Julien Royer has a confession to make. “Alors – for me, you have to know one thing that is funny. I am not quite a big fan of flying. I’m a bit scared of it," he told me.
As we stood in the lounge, about to board an Air France flight to Paris, his eyes were bright but weary. It was the distinct look of someone who had been bombarded with congratulatory messages, requests to collaborate and, no doubt, pleas for tables – since his restaurant, Odette, was named Number One in Asia a mere two weeks ago.
“Our reservations system crashed the day after the result was announced,” he divulged. “It has been literally insane, with many different requests and a lot of new friends, I would say!”
Moving up from the fifth spot to become the top restaurant on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list – and the first Singapore restaurant to take that title – was “totally unexpected”, “very emotional” and “a fantastic reward for my team, who have been really working hard.” But, he said, “We also have our feet on the ground – we know that all this is very ephemeral.”
A few hours later, though, his feet were 10km off the ground as he came around to see how I was enjoying my meal. Royer, 36, is the first Singapore-based chef to be invited to work with Air France – historically, one of the first airlines to begin partnering with Michelin-starred chefs – to create meals for first and business class passengers flying from Singapore to Paris.
I was tucking into the grilled scallops, carrot mousseline and saffron nage, feeling very chuffed that I was getting to enjoy Chef Julien’s much lauded creations without having to wait months for a coveted table at two-Michelin-starred Odette.
Other signature dishes that will be available during different periods include grilled kurobuta pork breast with delicatessen-style sauce and green Le Puy lentils; sauteed shrimps with paprika, smoked ricotta cheese and squash mousseline; and braised beef cheek in a red wine sauce, celeriax mousseline and wholegrain mustard.
According to Air France’s Singapore country manager Nicolas Ricard, “the time was right” to bring Royer, whose restaurant is “on our doorstep”, on board so that travellers from Singapore to Paris could enjoy “a unique gourmet experience”.
“Gastronomy is in the DNA of Air France, and as an ambassador of fine French dining in the sky, we are constantly innovating to provide excellent French gastronomy in Air France La Première and Business class cabins,” he said, pointing out that the airline has also worked with Michelin-starred chefs including Anne-Sophie Pic, Michel Roth and Arnaud Lallement.
“It’s like if you were a French footballer and you were called up to play for the national team,” said Royer, who was born in the Auvergne region in central France and trained and worked under luminaries including Michel Bras, Bernard Andrieux and Antonin Bonnet.
THE PLANE TRUTH
But the big question to me, really, was: Could even Julien Royer make airplane food taste good? I mean, I’d had in-flight meals designed by Michelin-starred chefs before, and they were never anything to write home about.
“I was not confident (that I could do it), to be honest,” he said with a laugh, confessing with candour: “Usually, I don’t eat in airplanes because, well, I don’t like the food! I have some water and try to avoid eating on the plane. But I hope we can be one of the rare exceptions, that people will remember the food in the plane was actually tasty. It’s true that there is some physical and logistical barriers that you can’t (surmount). It has to be about making good choices of ingredients, and the produce is key, I think.”
On a plane, he said, “You are not in the most natural way of living so we want to bring some comfort food – some simple and delicious food – to people.”
He would know, since he’s afraid of flying. “My worst experience was when I travelled once from Macau to Taiwan,” he shared. “There was a lot of thunder and it was typhoon season. The plane was shaking like hell. I was so scared. The flight attendant gave me this bowl of noodles, which I said I didn’t want but she still gave me anyway, and I didn’t eat. Then I saw her – this little Chinese lady – eating the noodles while the plane was shaking! I was like, ‘Wow, she’s really hungry.’”
To combat his anxiety, he has a lucky bracelet – a woven orange friendship band he’s worn on his wrist for many years now. It was a gift from his wife, who found it on the ground while visiting Angkor Wat in Cambodia. She always been his source of support, he said. “If I didn’t have my wife all these years, I think I would have never done what I have done, for sure. Because it’s a crazy job. And it’s a job of passion.”
“What’s the naughtiest thing you’ve done on a plane?” I asked.
He cackled throatily. “That’s a very good question. Nothing very naughty, no. Always very proper up there. Up there!” He then thought for a bit and changed his mind: He once gave a drunk woman a shove. “I was flying from Dubai to London… before takeoff, she had maybe six or seven gin and tonics. And she kept falling onto my shoulder. The flight attendant was laughing. I got so mad that I pushed her until her head was hanging the other way!”
INTO THE STRATOSPHERE
As our plane cruised along, it was clear that one could certainly compare Royer’s career to a flight.
“I would say that maybe it was a difficult takeoff, but after that, the flight has been very smooth,” he said, sharing that like any accomplished chef, he’s been through his share of turbulent times.
“When you start this job at a young age and you work in a Michelin star kitchen, it’s kind of an epic work in progress. It’s very hard, there’s a lot of sacrifice and you work in a not-so-friendly environment sometimes, to learn your craft,” he said.
“Personally, I was never abused, because I never accepted abuse. But it’s more in terms of pressure and results. When you are a young man of 17 or 18 and you know that every single act can change the dish and the menus, you put a lot of pressure on yourself. That said, I was lucky enough to have really good mentors and really good chefs that I respect. Even though there was pressure, at the end, I realised that it was positive pressure, to push us to do the best and to become better.”
The rockiest parts of his journey, he said, were when he worked in “hotel environments”. Before serving as head chef at Jaan at Swissotel The Stamford, he had done a stint at The St Regis.
“For me, it was not suitable because I felt I could not express myself. I felt there were too many people around giving too much advice and having too many opinions. It kind of blocked me in my creativity and in my way to progress. That’s the reason I decided to go it on my own. I was lucky enough to have met someone in Singapore who believed in me and gave me the chance to build this restaurant,” he said.
“But the challenge was to take that decision, because it was very risky. You almost change jobs – you go from just being a cook, a chef; to being a restaurateur, and being in charge of the entire dining experience, not just doing good food. It was a challenge, but I’m really happy I took up that challenge.”
He’ll be going on to greater heights soon, as he prepares to open his next restaurant, a casual dining restaurant called Louise, in Hong Kong this June. “Casual dining was always a ground I wanted to explore,” he said. “The food we’re going to do there is the food that I like to eat when I’m off. It’s food that’s comforting, delicious, simple and straightforward, with a strong focus on sourcing and ingredients.”
Will he open another restaurant in Singapore, where he’s spent the last 11 years? “Maybe,” he said, in a teasing tone that seemed to imply yes. “Singapore is home and I will probably make a new restaurant here one day – we’ll see.”
That might be up in the air, but one thing’s for sure: In the last two weeks, the journey has rocketed “like a Concorde! It’s crazy in a good way because it gives us a lot of good pressure and excitement.”
At the same time, “I think – and this is what I told my team – when you play this game of rankings and stuff, you need to be a good player and a fair player. You are happy when you win but you need to also accept when you lose, if one day ultimately you lose. My focus is more on growing talents and recognising the team that has been working hard. I have a few projects in my head that keep me excited and of course what we do (at Odette) keeps me excited because it’s a total evolution every day. That’s the beauty of this job, really. There is so much to learn and so much to taste when it comes to food.”
As our plane began its descent into Paris Charles de Gaulle, he mused, “I think we never arrive. I’m never satisfied. I think there’s always a path and a road and room for improvement in every aspect of the dining experience… That’s why we never get bored.”
“The thing about the title of Number One is that it’s so hard to maintain because people keep expecting more,” I said.
“Exactly. So I think it’s important to enjoy it while it’s here. Ultimately, there is nothing above number one, so it’s going to go down. But you have to accept it. It’s already fantastic that one time in your life, you can say, ‘I was up there. It was amazing.’”
From April 2019 to March 2020, Chef Julien Royer’s new signature dishes will be served exclusively in Air France’s La Première and Business cabins departing Singapore.