Start@SG

Cooking studio serves fun experiences

Mr D'Erme, co-founder of CulinaryOn, seen here with CulinaryOn Singapore general manager Ms Vdovina, says his chefs and event masters are like actors in a show and are the stars of the event that they are hosting for their clients.
Mr D'Erme, co-founder of CulinaryOn, seen here with CulinaryOn Singapore general manager Ms Vdovina, says his chefs and event masters are like actors in a show and are the stars of the event that they are hosting for their clients.ST PHOTO: NIVASH JOYVIN

At CulinaryOn, customers interact with chefs and become part of the cooking process

"Edutainment", says Italian entrepreneur Giulio D'Erme, and "the experience economy" are where the future is at.

The 44-year-old former general manager of lingerie company Triumph in Russia is a co-founder of CulinaryOn, a cooking studio started in Moscow in 2012, that blends education with entertainment to create fun experiences for visitors.

Last October, CulinaryOn opened its first cooking studio outside Russia in the heart of Singapore's central business district.

Mr D'Erme and Ms Liubov Vdovina, general manager of CulinaryOn Singapore, talk about their Singapore journey.

Q The food start-up scene here is notoriously competitive. How do you stand out?

GD Our format is quite unique. We're really not in the food business. We are in the people business, serving culinary experience. We don't serve food.

The trend, we've noticed, is that people today are looking more and more for immersive experiences.

We don't want to just go to the restaurant and sit down and try the food. We want to know the chef, we want to interact with him. We want personalised attention. We want to be part of the cooking process, not only the eating part.

So we're actually staging in these premises an experience that is much deeper than whatever you would get in a restaurant.

LV: The second main part that differentiates us is scale.

More than half of our business comes from corporate entities and we want to be a one-stop shop for the corporate sector. When a company comes to us, they understand that they can do anything with us, whether it is a team-building event, a client-appreciation event, or a media launch. And the event can be for one person or 200 people.

We give flexibility to our clients and, therefore, it's easier for them to give preference to us because they know we can accommodate any of their needs.

Q How big is the Singapore team?

GD We are about 42 people, including interns and eight chefs.

We are taking people with high levels of skills, not only in terms of cooking, but also communication skills. Chefs who can engage people as much as they can cook.

Our chefs and our event masters who work around the room, we like to call them cast members because we consider them as actors in a show.

Q Is it hard to recruit good cast members here?

GD Actually, even in the top restaurants today, there are chefs who like to be in the front of the house, meeting guests, rather than just being in the kitchen.

And these kinds of personalities find in CulinaryOn a place where they can express their creativity and their personality to the max.

The kitchen is a narrow place, very hot, and with huge time pressure.

At CulinaryOn, you experience something completely different. You are becoming friends with the clients. You are the centre of attention, the star for the night. And it's a completely different work experience that you get.

Q Did it take long for you to turn a profit?

GD Every business has a ramp-up period. You need some time to scale it up. In Singapore, we reached break-even in month 13.

In Moscow, it was much faster. I think we reached it in month eight. (It was) faster because of a higher use of part-timers and lower labour cost.

So one of the biggest challenges in Singapore obviously is labour - the hospitality industry is not very highly regarded as a career.

I think this will change.

Hospitality is a full-fledged career with a lot of pride, and I think the arrival of the Michelin stars in Singapore will help to contribute to a change in perception, creating winning personalities out of successful F&B entrepreneurs.

When you get star chefs and star programmes like MasterChef coming here, it will really help to contribute.

Changes in culture today can be very fast because they are... propelled through media.

So you can just create stars out of industries, and F&B is a very easy industry to create visible stars.

Q Any plans to enter new markets?

GD We are still in the expansion mode and we are looking for partners to expand in the Asian region.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 27, 2016, with the headline 'Cooking studio serves fun experiences'. Print Edition | Subscribe