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Pass the Salt: François Mermilliod, chef-owner of Bar-A-Thym

To call Francois Mermilliod an adventurous eater, would be an understatement. The chef-owner of contemporary French restaurant Bar-A-Thym has savoured crickets and worms in Bangkok, balut (fertilised duck egg) in the Philippines, and cobra in Vietnam. For the latter, he went the full monty and tucked into the snake’s blood, heart and meat.

“The cobra was alive when it was cut open. Its blood was dripped into a cup, as its heart was still pumping. The blood was very metallic tasting, but I drank it with rice alcohol, so it was sweet,” he recalled. “It wasn’t delicious, though. I did it for the experience, and it was really expensive.”

Next on Mermilliod’s stomach-churning must-try list, is deep-fried tarantula. He noticed a village stall selling it, when he visited Cambodia a few years ago. “I used to go with a friend to Cambodia every year, on a motorbike trip. And I told him there was a village with the tarantulas, and we were going to stop for it on our way back. But we forgot and missed it,” he explained, when we met him for lunch at Terra, a Japanese-Italian restaurant along Tras Street.

Our meal at the one-Michelin-starred Terra — which is also one of Mermilliod’s favourite eateries — was, thankfully, not as exotic. As we savoured scrumptious dishes such as grilled wagyu beef and king crab spaghetti, the 42-year-old told us all about his experiences serving in the French army, cooking in Singapore, and how he learnt to make roti prata in the unlikeliest of places.

Francois Mermilliod is the chef-owner of Bar-A-Thym. (Photo: Vincent Chan/ Lifestyle Asia)

Starting young

Born and raised in Perpignan, France, Mermilliod grew up watching his mother prepare meals such as chicken stew and Blanquette de Veau (veal in cream sauce) in the kitchen. Fascinated, he began trying his hand at baking and cooking simple meals. By 12 years old, he was able to whip up dishes such as Croque Monsieur and spaghetti Bolognese for dinner.

His parents, who were avid foodies, further cultivated his interest in gastronomy by treating him to a restaurant meal once a month. “I was happy and excited whenever we went to a restaurant. I found it magical, because I got to sit down in a nice place, and try different types of food we didn’t have at home,” he said.

It was during one of those precious restaurant visits, that a teenage Mermilliod impulsively decided he wanted to be a chef. “I was 14, and we were in a beautiful small restaurant by the sea. The chef-owner had obviously been drinking — he was so drunk, but happy. And his cooking was great, especially the seafood,” he said. “My parents were asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Because at 15 or 16, you have to decide [where to go for further education]. I looked around and thought, why not be a chef? I liked cooking and loved restaurants, so it seemed perfect.”

A love for eating in restaurants, led Mermilliod to decide he wanted to be a chef. (Photo: Vincent Chan/ Lifestyle Asia)

Kitchen school

A year later, Mermilliod enrolled in L’Ecole Hôtelière du Moulin à Vent, a culinary school in his hometown. His course took four years, two of which were spent on mastering cooking, and the rest on hotel management. There, he learnt skills such as poaching eggs, deboning chickens, and making stocks. Wanting to learn more, he also applied for a part-time job at the now-defunct Grangousier Le Eus, a small restaurant that served modern Southern French cuisine.

“I worked on the weekends, and the chef there was willing to teach me how to cook. I didn’t have to do the dishes. Most of the time, he did them himself and let me learn. I was picking up the basics at school, and advanced skills at the restaurant — which put me in a better position than my classmates,” he said.

It was that stint at Grangousier Le Eus that assured Mermilliod he had made the right decision: “I just liked the atmosphere in the kitchen. All those crazy people, and the swearing — it was a great atmosphere. And there was the magic of transforming a raw product into something beautiful on a plate; and seeing the smiles on customers’ faces.”

francois mermilliod
Terra’s mouthwatering appetiser of bruschetta slices covered in raw shrimp and sea urchin. (Photo: Vincent Chan/ Lifestyle Asia)

Working there also showed him a different — and more positive — side of the industry, as his two-month school internship at the one-Michelin-starred L’auberge D’aurillac in the south of France, had none of that camaraderie or friendliness.

“The restaurant was a beautiful place in a castle, and did fine dining. But the kitchen was horrible, and I hated it. Everyone was nasty. The head chef once scolded me for dropping a packet of sugar on the floor, as I was carrying a tray. Before I could pick it up, he went completely nuts and yelled at me,” he said. “Training has to be tough, of course. But it doesn’t make sense to get angry over stupid things.”

G.I. Chef

Mermilliod graduated in 1994, and enlisted in the French army as part of his mandatory military service — only for the country to suspend this two years later. Not that he minded, though. “The first three months of training were quite tough and intensive. But it was fun. You get to carry a gun, and have no worries, job or family to take care of. For me it was a great time,” he said.

Due to his culinary credentials, he was later sent to Martinique in the Caribbean to teach underprivileged youth to cook. Many of these youngsters were school dropouts or came from disadvantaged families, and were also fulfilling their military service.

Francois Mermilliod
Terra’s squid in brown butter sauce. (Photo: Vincent Chan/ Lifestyle Asia)

“I volunteered to do this. During that time, many people in my generation didn’t want to join the army, and tried to invent excuses to not go. For me, it was the opposite. I told the officer-in-charge that I had a diploma in cooking, and that I was willing to be sent overseas to teach kids who wanted to learn a trade,” he explained. Surrounded by beautiful scenery and pristine beaches, serving in the army ended up becoming one of the “best times of [his] life”.

Back to the cookhouse

After completing his year-long national service, Mermilliod left for England to improve his proficiency in English. He worked at The Hertfordshire Golf and Country Club’s Brasserie restaurant, a casual eatery serving up European fare. He flourished there, and was promoted from commis to chef de partie, and eventually sous chef — all within six months. “I was lucky to be moved up so fast,” he said.

In 1996, Mermilliod heard about a job opening in the kitchen of a Miami cruise ship. While he wanted to see the world and expand his culinary portfolio, he wasn’t entirely sure if it would be the right fit. “I wanted to do it for the experience, but wasn’t thrilled at what I was going to learn on the boat. The food would be served buffet style… I wasn’t keen on the idea of doing mass cooking,” he said, adding that he applied and got the job anyway.

But life had other plans for him. Just two weeks before he was due to leave, Mermilliod received a call from a friend about an opportunity to work in a small restaurant in Singapore. “My friend said the chef there badly needed someone. I looked up Singapore on the map, and decided to take a chance and go there instead of Miami,” he said.

A new home turf

That Singapore eatery was the now-defunct Salut Restaurant and Wine Bar. Located along Tanjong Pagar Road, it was a posh fine dining establishment serving up traditional French offerings such as foie gras and escargots, alongside an extensive wine list. Mermilliod initially planned to stay for just four to six months, but wound up spending two years there because he enjoyed it so much. “Salut was a great restaurant, and I worked really well with its head chef Karl Dobler, who now runs Table at 7,” he said.

Pass the Salt François Mermilliod
Au Petit Salut today. (Photo: Au Petit Salut Facebook)

A couple years later, Salut’s owner Jessica Lim decided to open Au Petit Salut, a café-pastry shop offering bread, cakes and baked goods. It also had a separate repertoire of savoury dishes. Lim noticed Mermilliod had a flair for making pastries, and appointed him head chef.

In an unexpected turn of events, the eatery’s savoury menu surpassed its baked options in popularity. “We became so popular for the savoury food that we stopped doing cakes, and become a proper restaurant,” said Mermilliod.

The Road to Oz

Things were going well for Mermilliod at Au Petit Salut, but a part of him yearned to travel. So when Dobler mentioned his plans to open a restaurant in Sydney, and asked Mermilliod if he wanted to come along, the latter jumped at the opportunity. “I was thinking of leaving Singapore to try something different, so it was perfect timing,” he said.

The restaurant didn’t work out in the end, so Mermilliod took up a head chef position at Sanders, a modern Australian joint equipped with glorious 270-degree views of Sydney Harbour. It was favoured by sailing enthusiasts, as there was an area where they could dock their boats before having their meals. The restaurant has since closed, but Mermilliod fondly remembers it as a “beautiful place with good seafood”.

The now-defunct Sanders was one beautiful restaurant. (Photo: True Local)

Revisiting Singapore

He stayed at Sanders for two years, before returning to the Lion City to lead the kitchen at Duo, a modern French restaurant along Club Street. The establishment was a cosy space decked out in wood and earth tones, and offered hearty mains such as lamb tenderloin, and beef with foie gras.

Despite its classy premise and tasty food, Duo wasn’t too successful, especially in 2003 when there was an outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Singapore. “The restaurant had a very expensive setup, and the SARS period affected its business. So it closed in June 2004,” he explained.

Disappointed but not disheartened, Mermilliod moved to Flutes at the Fort, an upscale restaurant in a black and white colonial house nestled away in Fort Canning Park. It specialised in modern Australian cuisine the likes of lamb rack, beer battered snapper and eggs benedict. The eatery relocated to the National Museum in 2013 and is now known as Flutes.

Flutes is now at the National Museum. (Photo: Flutes)

A difficult lesson

In late 2004, Mermilliod was caught in a high-profile drug bust, and sentenced to a year in prison. He spent two months in Queenstown Remand Prison, before being transferred to Changi Prison and later Selarang Park Community Supervision Centre. “I was caught with some [cocaine] in my pocket. The few months before the sentencing were tough, because of the media attention. I was super famous at that time,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to go back to that experience again, but in a way I’m glad it happened. You make mistakes, you learn from it.”

As fate would have it, he still managed to do the one thing he loved: cooking. The prison officers knew of his culinary background, and put him in charge of preparing their meals. He was assigned to the kitchen, where he worked alongside a few other inmates to prepare local dishes such as chicken rice, laksa and even rempah.

“I had no choice but to learn the basics of cooking simple Chinese and Malay food,” he said. “The officers there actually wanted me to cook French food, but I said it was impossible, because they gave us a budget of 60 cents a person. And we couldn’t have pork, white wine, cream or butter. We could only use fish, chicken and local vegetables.”

francois mermilliod
Be it laksa, roti prata or chicken rice, Mermilliod can cook them all. (Photo: Vincent Chan/ Lifestyle Asia)

Mermilliod even added roti prata to his arsenal of cooking skills. “There was an Indian chef there making all the prata. But he was ‘fired’ for doing something wrong, and sent back to his cell. The officers told me to do the prata instead, but I had only done it once before — not for 100 officers,” he recalled with a laugh. “The next day, I was in the kitchen at 5am, flipping my prata. And the officers were all having a good time, because they said it was the first time they saw a French chef cooking prata for them.”

He was released in 2005 after serving eight months, and continued to work at Flutes at the Fort.

A fresh chapter

After three years, Mermilliod was recruited to helm the kitchen at Absinthe, a new restaurant in Bukit Pasoh that focused on reinventing “traditional, old-fashioned French food” such as duck leg confit and foie gras.

Concurrently, he and a friend opened Smok’inn Frogz, a Western food stall within Bar Bar Black Sheep — a coffee shop in Bukit Timah. The stall easily drew customers with its repertoire of comfort fare such as burgers, steaks, and fish and chips at affordable prices. “We made all the food from scratch, and the business did very well,” he said, adding that he sold the stall four years later.

He left Absinthe in 2014, a few years after a less-than-ideal decision to relocate it to Boat Quay: “We needed to revamp the restaurant, so someone asked us to consider moving there, and we said yes. That was a mistake. The place went way too big and become difficult to handle. And staffing was a complicated issue.” The eatery shuttered last year.

Pass the Salt François Mermilliod
When Absinthe was still up and running, it served French dishes such as seared scallops with braised daikon. (Photo: Absinthe)

Solo act

Shortly after his departure from Absinthe, Mermilliod was approached by local restaurateur Yuan Oeij about an opportunity to launch his own establishment. The new restaurant would be situated in the same space occupied by Wolf — Oeij’s defunct eatery — and Mermilliod would have free rein in its concept and menu.

Mermilliod made a trip down to the shophouse along Gemmill Lane, liked what he saw, and agreed. With that, Bar-A-Thym was born — a casual restaurant centred on Southern French cuisine inflected with Mediterranean flavours. “There’s no fine dining setup and no table cloths. I wanted something small and convivial,” he said.

The restaurant officially opened in 2015, and is equipped with an open kitchen and plancha — a type of flattop grill — where meats and seafood are seared to perfection. Its signature offerings include foie gras terrine, fish and seafood bouillabaisse, and wagyu Côte de Boeuf.

francois mermilliod
Bar-A-Thym’s angel hair pasta, which comes topped with sakura ebi and covered in sea urchin sauce. (Photo: Vincent Chan/ Lifestyle Asia)

There’s also an omakase menu for lunch and dinner, where diners let Mermilliod customise their meals based on seasonal produce. ” I ask customers for their budget, what they want to eat, and what they’re allergic to. Then I plan a menu accordingly,” he said.

While Mermilliod relishes the challenge of tailoring the perfect menu for each diner, doing so has its challenges sometimes. He has encountered his share of customers with complicated — and sometimes downright impossible — requests. “I once had a person who wanted a seven-course menu of vegetarian food, with no cheese or egg. After we sent him some sautéed mushrooms, he said he didn’t take mushrooms. So we did a risotto, and he said he didn’t want to eat carbs. Then we did a nice vegetable salad, and he said, ‘I don’t like salad.'” said Mermilliod. “He ended up eating carrots.”

Branching out

With Bar-A-Thym in full swing, he embarked on a side project last year: Ô Boeuf à 6 Pattes, a small bistro at Park West Condominium. The place is operated by Mermilliod and Jean-Philippe Joye, the former restaurant manager at Duo, and serves classic French food spanning escargots, beef cheek and foie gras.

There is also a range of Thai dishes such as duck red curry, tom yum soup, papaya salad, and mango sticky rice dessert. “Everything’s made in-house and of good quality. My ex-sous chef Eric, who was with me when I opened Bar-A-Thym, is in charge of the kitchen there. And he’s a really good chef,” he said.

francois mermilliod
The king crab pasta at Terra. (Photo: Vincent Chan/ Lifestyle Asia)

One would imagine that running two restaurants is more than enough to keep Mermilliod busy, but the indefatigable chef also devotes part of his time to teach cooking at Palate Sensations, a local culinary school. He has taught there for 12 years, and spends three hours every Saturday imparting basic skills such as making stocks, searing beef, and poaching eggs.

“Some of my former students have quit their jobs to embark on cooking. It’s always great when you can inspire people,” he said, recalling a former student who left her banking job to join Absinthe as a trainee. “She found it difficult to keep up — she burnt her hand badly, and kept cutting herself. But she later went to study cooking in the US, worked for big chefs there, and came back. Now she’s doing very well — I think she’s working for André Chiang.”

Away from the stove

When he’s not cooking, or teaching aspiring chefs, Mermilliod unwinds by spending time with his only daughter. The two have a ritual of eating omelettes (cooked by him) every Sunday. They also go travelling often — last year they went scuba diving in the Philippines, and in the years before that, Tioman and Thailand. Next up is a June trip to France, not to dive but to visit relatives.

He also enjoys sports, but hasn’t played any since sustaining a leg injury from Muay Thai training late last year. “I was doing it two times a week at Evolve then. The training lasted only one hour each time, but was full of cardio — and I’m not 20 anymore,” he said. “I want to try Krav Maga after I recover. I’m not saying it’s easier, but I want to give it a shot.”

francois mermilliod
A decadent tiramisu dessert at Terra. (Photo: Vincent Chan/ Lifestyle Asia)

Local appeal

Having lived in Singapore for almost two decades, Mermilliod is more than familiar with its local cuisine. He eats at hawker centres every day, and likes the laksa from Famous Sungei Road Trishaw Laksa — which was on last year’s Bib Gourmand list in the Michelin Guide Singapore  at Hong Lim Market & Food Centre. He also frequents Maxwell Food Centre for popiah and chicken rice, and Song Fa Bak Kut Teh along Upper Circular Road for its signature pork bone broth.

Jade Palace Seafood Restaurant is a favourite haunt too. He stops by at least once a month to order dim sum such as siew mai and xiao long bao, along with some tipples. “Dim sum and champagne is the best combination. The wine there is amazing too,” he said.

francois mermilliod
Terra’s fish stew with Hokkaido mussels. (Photo: Vincent Chan/ Lifestyle Asia)

Mermilliod also recommends Rhubarb Le Restaurant, Bar-Roque Bar & Grill along Tanjong Pagar Road and, of course, Terra. He has visited the latter twice, and is close friends with its chef-owner Seita Nakahara. The two even trained together in Muay Thai last year. “Seita’s talent in cooking is amazing. His food is a marriage of east and west cuisines. He uses the ingredients of the season, and makes sure his diners don’t eat the same thing every time — that’s like the omakase that I do at Bar-A-Thym,” he said.

During our lunch, Mermilliod was particularly impressed by dishes such as an indulgent bruschetta appetiser covered in sea urchin, al dente pasta topped with king crab meat, and a hearty fish stew. “The pasta was perfectly cooked, the fish stew was amazing, and the appetiser was so delicious. Terra’s food is simple and product-driven, and Seita doesn’t overdo things,” said Mermilliod.

“There are people who think that cooking fine dining food is about putting many dots on a plate. But that’s not cooking. A good chef should be able to go back to basics anytime. It’s like an architect, who can do beautiful designs, but his house collapses because the foundation isn’t strong. Cooking is the same.”

Bar-A-Thym, 18 Gemmill Lane, Singapore 069255, +65 6557 2224

Terra54 Tras Street, Singapore 078993, +65 6221 5159/ +65 8523 2194

Pass the Salt: François Mermilliod, chef-owner of Bar-A-Thym

Sara Yap

Deputy Director, Digital Operations (Asia)

Sara Yap is passionate about all things dining and jewellery, and is constantly seeking out exciting restaurants and glittering trinkets. When she’s not feasting in the name of work, chatting with talented chefs, or daydreaming about coloured diamonds, she’s probably binge-watching the latest Netflix series or indulging in her guilty pleasure — Hollywood celebrity gossip. Sara is a journalism graduate from Nanyang Technological University and her work has appeared in The Business Times Lifestyle and Prestige Singapore magazine.

 

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