It takes two to make a thing go right. For Shatec Culinary School and Tippling Club alumni Alex Phan and Glen Tay, it also takes guts to attain the glory of opening a new restaurant in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. A Modern Asian restaurant along Singapore’s bustling Amoy Street, Avenue 87 is a love letter to the duo’s childhood flavours. While it also uses ingredients and produce sourced internationally, the 33-year-old chef-owners wanted to focus on local and regional fare, fashioned by traditional and contemporary techniques.
The restaurant opened in phase 2 of the city’s circuit breaker, where no more than five are allowed in a dining group, and where alcohol consumption is forbidden past 10.30pm — among other restrictions. While Avenue 87’s opening had been in the works for six months with construction planned for April, renovations only began in July. Due to travel restrictions, Tay, who lives in Shanghai, couldn’t return to Singapore to oversee the opening. The duo trudged on with a workflow that saw Tay overseeing the renovation and formulating the dishes remotely. He would create the dish based on the initial recipe, and send the revised recipe to Phan, who would also try out a version in Singapore. If there were any tweaks, he’d send the revised recipe back to Tay.
Their first restaurant venture, Avenue 87 is a meeting of two minds. Phan wears both operational and managerial hats, having led the opening team of the now defunct Open Door Policy back in 2011, and as executive chef of Park Hotel Clarke Quay prior to Avenue 87. While he oversees the financial health and administration of the business, Tay supports on menu development. Prior to opening Avenue 87, he was part of 3 Michelin-starred restaurant Ultraviolet by Paul Pairet in Shanghai.Glen Tay and Alex Phan
Quite simply, where do you get the guns to open a restaurant — your first business venture at that — in a pandemic?
Glen: I was introduced to an investor by a mutual friend in Shanghai who wanted to open a new restaurant this year. I immediately thought of Alex to run this new concept with me. Being in China, I saw how fast the country bounced back to normalcy from COVID-19. I had confidence that Singapore will recover just as fast. It was a risk, yes, but it’s also a dream come true for us.
While COVID-19 had put a spanner in the works on your road to opening, has it also encouraged you to think out of the box and find solutions around operational or back-of-house issues?
Alex: It made me think out of the box to change the style of operations to ensure the safety of the guests. It’s pretty much adapting to the new norm that the government has set for restaurants. Cutlery needs to be set within the next two to four minutes after the food is served at the table. Back in the day, we would just set it on the table before the food is served.
As first-time chef-owners, how did you come up with the culinary direction for Avenue 87?
Alex: Singapore is a multi-racial country offering cuisines from different cultures. Hence, we should not put any restriction on what we can do or even what we should do. We should always have an open mind to adapt and evolve as it goes — just like how Singapore has progressed over the years, while picking the best from around the world. We want to express this evolution and creativity to the food we love. The Mod-Asian cuisine we serve offers a sense of familiarity through the flavours of each dish.
Glen: It’s an expression of what we love to eat and cook. We both love Asian food. Avenue 87 is a platform for us to showcase our favourite Asian dishes from our childhood, during our travels and at work; recreating and presenting them in our own interpretations.Avenue 87’s Ah Hua Kelong Seabass
There have been a few restaurant openings recently (Laut, Kin, Miss Vanda) that focus on the region’s produce, revisiting specialties, and elevating homely dishes. In your opinion, why do you think such a movement has gained popularity in Singapore?
Alex: When Glen and I started thinking about the restaurant concept, we immediately knew that one of our goals is to contribute to the local F&B ecosystem. So it was very important to us to feature produce from local farms such as Ah Hua Kelong and Farm deLight, and also locally-based producer Hong Spices, who supplies us with Kampot peppercorns.
When Singaporeans work together like this, it shows the world what a small red dot is capable of. I think it has gained popularity among the industry players. However from the diner’s point of view, this is only an introduction. It would likely take a year or so for locals to fully understand our local produce.
Since you both steer the culinary and business directions for the restaurant, how do you merge business objectives and your passion for food together?
Alex: We will thrash out all the questions openly, tackling and prioritising them. With my experience working in Singapore for more than 10 years, I was able to draw on industry contacts and keep abreast of the market trends. It helps to give us a clear picture of what the market is looking for, which is important to align our passion and business objectives.
Glen: I don’t think you can really merge them together; I think we just found a balance point where we can still do what we love and not compromise the business. I have so many ideas when it comes to menu conceptualisation and I constantly bounce them off with Alex. He is good at filtering my line of thoughts and we work together to put these ideas into the menu.Avenue 87’s Duck Rice
What is your advice to chefs who are looking to convert their passion into a business and move from being chefs to chef-owners?
Alex: As much as numbers are important, never forget about what the operations team is going through. Hear from the team and take care of the staff, and naturally they will take care of your business.
Glen: Take the risk and never forget why you love cooking.
What has been your most important learning so far?
Alex: To have an open mind and listen to guest feedback.
Glen: To take criticisms and to change for the better.