional restaurants and chefs may have been around for a longer time, but if they don't change, they don't survive. The generation that grew up eating my food 30 years ago will not eat it now," he says in Mandarin.
"At VLV, lots of younger diners are not traditional. Unlike older diners, they don't ask for abalone or shark's fin. Yet, you can't keep changing things to the point where no one recognises the ingredients on the plate."
His cooking techniques have evolved over the years and some of his dishes at VLV have a Japanese influence, such as steamed crab with egg white and bonito.
AFTER A DECADE... WHAT NEXT?
Surviving for a decade or longer in the F&B scene does not spell doom. And changes are afoot for some business owners.
Mr Yuan Oeij, 48, chairman of The Prive Group, will move his 10-year-old Prive at Keppel Bay to The University Club at the National University of Singapore. In its place will be a new dining concept.
Prive has five locations in Singapore and he is considering expanding overseas. Other brands under the group include casual burger restaurant Roadhouse at Dempsey and Chinese restaurant Empress at the Asian Civilisations Museum.
For his nightlife concepts, Mr Oeij recently introduced Lulu's Lounge at Pan Pacific Singapore and is looking to give its neighbouring sister club Bang Bang a new look by the end of this year.
Like chef Gaggan, Wild Rocket's chef Willin Low, 45, also has his sights set on Japan.
The 12-year-old modern Singaporean restaurant at Hangout Hotel in Upper Wilkie Road remains and recently refreshed its menu after closing for a month.
Next year, he will open a casual restaurant in Hokkaido that operates only during winter, catering to diners hitting the ski slopes.
He says: "A restaurant needs to reinvent itself every four years, whether it is renovation or new dishes. Since day one, the only thing that hasn't changed on my menu is the strawberry cheesecake."
The 13-year-old modern European restaurant Iggy's at the Hilton hotel introduced a seven-seat gastro-bar following a renovation last September. Unlike the tasting menu, the new bar menu allows diners to order sharing plates, as well as pasta and rice dishes.
Iggy's founder Ignatius Chan, 53, says: "With the changing dining habits of regular customers, it was important for us to recognise that we don't eat tasting menus every night. The gastro-bar makes our food more accessible.
"With so many restaurants opening every week, you have only one shot to wow diners.
•Follow Eunice Quek on Twitter @STEuniceQ
MORSELS: 5 YEARS OLD
Still building the brand and honing her craft
Where: 25 Dempsey Road, 01-04
Open: Noon to 3pm (Tuesdays to Saturdays), 10.30am to 3pm (Sunday brunch), 6 to 10pm (Tuesdays to Thursdays), 6 to 10.30pm (Fridays and Saturdays)
Info: Call 6266-3822 or go to www.facebook.com/morselsinsingapore
Asian fusion restaurant Morsels marked its fifth year in the scene when it moved to its new 1,000 sq ft home in Dempsey in January.
The restaurant opened in 2013 in Mayo Street in Little India and is run by chef-owner Petrina Loh, 35.
On the five-year milestone, she says: "I'm still building my brand. In the first three years, I was finding my footing. Now, I'm honing my craft and training my team. At five years, you need to be consistent. We are still growing and I would like to reach a stable stage as we mature into our sixth year."
Reflecting on her journey so far, she says she does not follow trends and used social media to market the restaurant only after two years in the business.
"It is so essential on hindsight," she says. The restaurant has just over 1,000 followers on Instagram and almost 3,400 likes on Facebook.
She says there are benefits to no longer being a "noob", slang for newbie.
"It means you have more Singaporeans to fill your foreign-labour quota and you have some sort of bargaining power with suppliers. I remember the days when they wanted cash on delivery or we'd have to keep running to the market. Times were a lot tougher then."
Signatures from Morsels include steamed Venus clams ($24); charred house-poached octopus ($26); Firecracker Duroc pulled pork with shell pasta ($24); and ume-sake braised Black Angus beef short rib ($30 or $38).
Noodle sets are also available for lunch and Loh is likely to launch her Chef's Table in the third quarter of this year.
The restaurant is known for its house-made sauces and pickles and she does not rule out launching a range of such products in the future.
As long as she remains in charge, she wants Morsels to be a "chef-driven restaurant", like Gaggan in Thailand, which has been the top restaurant on the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list for three consecutive years.
"It's not a brand that can be sold. The day I decide I'm done and no longer want to do this is when the brand ceases."
TUNGLOK GROUP: 34 YEARS OLD
Restaurant empire keeps up with the times
What: Brands include TungLok Seafood, Dancing Crab, TungLok XiHe Peking Duck and Tong Le Private Dining
Info: Go to www.tunglok.com for the full list of locations and opening hours
The TungLok brand was known for traditional Cantonese cuisine when it first opened in 1984 as Tung Lok Shark's Fin Restaurant in Liang Court.
Thirty-four years later, it has become so much more than a standalone Chinese restaurant. That first eatery may have closed, but in its place is a restaurant empire that is publicly listed.
Concepts bearing the TungLok name include Chinese fine-dining restaurant TungLok Heen at Resorts World Sentosa; TungLok Teahouse serving dim sum at Square 2 and Far East Square; as well as Cajun seafood chain Dancing Crab, with outlets at The Grandstand, VivoCity, Orchard Central and Timbre+ (Dancing Crab Shack).
TungLok - which made $85.1 million in revenue last year - also has restaurants in Indonesia, Japan, China and Vietnam.
The brand was started by executive chairman Andrew Tjioe, 58. His father opened Charming Garden restaurant at the now-defunct Orchid Inn in 1980 and he followed in his father's footsteps with the first TungLok restaurant in Liang Court in 1984.
Charming Garden closed in 2006, while Tung Lok Shark's Fin Restaurant closed in 2007.
Despite closures, the group continues to stay on trend. Lokkee in Plaza Singapura, which serves food inspired by Chinese take-out food, introduced a speakeasy concept called The Dragon Chamber just over a week ago.
It is accessed via a secret entrance in Lokkee and features a secret menu of dishes including Josper-grilled pig's tail ($26) and Dragon's Claw, which is crocodile foot braised in herbal sauce served on kale ($60).
The group also kept up with the times when it launched its automated food order and delivery system at TungLok Teahouse in Square 2 last November.
The system - which helps reduce reliance on manpower - delivers dim sum to the table directly upon order.
Mr Tjioe says: "It is vital for any restaurant to engage in ongoing research and development to refresh menus and continuously serve good quality food.
"Trends are important and if you do not keep abreast, you will be left behind. As long as restaurants serve good genuine food, coupled with good service, they will last for more than 10 years."