Joshua Khoo’s dream of bringing low-cost fine dining to a wider audience has taken many turns, but he’s stuck to it.
All he wanted was for more people to be able to eat beautifully plated foie gras without paying an arm or a leg for it.
But to get there, Joshua Khoo had to quit his polytechnic course, and work in fast-food joints and fine-dining establishments to gain experience. He took a two-year culinary-arts course at Shatec, and even pulled 18-hour unpaid shifts at a fusion restaurant in Australia.
He never lost sight of his goal, eventually opening budget French eatery Saveur with his Shatec coursemate Dylan Ong. It was a success, expanding to four branches in as many years.
Now he’s on to his latest venture, whipping up clam pasta and prawn-and-chorizo rice at a hawker stall at Amoy Street Food Centre, reaching new customers at an even lower price point.
It’s a surprising move, some might feel, but Joshua wants to keep his ear to the ground. “My priority is to meet the needs of the people,” he says. “A hawker stall will help me understand the market better.”
A Dream Begins
It began, 14 years ago, with the realisation that engineering informatics was simply not for him.
“It was that my parents wanted me to do,” he says, but by his second year in polytechnic he was struggling so hard that he questioned the point of it all. He quit his studies without informing his parents, and waited tables at a seafood restaurant.
Later, while the serving in the army, a friend encouraged him to enrol in Shatec to pursue his nascent interest in cooking. At the time, Joshua’s main motivation in the kitchen was to impress girls. But his course at the hospitality school, which involved a year-long attachment at Raffles Hotel, opened his eyes and broadened his ambitions.
At Raffles, Joshua came to know of a chef starting a business in Australia, and travelled there to work with him. It fell through. He didn’t give up, hustling an unpaid job at the top-rated Tetsuya’s in Sydney. When his visa expired, he returned to Singapore and continued racking up experience through stints at FiftyThree and Guy Savoy.
His years in fine-dining kitchens exposed him to the amount of food wastage involved in preparing high-end dishes. He dreamt of an alternative: low-cost Western cuisine, efficiently made without compromising on quality, and affordable to all.
He looked up his friend and former coursemate Dylan Ong, and together, they developed their concept for Saveur: French food for the masses. They started in a coffeeshop stall, and eventually turned it into a restaurant.
Both of them had honed their craft to a high level. Saveur’s menu was based on what they could cook: duck-leg confit, angel-hair pasta, chicken roulade.
But technical skill was one thing – running a restaurant, something else altogether.
Enter Dr Eric Chiam, a medical doctor they got to know through their pastor. Dr Chiam, a foodie himself, had asked the enthusiastic duo to provide food for one of his staff events. They impressed, and he came on board as the third partner of Saveur. More importantly, he became Joshua and Dylan’s business mentor.
He wasted no time in bringing them up to speed on the basics of running a business: accounting, frugality, and the importance of being familiar with laws and regulations, to avoid any unnecessary complications.
But the learning didn’t stop there. At their first outlet in a Joo Chiat coffeeshop, the electricity would trip up to five times during lunch and dinner, each day. “This wasn’t covered in Shatec,” Joshua chuckles.
As Saveur became a full-fledged restaurant and more outlets opened, more issues emerged. Procedures had to be created for handling high volumes of invoices. People had to be hired. Publicity had to be generated for each new outlet.
Under Dr Chiam’s tutelage, an entire back office evolved to tackle these issues. Joshua and Dylan found themselves spending far more time in meetings than cooking. It took some getting used to, but it was worth it. Over time, they groomed a management team entirely out of former kitchen and service staff.
In December 2016, after five years of mushroom cappuccinos and beef bourguignon, the two friends parted ways. Dylan opened The Masses, a 45-seater casual diner with a health-conscious menu. Joshua’s Taste Affair is a more modest, two-man hawker operation with his sister’s friend, a former banker.
Some people wonder if Taste Affair represents a step back from Saveur. After all, Joshua is back in the sweltering heat of the kitchen, preparing every single order. At the same time, he has to train his new partner, Joel Tan, who came on board with no cooking experience.
Yet, it isn’t. There are the lessons Joshua learned from running Saveur as a business, which stay with him. Less obvious is the goodwill he earned during his time there, which is already paying dividends. Even though Taste Affair is barely three months old, it has received a fair amount of media coverage, and Joshua has been approached by investors.
When asked if he has any plans to scale his business to Saveur’s level though, he is circumspect.
“Naturally anyone would want to grow and nurture their business,” he says. “But it is still early, and my focus is on meeting the needs of my customers [at Amoy Street].” He adds, “the main thing is – you need to be happy with what you’re doing. And I enjoy doing this.”