Julien Royer’s curiosity is hard to suppress.
I know this because I’ve barely sat down with the French chef before he starts asking me questions about where I’m from, where I travel, and what the dining scene is like in Vancouver. When I mention the abundance of fresh seafood available here, he finally talks a bit about himself, clearly excited about being able to work with the Pacific’s famous bounty.
“The crab dish we’re doing tonight is a little twist on what we do at home, and it’s with a beautiful Dungeness crab that just arrived this morning,” Royer says, referring to the special collaborative dinner he is cooking at the Fairmont Pacific Rim’s Botanist restaurant with local executive chef Hector Laguna. “It’s amazing. It’s really top quality.”
Royer is the chef and co-owner of Odette, a fine dining restaurant located in Singapore’s National Gallery that has earned two Michelin stars both years of its existence. But Royer is strikingly down-to-earth and relaxed, more interested in where to find good bread in Vancouver than what critics are saying about him.
“I think it’s a reward for us, rewarding our work, rewarding the work of the team,” he says of being recognized by Michelin. “It’s fantastic, we are really happy about it, but it was never an obsession. For me what’s important is that you own a restaurant that is busy, that is fully booked every day, and you really enjoy your job, which is cooking. In the most simple way, I really enjoy what I’m doing every day.”
Still, Royer is something of a critical darling. Aside from the aforementioned stars, he has been named Chef of the Year in 2014 and 2017 by the World Gourmet Summit’s Awards of Excellence, and thanks to him, Odette joined as number nine on the coveted Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2017 (making it the highest-ever new addition). In 2016, the Singapore Tourism Awards called Odette the Best Dining Experience, and the 2017 G Restaurant Awards gave the establishment an Award of Excellence. Needless to say, for the special Botanist dinners on Feb. 22 and 23, 2018, Vancouver is in for a treat.
A preview of the seven-course tasting menu reveals Royer’s imaginative style, his passion for ingredients, and his meticulousness for technique. And Botanist’s Laguna holds his own strongly, stepping up to the task of creating dishes that balance out the plates from Royer.
It begins with a Botanist dish: a small parsnip cone with parsnip mouse and Champagne gelée, delicate but flavourful and paired with Champagne from Vilmart & Cie. Next, an introduction to Odette: Dungeness crab with vadouvan spices, apple-celery, and a blanket of kaffir lime oil from Singapore. Light and crisp in taste, it packs punch in its tender preparation of ingredients and careful balance of acidity. A standout dish from Laguna is his lobster tail with fennel and aragosta and covered in a “veil” of thin pasta; incredibly soft, it deliciously and perfectly ties each component together. And Royer’s 20-day matured duck must be mentioned, so juicy and glazed with yuzu, served with kabu and kinome and paired with the beautiful Domaine Arnoux-Lachaux, Chambolle Musigny, Côte de Nuits from Burgundy.
Each dish is sensitive and artistic—though the latter is not a word that Royer likes to use. “I don’t understand why some chefs call themselves artists,” he admits between sips of espresso. “For me we are not artists, I much prefer the word artisan. Artisans are what we are, trying to do something with our hands; it’s craftsmanship, trying to make producers and product shine more than chefs. I think nowadays we give too much credit to chefs, personally, and not enough to producers, fishermen—people who really spend a lot of time and energy and work the soil, do the vegetables, do the fish, do the seafood. These are for me the main people, because without this product we are not able to [cook well]. So what I’m trying to do back in my restaurant is really highlight producers to highlight where we get the fish from, where we get the meat from. All this is very important for me.”
Royer grew up in the south of France, watching his mother and grandmother in the kitchen. It’s how he learned the importance of ingredients, and began exploring his foundational culinary skills. Once older, he trained under Michel Bras in Laguiole, then Bernard Andrieux in Auvergne, and then Antonin Bonnet in London. He moved to Singapore in 2008, first working at The St. Regis Singapore and then at the award-winning restaurant Jaan at the Swissôtel The Stamford. After meeting now-business partner Wee Teng Wen, he struck out on his own in 2015, and named his first restaurant after his grandmother, Odette.
“I always loved food, I started cooking with my family when I was maybe six or seven years old; I didn’t know at that time that I would do this as a job, I was just having fun with my grandma and my mom, cooking with them,” he says. “I really like the fact that you can give so much pleasure and emotion to food and cuisine. This is something I discovered when I watched my grandmother, watched my mother cooking for us. I think around the table is where you spend some of the best moments of your life.”
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