Barely a year into its opening, Nordic fine dining restaurant Zén made it into the Michelin Guide Singapore 2019 star selection with not one, but two stars. And this September, it did the impossible and clinched the coveted third Michelin star — a feat few restaurants in the world have been able to achieve.

It has been a pretty exceptional year for the fine dining industry in Singapore with close to 50 Michelin-starred restaurants awarded. This comes after a quiet 2020, where Michelin activities were put on pause due to pandemic-related travel restrictions. Part of the decision to revive the Michelin Guides this year is to encourage, motivate and ignite a push towards a positive dynamic, to support chefs and their teams and encourage people to return to restaurants, says international director Gwendal Poullennec.

As the newest entrant into the three-stars club — joining the likes of Les Amis and Odette, both of whom retained their three-star rankings — the team at Zén have plenty to be chuffed about. But none more so than its executive chef Tristin Farmer, who was teary-eyed during his acceptance speech, which was live streamed on YouTube and Facebook on Sept 1.

“When they announce the winners, it goes in alphabetical order, so by the time they reached Z and we weren’t called out, it was one of two things: Either we had three stars or we had none. I was crying so much because I was overcome with so much emotion and anxiety. I didn’t sleep for days. And when they announced our three stars on Zoom, I was be- side myself. Luckily, there was a slight lag of about 15 seconds on Facebook and YouTube, so I had enough time to calm down slightly,” laughs 37-year-old Farmer, who is from Scotland.

Zén’s surprise promotion came at a time when intermittent restaurant closures and dine-in restrictions could have potentially postponed another year of Michelin awards. But since business travel was still made possible, restaurant inspectors were able to fly in regularly to conduct tastings in secret.

mute
The exact scoring systems used by Michelin to award these coveted stars remains a very closely guarded secret. Inspectors typically visit the restaurant around once every 18 months, unless it is being considered for gaining or losing a Michelin star.

In these instances, a Michelin one star restaurant will receive four visits before it can gain its second star. A two-star location must be inspected on ten occasions — not always by the same reviewer — before it can claim the ultimate honour of three stars.

“The stars are not what drives us to work hard but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want it. I mean we’re a very ambitious team, and of course, we are a sister restaurant to Fran- ztén which is three stars. We definitely have aspirations, but never in a million years did we think we could be three stars in two years. I believed it was possible, but maybe in either four to six years,” admits Farmer.

The house of Zén

A Singapore offshoot and only sister property of three-Michelin starred Frantzén in Stock- holm, headed by former foot- baller and culinary savant Björn Frantzén, Zén maintains the same philosophies and DNA as its flagship, which marries a world-class Nordic-Japanese menu of the seasons with superb “not-too-stuffy” service.

There is a lot of collaboration and cross-exchanging when it comes to recipe planning for both restaurants, where the stocks and infusions are the same, but the produce and protein vary according to locality and seasonality. “The philosophy and vibe is the same while the food might slightly differ but you know it’s from the same family,” says Farmer.

“The concept for both Frantzén and Zén is simple, and that is to give the guest an amazing experience through good food and great service. It’s almost akin to dining at a friend’s place where you sit and enjoy snacks around the kitchen, adjourn to the dining table for a great meal, then head over to the living room for dessert and wine. That’s Björn’s DNA,” he explains.

Zén — located at a three-storey restored shophouse on Bukit Pasoh — is unlike anything we have experienced, with a hefty price tag to match at $480++ per head (without alcohol). As Farmer puts it: “If it was about making money, we wouldn’t rent a shophouse with three floors, because that’s an extremely expensive operation!”

“We take a lot of pride in what we do and use the best possible ingredients flown daily from Japan. We have 31 employees and we cook for 24 guests per service which means we have more staff than diners. The cost involved to run a restaurant at this level is very expensive but we give it all back to the customer when they dine with us. Just like shopping, if the product is good and you feel it justifies the cost, then your investment is worth every penny,” he adds.

Broccoli

Chawanmushi

Guinea Fowl

A visit to the restaurant takes you on a literal journey across all three floors, to give you an upscale at-home dining experience that is both personal and genuine. On the ground floor, littered with comfy settees and armchairs, diners will enjoy canapés while they get to discover what is on the menu in the open kitchen as introduced by Farmer and his chefs.

After that, you will head upstairs into the main dining room on the second floor to tuck into an eight-course meal each beautifully plated and presented table-side. Three or four hours later, you will adjourn to the “living room” on the third floor to relax on plush couches and enjoy dessert and Petit Fours.

Part of Zén’s cult appeal, aside from the stellar food, are the personalities within the restaurant that give the place character, from the service crew to the sommeliers and front of house staff. “We’re very social and informal with our guests, but we also know when to take a step back and be more serious,” says Farmer.

He adds: “To ensure the guest comes away with an amazing experience, we have to look at every aspect from the food and beverage right down to the table linen and furniture. If the diner is left-handed, if a couple wants more privacy, or if a person has not much interest in our explanation of dishes and wines, we adapt. I always say to the guys, anything you do, what would you score it out of 10? If you’re not giving it over nine, you need to do it again, you need to question it.”

Gordon Ramsay protégé

Born in Kirkcaldy on the east coast of Scotland, Tristin attended Glenrothes College whilst working at the historic Peat Inn — the restaurant that won Scotland’s first ever Michelin star back in the 1980s — as an apprentice. After finishing school and working at the Peat Inn for four years, Farmer had the opportunity to work for Scottish chef Andrew Fairlie at the two Michelin star restaurant in Gleneagles Hotel.

In 2007, his passion for fine food took him to London where he worked for Gordon Ramsay at Claridges, starting as chef de partie and rising through the ranks over eight years at other Ramsay-establishments like Petrus, Maze and three-Michelin-starred Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London.

In 2014, he joined Jason Atherton’s The Social Company, working at Pollen Street Social and City Social in London before making his first foray overseas with the pre-opening of Aberdeen Street Social in Hong Kong and Marina Social in Dubai. It was at the latter where he first crossed paths with Swedish chef Björn Frantzén.

The pair kept in touch over Instagram, and when it was time for Farmer to leave Dubai after three years, Frantzén was quick to snap him up. “Dubai was a big operation. It was a 200-seater restaurant open seven days a week, and I wanted to do something more intimate and refined. After 12 years with Gordon and Jason, I felt my cooking and management style was a little bit one dimensional. I knew I had so much more to learn about managing people in restaurants,” he says.

In late 2018, Farmer arrived in Singapore to helm Zén, a partnership between Frantzén and homegrown hospitality group Unlisted Collection.

To nurture is to lead

Unlike his infamously gruff mentor Ramsay, Farmer has a different management style — disciplined and regimented yet calculated and calm. You will probably never hear anyone shout here, something Farmer was very accustomed to during his days in the UK.

Speaking of his former boss, Farmer says: “There were two sides to Gordon — he was stern but he was also very personal and inspiring. He was extremely passionate about promoting from within. If he values you and sees your hard work, he will give you opportunities no matter your age or ability. I started as a young cook and with- in a couple of years he moved me up to sous chef, and at 26 I became head chef. After eight years with him, I learned how to nurture the people I work with.”

He continues: “The way the Swedes work is night and day compared to the Brits, but that’s not to say one’s better than the other. Björn is a very calm, passionate and knowledgeable person. One of the first things he asked me is: Why do you need to shout at someone in a kitchen? Either you’ve not trained them enough and they don’t understand what to do, or you’ve employed the wrong person.”

Farmer is proud to say that Zén is one of the few places that has retained more than 50% of its original team since the start due in part to the shorter working hours — they work only four days a week — along with the opportunity for promotions and courses. Farmer himself has undergone a WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) course to learn more about wines.

Another incentive for long-serving employees is the chance to travel to Stockholm for a six-month exchange programme at Frantzén. “We can use our visa allocation to turn this into a trading visa, where we can get someone in from Frantzén. The experience you get from this will improve your chances for promotion when you get back home,” he adds.

“Björn’s philosophy is that we must inspire our people and give them opportunities to grow. Here, the chefs can make the beverages, the sommeliers know how to plate food, and even the service captains can do wine pairings. When you have every member of staff trained on how to do everything with the same level of perfection, it doesn’t matter who serves you because it will be great, every time.”

This succession plan of his will also give Farmer more time to enjoy some personal days off so that he can travel to see his loved ones. “I’ve been in Singapore for three years, two of which have been in a pandemic, so I haven’t been able to travel or see Asia at all. I’ve just been throwing myself into work, which is a blessing because let’s be real, I’m addicted to my job. The whole working work life balance and looking after our team, I apply to everyone except myself,” he laughs.

Staying fine in a pandemic

The fine dining scene might have been the worst hit in the F&B industry during Covid-19, mostly due to the fact that customers will not pay exorbitant prices for takeaway meals. So, Farmer and his team had to quickly pivot and think of other ways to earn their wages. This ranged from hosting live cook-along sessions to virtual dinners on Zoom and selling their ever-popular waffles for takeaway.

He says: “A big learning experience for us as a restaurant was how we needed to adapt and continue to be open to look after our team financially. Even takeaway for us was a big innovation. Our philosophy is to cook as fresh as possible. We cook everything a là minute after the guests enter the restaurant, so they get all their food fresh. It was definitely a challenging time for us.”

Now that dining restrictions have loosened and things are starting to resume some form of normalcy, the team at Zén will be adding more lunch services, now only available on Fridays and Saturdays.

Farmer will also be spending more time grooming his kitchen team to assume more positions in management “so we can be more sustainable and I don’t have to work six days a week.”

He adds: “Three Michelin stars or none at all, we should always innovate and strive to improve every day. We’re a very young restaurant with a very young team; there’s so much possibilities for us to get better. Rather than just trying to maintain our three stars, we are going to try and win a fourth!”


Zén

41 Bukit Pasoh Rd, Singapore 089855
Tel: +65 6534 8880

PHOTOS: Albert Chua/The Edge Singapore; Zén