Pass the Salt: Frederic Colin, chef-owner of Brasserie Gavroche
At 12 years old, most adolescent boys would be more interested in sports or comic books. Frederic Colin, however, was busy running a pop-up eatery from his home kitchen during lunchtime — way before such concepts became mainstream.
This all started when the unwitting entrepreneur designed food menus with prices and passed them out to his friends at school. Some actually placed orders, which he fulfilled the next day by inviting them to his home after classes and cooking for them on the spot.
“I was bored at school and didn’t like it much,” said Colin, laughing. “I prepared dishes like burgers, pasta with ketchup, and sardines with bread. My mum knew I had friends over, but she didn’t know I was making them pay for the food. Nobody got poisoned, and my friends seemed to like my cooking because they came back a few times.”
Cooking had always come naturally to Colin, who had grown up in a family of chefs and restaurateurs. Born and raised in Paris, he spent most of his childhood traipsing through the kitchen of the hotel and restaurant owned by his maternal grandparents. There, he marvelled at the crackling flames that brought food to life, and watched the hectic rush of meal service. At seven years old, he began helping out with small tasks such as cutting vegetables, and prying open tinned produce with a can-opener.
Those experiences augured well for a long and fruitful culinary career that would later take him to top restaurants in France, the Caribbean, the United States, French Polynesia and Singapore. Now 47, Colin is the chef-owner of Brasserie Gavroche, a decade-old French restaurant that has become an institution in the local dining scene.
“Growing up, I always wanted to become a chef. It just seemed natural to me; to see the fire, the service, and the energy in the kitchen. I have so many good memories of helping my grandfather in his restaurant,” he said, as we tucked into lunch at Luke’s Oyster Bar & Chop House, one of his favourite eateries here. Over tasty courses of lobster sliders, steak and fries, apple pie, and a virtuous salad tossed with croutons and dates, we discussed his culinary aspirations, escapades and — of course — what’s it like to steer a restaurant through the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Colin’s grandfather, Henri, was a pivotal figure in shaping his interest in gastronomy. Most chefs would baulk at the idea of letting a small child hang around a busy kitchen in the thick of meal service — potentially obstructing the way and asking inquisitive questions — but Henri welcomed having his grandson by his side. Be it preparing ingredients, picking fresh tomatoes and beans from their nearby garden, or even being the taster for new dishes to be introduced to the menu, Colin was allowed to try his hand at everything.
Henri was particularly thrilled when Colin enrolled in the Ferrandi School of Culinary Arts in Paris at 16. It was a four-year course comprising classes and restaurant training at fine dining stalwarts Lasserre and Clos Longchamp, both of which had two Michelin stars. “I lived with my grandparents during the weeks when I worked at Lasserre. I’d go back home late at night to find them waiting for me, and my grandfather would ask about my day in the kitchen. We would chat until midnight, and he’d tell me stories about his own experiences as a young chef. These are the best memories that I will always treasure,” said Colin. “He was so proud of me.”
His childhood experiences in Henri’s restaurant also gave him an edge in his Lasserre internship. While some of the other trainees buckled under the pressure and couldn’t tell shallots from onions, he was already familiar with the kitchen setting and ingredients. “We did everything, pastries and all. It was a very masculine, intense and aggressive environment. The food had to be tasty, on time and well seasoned. It was easier for me because I knew what to expect.”
Learning from the best
Apart from working at Lasserre, Colin spent the first three years of school learning fundamental skills and cooking techniques such as filleting and roasting. He was posted to Clos Longchamp in his final year for an “eye-opening” stint. The restaurant was helmed by renowned chef Jean-Marie Meulien and specialised in French cuisine incorporated with Asian produce. “Jean-Marie was like a pioneer in this,” he said. “Coming from a classic French cooking background, I had never tried flavours like green or yellow curry, or kaffir leaves. We used to do a lobster with Siam flavours, some shallots, butter, ginger, orange juice and shredded carrots. It was spicy but very light. Imagine, this was 1992.”
Clos Longchamp also showed him that a Michelin-starred, fine dining environment didn’t have to be a hostile one. “Unlike Lasserre, which was very classic and old-school, Clos Longchamp was a dynamic environment with a young team. It showed me how things could be different — of course it was hard and the sous chef Philippe Etchebest would push us a lot during service. But after that he’d encourage us and say we were doing a good job,” he said.
Meulien, too, left an indelible impression on him as a role model. “I respected him so much because he’d call me to his office to patiently advise me and explain why he said or did something during service — even when I was still a trainee. So if something was wrong, I could understand why. He didn’t do it with so many chefs, but for me he did, ” said Colin.
Colin enlisted for mandatory National Service in 1994 after graduating from culinary school. Due to his cooking experience, he was roped in as a personal chef to a five-star army general. On a typical day, he would stop at a nearby market armed with an allowance of 1,000 French Francs (S$240) for groceries, before heading to the army camp to whip up a three-course meal. He relished being the sole chef during his shifts as it gave him carte blanche to plan the menus, which featured options such as artichokes, fish and desserts like chocolate cream.
“The allowance was a lot of money at that time, so I could cook anything I wanted. The only stressful part was the timing — the meal could only last exactly one hour because the general had many appointments,” he recalled. “I also had to cook with someone watching to make sure I didn’t poison the food or do anything stupid. This guy would try every single dish.”
Colin impressed the general so much the latter asked him to stay on as an army chef, and even wrote a recommendation letter for him. But the 20-year-old had bigger dreams in mind.
Spreading his wings
He returned to work for Meulien, this time at La Marina in the South of France. The restaurant originally specialised in Nordic cuisine and was a supplier of Danish produce such as smoked salmon, herring and caviar. Under Meulien’s influence, it soon took a fusion slant by adding Asian flavours and ingredients to its food, rolling out unorthodox creations such as creme brûlée with ginger, and sea bass drizzled with Thai-inspired sauces.
After two years there, Colin spent some time on the paradisal island of Barbuda — where he was appointed sous chef at the luxurious K Club resort that once hosted Princess Diana and her sons Prince William and Harry — before setting off to St Barts to work at Le Pelican, a casual beach restaurant. As much as Colin adored the laid-back vibe and gorgeous surroundings at these locales, a part of him missed the adrenaline of working in a fine dining kitchen. “I didn’t think I could enjoy any more of doing crab sandwiches and casual food,” he said, with a chuckle.
So he made his way back to Paris for a stint at the upscale Jules Verne restaurant located within the Eiffel Tower, followed by what would be one of his most challenging experiences — a chef de partie role at the iconic Pavillon Ledoyen, one of the most revered temples of gastronomy in France.
In a three-Michelin-starred kitchen like that, you’re supposed to keep quiet and never rebel.
Feeling the heat
If Lasserre was a baptism of fire, Ledoyen was a full-fledged inferno. The restaurant, which boasts a storied history dating back to the 18th century, specialises in classic French cuisine. It was helmed by Christian Le Squer and had two Michelin stars when Colin joined its kitchen. It received its third star in 2002 and has maintained this accolade even today.
The days there were long and relentless. “We worked from 7AM until 11PM or midnight, five days a week. And then we’d start again on Monday morning at 6AM. It was a high pressure environment with very precise standards,” recalled Colin, adding that Ledoyen was equally strict with the quality of ingredients it procured from suppliers.
The kitchen atmosphere was also unfriendly, with chefs slinging insults at those lower in the pecking order. When Colin stood up for himself once, he was reprimanded and sent to work in the catering kitchen — regarded as less prestigious than the fine dining one — for several months as a punishment. “In a three-Michelin-starred kitchen like that, you’re supposed to keep quiet and never rebel,” he recalled.
Despite his “transgression”, Colin proved his mettle and was offered a position as sous chef after a year. He declined as he desired to see more of the world.
He cooked his way through various locales including St Barts, New York, Miami over the next few years, before settling in Bora Bora in 2005 to lead the kitchen of a newly opened St Regis hotel.
“When I first got the offer, I said no way, I’m not going back to an island. But they showed me more details about the place, and told me I’d be doing the opening of the restaurant. So I agreed on one condition — I wanted to move again afterwards, to one of the other upcoming St Regis hotels in Osaka or San Francisco,” he said.
Both hotels ended up getting delayed, so Colin was sent to The St Regis Singapore in 2007 instead, where he was appointed executive chef of its restaurants. He brought three of his most trusted chefs from Bora Bora along for the ride — David Thien (now the executive chef of Michelin-starred Corner House), Alain Herber (who currently helms Tiong Bahru Bakery) and Julien Royer (chef-owner of three-Michelin-starred Odette, which ranks second on this year’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list).
“They were good chefs then, and still are today. It’s great to see all my friends doing well,” he said, adding that he remains close to them. Last November, the quartet even reunited for an eight-hands omakase dinner at Corner House, where they collaborated on a repertoire showcasing seasonal produce the likes of sea urchin, guinea fowl and botan ebi.
Flanked by a reliable team in a new, exciting city, Colin enjoyed his tenure at the hotel. But after almost four years there, he decided it was time to open his own eatery focusing on classic French fare. “I finally understood the type of cuisine I wanted to cook. I’m from Paris and had trained and worked there, so if I opened a restaurant, it’d be something very Parisian,” he explained. “Having cooked for so much of my life, starting a restaurant was the next step to make it a full cycle.”
He launched Brasserie Gavroche in December 2011, a charming space on Tras Street decked out with antique furniture and mosaic floor tiles. The walls are adorned with framed black and white photos — some of his grandfather Henri — while a 1930s bar counter sourced from the iconic Café de la Paix at Paris’ Le Grand-Hôtel takes pride of place at one side of the shophouse.
“Brasserie Gavroche is a tribute to my grandfather and Paris,” said Colin, adding that it focuses on bistro-style cuisine comprising “great ingredients cooked simply”. The menu, which hasn’t changed much till today, features staples such as French onion soup, fish quenelles, and baked pork terrine — many of which are based on grandpa Henri’s recipes. “These classics form the DNA of my restaurant, and are what people come for. It’s like when you go to an Italian restaurant and expect to find pasta or lasagna on the menu,” he said.
Despite the seedy location — Tras Street at that time was rife with karaoke bars — it didn’t take long for customers to be drawn to the restaurant’s classic Parisian fare and atmosphere. A positive review in a local newspaper also helped ignite interest and brought in the crowds the next day.
A year later, Colin opened Cafe Gavroche, a casual cafe across the street offering light bites such as Croque Monsieur, cold cuts and duck rillettes. “Customers had been asking why didn’t I do an all-day dining concept. When I heard the shophouse opposite was being vacated, I thought this could work actually, because the cafe could cover the gap for when Brasserie was closed during lunchtime on weekends. It would stay open seven days a week, 11AM to 1AM,” he explained.
Both restaurants are still operating nearly a decade on. But like many others in the pandemic-ravaged F&B industry, staying afloat amidst the ever-changing Covid-19 situation has been a gruelling experience. In mid-May, the government announced a slew of tightened measures under Phase 2 (Heightened Alert), which included a cessation of dining in for a month.
These were lifted on June 21 to allow for groups of two diners to patronise eateries, and further updated on July 12 to permit parties of five, before being revised with the caveat that all five diners had to be fully vaccinated. The raised cap on diners was highly anticipated by local F&B players, but their joy was short-lived — just six days later, Singapore reverted to the Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) rules in response to a surge in community infections.
Colin closed Cafe Gavroche during both rounds of Phase 2, focusing on takeaways and deliveries from Brasserie Gavroche. The latter featured highlights such as duck confit parmentier, foie gras terrine and escargots, and continues to provide this service. “Business has not been so great; I think most of the F&B people will tell you the same. It’s a tough time. Last year was a good story to tell when we reopened for dine-in, but this year, the excitement isn’t really there,” said Colin.
Dine-in restrictions have been relaxed as of August 10, albeit only for groups of up to five guests who are fully vaccinated, have recovered from Covid-19, or have a negative Pre-Event Test result. These conditions mean that F&B operators now have the additional burden of checking every patron’s vaccination status, as well as being in the awkward position of rejecting unhappy diners who don’t meet the requirements. It’s a heavy responsibility, but Colin is grateful for cooperative customers: “We’ve had no challenges, and every single guest has complied with the requirements.”
For now, he doesn’t have other major plans in the pipeline other than getting both restaurants back on track. “It is definitely a relief that guests can dine in again, and as always, we had to rush to organise the reopening,” he said.
Never give up. If you want to be successful in life, you have to work hard, and there will be sacrifices.
A return to dine-in
An avid foodie, Colin is glad at the prospect of being able to dine at restaurants again. His favourite spots include fine dining establishments Odette, Les Amis and Restaurant Zen, sushi joint Shiraishi, Chinese eateries Lei Garden and Long Beach at East Coast, and Luke’s Oyster Bar & Chop House.
He frequents the latter for its seafood such as tuna tartare and shrimp cocktail — gloriously plump prawns paired with a spicy sauce — and its signature Chop House Salad topped with goat cheese and crunchy croutons. “I like that Luke’s has good, simple cuisine that’s fresh and tasty. I always know what to expect,” he said, adding that he’s also close to the restaurant’s chef-owner Travis Masiero.
The meats too, come highly recommended. We shared a steak with fries — a hearty lunch menu special of succulent beef tenderloin with béarnaise sauce and a generous portion of crispy shoestring fries. “The meats here have this all-American feeling and flavour that bring back memories of my time working in the US,” he said.
Despite the challenging climate for restaurants right now, Colin can’t imagine being anything other than a chef. He has some words of advice for aspiring culinary stars: “Never give up. If you want to be successful in life, you have to work hard, and there will be sacrifices. But if it’s a passion, just go for it.”
Brasserie Gavroche, 66 Tras Street, Singapore 079005, +65 6225 8266
Luke’s Oyster Bar & Chop House, 22 Gemmill Lane, Singapore 069257, +65 6221 4468
(Main and featured image credit: Sara Yap for Lifestyle Asia)