The Life Interview with Bjorn Shen

Recipe for success

Chef-owner Bjorn Shen's route to success was circuitous, with a stint at culinary school and dabbling in academia

Walk into chef-owner Bjorn Shen's newest venture, Bird Bird in the fancy Ann Siang enclave, and you immediately realise you are dealing with a man obsessed with details.

With its red lights, melamine plates, tacky lanterns, lurid pink walls and permanent markers provided for vandalism in the toilets, the month-old 40-seater space is a carefully curated recreation of the retro charm found in old-school Thai eateries, complete with giggle- inducing errors deliberately added to the signs.

"I didn't grow up eating at fancy eateries, so I like my restaurants to feel like a piece of me," says the bespectacled 33-year-old, sounding humble and imperious in the same breath. "Everything I've created today needs to feel authentic. My biggest motivation has always been comfort food in comforting spaces."

It appears that Bird Bird has stuck to the honest mantra of all his previous ventures - including Middle Eastern restaurant Artichoke in Middle Road and frozen confectionery line, Neh Neh Pop - dishing out unpretentious but refined "dude food". Its 15-item menu offers classic Thai flavours with a creative twist, such as fried chicken-skin sundaes, crunchy instant noodle coleslaw and Thai milk tea slushies.

You need to be an athlete to run a restaurant. It's a mix of fighting both micro and macro fires - something that requires you to be a strategist and technician at the same time. But even though it's back- breaking work, there is nothing quite like the adrenaline you get in a kitchen on a busy night. It's that excitement that makes me want to constantly think up new recipes and ideas. It's what pushes me to my limit.

BJORN SHEN, on what inspires the ideas for his new ventures

But his is not a story of a young foodie-turned-entrepreneur made good. Instead, this chef's journey to success has been long and colourful - thanks to his obsessive nature towards things that catch his fancy.

This desire to be a jack of all trades has resulted in a stint at culinary school, a dabble in professional restaurants and a sabbatical from the kitchens to try his hand at academia - before he decided in 2010 to start Artichoke and focus on his "one true love": cooking in the kitchen.

Despite the many detours he took to get to where he is today, Shen's ability to stand out in Singapore's saturated food scene is even more impressive given that he grew up with "no culinary heritage to speak of".

Growing up an only child, Shen was surrounded by adults, more so after his parents separated when he was eight. His mother works in the education sector and his father retired recently.

As a child, he lived with his paternal grandparents. "Back then, I was always given menial tasks such as washing vegetables or picking weevils out of rice so my mother could get rid of my excess energy," he recalls of his early adventures in the kitchen. "But even though she did it just to keep me busy, I became attracted to the tactile nature of cooking."

For the love of food

Up to then, his was a self-taught journey, one that was largely motivated by the love of food and, later, a teenage desire to impress girls.

"I spent many a childhood dinner in front of the television with takeaway food or on occasion, had Kentucky Fried Chicken or pizza for Chinese New Year," he says, recalling his primary school days in the Trim And Fit Club for overweight pupils. "My interest in good food was one that was very much self-inculcated - mostly when I realised as a teenager that food was a great way to get to know girls."

It was only when the Anglo- Chinese School and Anglo-Chinese Junior College alumnus was in secondary school that he bought his first oven and began experimenting with recipes from cookbooks. Referring to British chef Jamie Oliver as his "hero" at the time, he would often host friends for meals where he would make rosemary lamb chops, roast beef and chocolate fondue.

But even though his love of cooking grew well into his time in the army, he never considered going to culinary school until his army buddy, David Heng, planted the seed in his mind. Heng, now executive chef at Food For Thought, recalls how the two of them would eat at coffee shops while dreaming of going to culinary school one day.

"Even though we bonded over grubby street food, we had big dreams of being Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential. He was quirky and a little crazy even then and we spurred each other on to pursue our passion for cooking."

But Shen's traditional parents were aghast at his request to skip university to attend the Sydney, Australia, branch of Le Cordon Bleu, the renowned French culinary institute. "They were adamant that I should instead study tourism or hospitality, courses they felt were much more stable," he says.

Undeterred and to prove that he was ready to do what it took to succeed in the culinary world, Shen took a job at a cafe in Tanglin Mall after national service, making $4 an hour washing dishes.

Two months later, the head chef left and he got a promotion to cut onions, chilli and garlic, subsequently also getting a chance to help cook dishes such as pasta.

"For four months, I worked 16-hour days from 8am to midnight. My parents saw my sincerity, which was when they caved in and let me attend culinary school."

Yet despite the hard work it took him to get to Sydney, Shen decided to leave his nine-month Le Cordon Bleu course after three months.

"At the time, I was apprenticing for free at top celebrity chef restaurants in Sydney on the side and became too big for my boots," he admits. "I thought - literally but quite mistakenly - that I was too cool for school."

Deciding at that point to take the conventional route, he signed up at the University of Queensland to study hospitality and tourism. Much to the relief of his parents, he did well at school despite cooking at cafes and independent restaurants in his spare time to stay self-sufficient. He graduated on the Dean's List in 2005.

Spurred by his newfound success in academia, he enrolled to study part-time for a master's in marketing, branding and consumer behaviour at the same university, again graduating on the Dean's List in 2008.

"I was teaching up to four subjects on top of my coursework and helping my professors plan curriculum and work on consultancy projects. It was exciting despite how intensive my schedule was at the time," he recalls.

Then came another change, one year after graduating from his master's programme. Despite his stellar rise in the academic world, he felt like an imposter, mainly because at just 27, he found himself working with university teams that were advising veterans in the industry.

"I caught myself time and again feeling like a phoney because I hardly had any real experience to back myself up. I started to feel out of place even though I was doing well at my work," he says.

Eventually, one of his professors, former chef-turned-academic Richard Robinson, ended up advising Shen to go back to his one true love - cooking in the kitchen.

Deciding to set up a casual cafe in Singapore like the many that had taken off in Australia at the time, Shen headed home. However, there was one catch: His parents, who were upset about his inability to stick to one course of action, refused to give him a loan for the restaurant he was planning to set up.

Not one to take no for an answer, Shen carried on with his plans - adding a loan from his grandfather to his savings and sinking $120,000 to set up Artichoke in Middle Road in 2010.

"It was such a small budget that I had to furnish the place with chairs from the Salvation Army and borrow old bowls and crockery from family members," he recalls. "I like to think it added to the eclectic vibe of the space, though."

Knowing the high failure rate of restaurants in Singapore, he opted to go the unconventional route with Middle Eastern cuisine - something that had yet to take off here at the time.

Relying on inspiration from authentic recipes of dishes he had seen made by the mothers of his Persian housemate and Canadian-Arab best friend in Brisbane, Shen crafted a Middle Eastern menu with a Western twist and, on Aug 6, 2010, opened the doors to Artichoke for the first time.

Unfortunately, it bled money for months.

"Having come back to Singapore after seven years, I was pretty much a stranger to my own city. I didn't have much in way of resources for marketing and didn't have contacts in the media," he says. "We really had to hustle - to the point that we were out on the street telling people about the restaurant."

In the end, a 31/2-star review by The Straits Times resident food critic Wong Ah Yoke saved the restaurant. Calling Artichoke a unique restaurant with its "heart in the right place", the review lifted the joint - bringing in crowds every weekend.

For 21/2 years, Shen and his six-person team kept at it before he invested his earnings which was "similar to the intial amount sunk in Artichoke" into starting his second venture, bakery Overdoughs, just around the corner from Artichoke.

But again, things did not take off as he had expected.

"We didn't do our research properly and, soon after leasing the space, construction began at an HDB site 2m away," he recalls with a sigh. "Not only did it chase away the customers, we also had to break the lease and ended up losing our investment. It was a painful lesson."

But it is during moments like this that Shen's obsessiveness to succeed comes through.

He decided to rebrand Overdoughs to Neh Neh Pop - skipping the cakes and tarts for a line of frozen confectionery instead.

"I kept relooking at what went wrong with Overdoughs and realised that it wasn't the venture into desserts that was flawed but the type of dessert. Not only was ice cream easier to sell out of a makeshift kiosk, it also appealed to people who were often waiting outdoors in line for brunch at Artichoke," he says.

He released a "deviant range" of Instagram-worthy popsicle-style ice creams in unique flavours such as Mango Sticky Rice and Strawberry Pocky to rave reviews earlier this year. They are sold at Artichoke as well as Bird Bird.

It seems that this obsessiveness to analyse every aspect of his business still continues to be a big part of Shen's life. One needs only to ask him about his future menus ("I have millions on my computer - I get fixated on creating new recipes") or his favourite restaurants ("I keep a long list on my phone. My faves are Odette, Maca, Burnt Ends and Bacchanalia") to realise that he is not joking when he says his preoccupations are intense - sometimes to the point that he sleeps only two to three hours a night.

Just the night before his interview with Life, he stayed up at Bird Bird so late that he ended up sleeping on a table there.

He is determined to change his lifestyle though. The turning point in his crazy working hours came with his marriage last November to Ms Roxanne Toh, whom he dated for four years. The couple live in an HUDC apartment in Braddell.

"I needed to delegate and take a back seat for the sake of my health and my relationship," he says, admitting that his long hours, lack of sleep and poor diet had led to health problems, including a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis, last year.

"The day I got married, I went from head chef to executive chef at Artichoke and everyone in the team moved up one rank."

His lifestyle changes over the past year have also helped him lose more than 10kg to now weigh 82kg and kick the diabetes diagnosis.

And even though he is helming the kitchen and pulling long hours to get Bird Bird off the ground now, Shen hopes to pass the reins on to head chef Ron Kan, 29, "as soon as possible".

"If I'm constantly working in my business, then I can't work on it. It's this macro perspective that has helped me from spreading myself too thin time and again," he says.

That is something his wife, who handles administration and human resources for his brands, is proud of.

"At first, it was always a struggle for us - I used to wake up just as he was going to sleep and we would communicate by leaving food for each other," Ms Toh says. "But since I've come onboard at Artichoke, I've realised how much Bjorn has busted his back to get the businesses off the ground. Whatever he puts his mind to, he does it well and I couldn't have more respect for everything he's achieved."

And she is right. With three successful brands started in a span of just five years, it seems that this culinary school dropout, one-time academic, chef extraordinaire and successful restaurateur has what it takes to achieve whatever he puts his mind to.

A jack of all trades of sorts. One who is well on his way to mastering the industry.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2015, with the headline 'Recipe for success'. Print Edition | Subscribe