Chef Nicolas Joanny isn’t afraid of taking chances. When he first opened Nicolas Le Restaurant in 2007 at Keong Saik, well-meaning friends advised against it, citing the area’s sketchy environment populated with massage parlours and sleazy karaoke bars.
Barely one month after opening, he witnessed a raid on an illegal dormitory. “The police came, broke everything down, and caught a few people,” he recalled. “I loved the place, though. It was close to the CBD and rent was cheap.”
Another risk he took? Shutting down his same establishment five years later — albeit temporarily — at the peak of its popularity, partially because its lease was up. The real reason? He needed a break. “I had been working non-stop and forgotten what it was like to have good sleep,” said Joanny, adding that this also compromised his time spent with his wife and three sons.
Years on, these have proved to be some of the best decisions he’s ever made. Setting up shop in Keong Saik turned out to be a savvy move, as the neighbourhood later shaped up to become one of Singapore’s most vibrant hotspots. The vice and dodgy businesses eventually moved out, and were replaced by hipster boutique hotels and cafes.
As for shutting down his restaurant, it gave Joanny the opportunity to recharge and spend a month-long stint in a Japanese kaiseki place in Kanazawa, where he gained culinary skills and inspiration. He also took time off for a family road trip around Europe, which left him refreshed and overflowing with new menu ideas when he returned to Singapore five months later. Till today, Nicolas Le Restaurant remains one of the most reputable and well-known French eateries here.
“Those were challenging times but I don’t regret anything,” said Joanny, as we feasted on Modern Australian fare at Cheek By Jowl, one of his favourite restaurants. The venue has since been rebranded as a casual eatery named Cheek Bistro, with a revamped menu. As we devoured scrumptious treats the likes of chicken liver cigars, barramundi with caramelised onions, and fresh oysters with smoked tomato granita, the 44-year-old reminisced on his cooking journey, and the lessons he’s learnt along the way.
An idyllic childhood
Born in the Republic of the Congo, Joanny recalls a carefree childhood spent travelling to different countries in Africa because of his father’s job at the gold mines. This nomadic lifestyle only ended in his teens, when his parents moved back to Burgundy, France.
They ran a farm from their home in a regional park, which overlooked a valley and was surrounded by nearly three hectares of land. There, Joanny’s father grew vegetables, and preserved beans and tomatoes for sale. Their daily meals were usually farm-to-table, thanks to the abundance of ingredients cultivated in their own backyard, as well as the chickens and rabbits they reared.
As tranquil life was, it wasn’t long before Joanny felt bored. Entertainment options were scarce and there wasn’t even a television in his home. He picked up cooking as a hobby, whipping up omelettes with eggs from his family’s chicken coop. “There wasn’t much to do,” he explained. “Even as a child, I’d help out in the kitchen — I guess this already got me interested in cooking.”
Learning the ropes
His hobby blossomed into ambition. Joanny enrolled in Lycée Des Métiers François Miterrand, a culinary school in Château-Chinon, a village in the Burgundy mountains. It taught the 17-year-old basic skills such as baking bread, poaching, roasting, and frying.
Halfway into the four-year course, however, he dropped out to work full time at L’Escoundudo, a fine dining restaurant in Bormes-Les-Mimosas in the French Riviera. “I did an apprenticeship there as part of my curriculum, and the chef offered me a job and told me not go back to school,” said Joanny. “I was so scared to inform my mother.”
Incurring his mother’s wrath was worth it, because Joanny counts that first job as a catalyst for his love of cooking. Each day, he prepared homey classics such as tomato tarts, rabbit stew, onion soup, and minestrone with pesto. After the last service of the night, he and his colleagues would often head out to a disco by the sea to unwind. “For those of us who were just 16 or 17, it was like the beginning of life,” he recalled fondly.
Chasing the stars
The next decade saw Joanny shuttling through celebrated restaurants such as La Barbacane in the Southwest of France, La Cuisine Des Anges in Belgium, and Paris’ Le Vivarois and Taillevent. He also worked as a private chef for then-prime minister Alain Juppe, as part of his national service.
He later did a stint in the village of Ravello on Italy’s idyllic Amalfi Coast, where he was appointed chef de partie at Rosselini’s — a fine dining restaurant at Palazzo Sasso (now renamed Palazzo Avino) hotel. Surrounded by towering mountains, cobalt blue waters, and fields of lemon trees, the eatery was famed for its picturesque views and contemporary Italian dishes such as rabbit salad, swordfish, and clams in olive oil and herbs.
“Everything there, even the sauces, was cooked a la minute. We blended the cheese ourselves, and visited farms in the mountains for vegetables,” said Joanny, who also mastered the art of making pasta from scratch — a skill he still uses today at Nicolas Le Restaurant. “Working there changed my life forever, and my style of cooking.”
A stroke of serendipity
After two fulfilling years in Italy, he took a break to travel. His adventures took him around the globe, from Bermuda to the United States and Ireland. Asia was on his itinerary too, and he ate his way through the street food in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Joanny’s final stop was Singapore, where he was on a 24-hour transit en-route to France. With so much time to kill, he contacted a friend to catch up over coffee. What happened next is almost movie script-worthy: His friend, who was then the head chef at L’Aigle d’Or, a French restaurant in Singapore, offered him a role on the spot as sous chef.
Joanny never boarded his flight.
With its resplendent chandeliers, regal gilded chairs, and painted porcelain plates, L’Aigle d’Or was one of Singapore’s ritziest French fine dining establishments in the ‘90s. It was situated within the Duxton Hotel (which was reincarnated as Six Senses Duxton last year) and served French staples the likes of cold vichyssoise soup and potato gratin. “It was very classically French — from the setting to the food and service,” recalled Joanny. “The waiters wore bowties, and there was one guy who handled only the cheese section.”
The place also had bragging rights as the only Relais & Château restaurant in the region during the ‘90s. To qualify as a member of the luxury hospitality association, an eatery has to epitomise “the expression of culinary arts blending the cultures and terroirs of the world”.
Third time lucky
Joanny stayed at L’Aigle d’Or till 2001. Over the next three years, he teamed up with business partners to open two contemporary French restaurants. These unfortunately didn’t work out due to low customer traffic and partnership issues.
Undeterred, Joanny decided to try again on his own. With only S$5,000 in his bank account, he opened Nicolas Le Restaurant, a contemporary French fine dining eatery, at Keong Saik Road in 2007. It was a move that he now acknowledges as “crazy”, but was determined to have it succeed — which also meant ignoring even his friends’ concern about the choice of location. “My vision was just to make the restaurant great, now that I was alone and had no boss,” he said.
His risk paid off. Within its first week of opening, the fine dining restaurant was raking in the crowds, including scores of old regulars from his L’Aigle d’Or days, thanks to rave reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations. Dishes like pan-seared foie gras, pigeon breast, and steamed egg served in its shell and studded with Iberico ham, were popular with diners and quickly became his calling card.
Joanny’s business kept thriving. Eight months after opening Nicolas Le Restaurant, he relocated it to a smaller premises on the same street, and opened a casual French bistro named Les Artistes Bistrot in its original venue. This was later reinvented as Alba Italian Restaurant and eventually sold to an investor.
Exhausted and in need of a break, he went on a hiatus in 2012 when Nicolas Le Restaurant’s lease was up. For a month, he joined Zeniya, a Michelin-starred kaiseki restaurant in Kanazawa, as a kitchen hand. “I wanted to understand more about Japanese ingredients, especially the way they made use of every part of a fish, from the fins to the bones,” he said. “I couldn’t do anything there, so I just cleaned dishes and watched. It took about a week before they let me do something.”
He headed home in July that same year, ready to start Nicolas Le Restaurant’s next chapter at a new location along Teck Lim Road. He didn’t have to worry about attracting guests — his loyal customers came back upon hearing of his return. New ones visited too, as Teck Lim Road and its neighbouring Keong Saik had by then evolved into trendy dining enclaves.
The restaurant has remained at its Teck Lim address for the past seven years. It’s a cosy six-table venue dressed in grey and red, with an open kitchen where diners can watch Joanny and his team bustling around. Its repertoire includes prix-fixe lunch and dinner sets, a tasting menu, and an à la carte selection.
As Joanny imports most of his produce — fish from Japan, prawns from Italy, duck from France — the dishes depend on what’s seasonally available. There are some mainstays though, such as his signature steamed egg, and pigeon served two ways as a crispy confit leg and roasted breast. He takes special requests from his regulars too: “Sometimes they will text me asking for dishes like the langoustine they had before. It’s nice to be close to our guests, and to know they have the confidence to eat in our place.”
The restaurant turns 13 in January, and Joanny is planning to do a dinner collaboration with two other chefs. The details have yet to be confirmed, but he’s excited about it — he did something similar for his eatery’s 10th anniversary, where his team cooked alongside Dave Pynt of Burnt Ends and Seita Nakahara of Terra. “It was an amazing night. I invited old-time customers, and we stayed all the way till midnight,” he recalled.
After living in Singapore for close to two decades, Joanny has grown fond of local food and misses bak chor mee whenever he’s overseas. His favourite stall is Tai Wah Pork Noodle at Hong Lim market, which he likes for its springy noodles and generous portions of meat. He also frequents Outram Park Ya Hua Rou Gu Cha for bak kut teh (“I love the peppery taste.”), and Foong Kee Coffee Shop at Keong Saik for duck noodles with extra char siew.
His other preferred haunts include Shinzo at Carpenter Street for sushi, Le Bistrot Du Sommeiier for classic French fare, and Terra for Japanese-Italian cuisine. Cheek By Jowl, which recently revamped to Cheek Bistro, is also one of his favoured spots for its modern Australian food incorporated with “great ingredients and small Asian touches”.
Prior to its rebranding, the restaurant was popular for innovative dishes such as homemade cheese buns paired with an aged Comte dip, smoked mackerel with pickled cucumber, and Joanny’s favourite — Jerusalem artichoke mousse nestled atop roasted shimeji mushrooms, soaked in a comforting onion broth, and bedecked with crispy artichoke skins. “The balance between the artichoke and the stock is delicious. I love the different textures too,” he said.
Other dishes that impressed were a sweet-savoury medley of pork tenderloin with burnt apple purée and coffee-roasted carrots, and a dry aged wagyu beef salad crowned with crunchy Brussels sprouts and smoked maple butter. “Some chefs overdo their food to look spectacular, but there’s no flavour. Here, the dishes may look simple but require strong cooking techniques,” said Joanny, adding that the restaurant’s food has remained consistently good even after its evolution to Cheek Bistro. The eatery now has a brand new repertoire of concoctions such as Spanish mackerel with zucchini, and beef tartare festooned with puffed millet.
He has yet to visit the newly-opened Cloudstreet, which is run by Cheek’s owner Rishi Naleendra, but plans to do so soon. “I will always support independent restaurants, because their teams work hard and put their heart and soul in the food,” he said. “That, and good hospitality, is what I think really matters.”
Nicolas Le Restaurant, 10 Teck Lim Road, Singapore 088386, +65 6224 2404
Cheek Bistro, 21 Boon Tat Street, Singapore 069620, +65 6221 1911