Two's Company with chef-owners of Garcons

French eatery Garcons' chefs Enoch Teo and Immanuel Tee: From rivals to partners

The friends' shared vision of offering economical French fare has seen their joint venture grow to four outlets in less than a year

Singaporean chefs Enoch Teo, 26, and Immanuel Tee, 29, are an unlikely restaurateur couple.

One is a chatty delinquent made good, another is soft-spoken with an otherwise fiery temper. And both were, at one point of time, the bosses of competing food stalls on the same stretch of road in Katong.

Yet, their shared vision of offering French cuisine at wallet-friendly prices has brought them together and seen their collaboration - casual eatery Garcons - grow to four outlets in less than a year.

The fourth and latest outlet opened last Thursday in Upper Thomson Road, sharing the same space as the cafe, One Man Coffee.

This comes just two months after the third outlet began operations at hip hawker centre Timbre+ in one-north.

The other two outlets are at the food court Essen @The Pinnacle in Tanjong Pagar and the coffee shop Alibabar in Katong.

I had to deal with my ego. People would ask me why I was downgrading to a hawker stall, like from a condominium to an HDB flat.

MR ENOCH TEO on closing Enoch's European restaurant last year

Bestsellers at Garcons - which means "boys" in French - include its signature duck confit ($16.90) and 12-hour stewed crispy pork belly ($16.90).

Its standalone outlet in Upper Thomson has the largest menu among the branches, with 15 per cent more dishes, including new items such as braised kakuni knuckle ($17.80) and truffle carbonara ($15.90).

The food may also be paired with wines at this outlet.

The decision to form Garcons came last August, after they were business competitors for five months.

Mr Tee was running a Western grill joint at Alibabar in Katong, while Mr Teo owned a restaurant a few doors away selling European fare.

Mr Teo, who came up with the idea of joining forces, says: "Instead of being each other's competition, I thought that we could start a brand together. I feel that local chefs are not united enough as everyone's looking out for his own interests."

It did not take much to persuade Mr Tee to give the collaboration a go. After all, their friendship goes back to 2011 when they were cooks at the fine-dining Restaurant Andre in Bukit Pasoh.

 

Although their career paths diverged after that and they lost contact with each other, they reconnected in 2014 at a culinary trade show.

The successful expansion of Garcons has proven that two cooks are better than one, as they have built a strong dining brand that occupies a niche in the crowded, mid-mass-market Western dining scene, which includes established players such as Astons and Eighteen Chefs.

Mr Teo says: "We can't go into hawker centres because our food is priced higher than hawker food. But we can't be in atas places either. If we increase our prices, we won't be Garcons anymore. " Atas is Malay for high-class.

They admit that they once toyed with the idea of opening an upmarket offshoot of Garcons, but quickly gave it up.

Mr Teo, the chattier of the two, says: "We decided to stay grounded. The increase in prices would be hard for people to swallow."

Still, they see potential for Garcons to grow, perhaps one day expanding into shopping malls as a casual French restaurant chain.

They may be young chefs, but they speak as savvy businessmen who have earned their culinary chops quickly through sheer hard work.

Their culinary journeys began under different circumstances, though.

Mr Teo, who was rebellious as a teenager, dropped out of secondary school at the age of 14 and became a zichar cook to earn pocket money.

When he was 16, he was arrested for breaking into a car and tested positive for drugs. He was placed in a drug rehabilitation programme and later, sent to a halfway house.

During national service, he decided to make good of the skills he had and found a part-time job at French restaurant Absinthe, which was then in Bukit Pasoh. It is now in Boat Quay.

Chef Francois Mermilliod, 41, who hired Mr Teo at Absinthe, says: "When I met Enoch for the job interview, I saw in him a man who wanted to redeem himself.

"He was done with his past and ready for a new chapter in life, in a professional kitchen. He was eager to learn and I saw he had a strong desire to pursue a culinary path."

Through chef Mermilliod's recommendation, Mr Teo got a place at culinary school At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy.

From rivals to partners

Mr Tee, on the other hand, found his way into the kitchen after being posted as a cook during national service.

The experience gave him a sense of fulfilment - "I remember the satisfaction of the soldiers and staff members who ate our food," he says - and spurred him to enrol in At-Sunrice thereafter.

After graduating, he worked at Swissotel The Stamford's restaurants, before moving to Restaurant Andre in Bukit Pasoh, which is opened by chef Andre Chiang.

It was there that the two met.

Mr Tee, then a commis cook, recalls the experience as "commando- training for chefs" and he bonded with Mr Teo, an apprentice doing his internship who worked at the same station.

Mr Teo says: "We clicked better with each other as we were among the few local boys in the kitchen."

Chef Chiang, 40, remembers them as being "energetic and curious" in the kitchen.

They lost touch, however, after Mr Teo completed his six-month internship at the restaurant and it was not until 2014 that they met by chance at a food trade show here.

By then, Mr Teo had been running his first food stall, Le Petit Paradis, at Alibabar in Katong for 11/2 years. He had started the business with $10,000 from the compensation he received for a motorcycle accident in 2009.

Mr Tee, on the other hand, was a demonstration chef for a supplier at the event and in the midst of setting up his eatery, Immanuel French Kitchen, at a Bukit Merah coffee shop.

Mr Tee says: "I would seek advice from him as there were a lot of things I didn't understand, such as the rules and regulations of setting up a business."

In April last year, Mr Tee set up another stall, By The Fire, a Western grill eatery at Alibabar, taking over the space vacated by Le Petit Paradis.

He was a few doors from Mr Teo's Enoch's European restaurant in East Coast Road.

He says: "After the initial success of Immanuel French Kitchen, I felt confident of my business model. Like any young entrepreneur, I wanted to expand.

"But Enoch's European would be a direct competitor if I did French cuisine, so I decided to go with a charcoal grill concept instead."

Four months later, the two went from competitors to partners, forming social enterprise E&I Food Concepts, which hires ex-offenders and youth-at-risk and is the company behind Garcons.

By The Fire at Alibabar was rebranded as the first Garcons and Immanuel French Kitchen was closed as part of the consolidation.

Mr Teo says: "Before that, we were all over the place with our brands. It was hard to manage, especially with marketing. With one brand, we can expand and grow faster."

The growth, however, has not been without sacrifices.

Inconsistent business and high rentals forced Mr Teo to close Enoch's European restaurant last year at a loss of more than $100,000.

He says: "I had to deal with my ego. People would ask me why I was downgrading to a hawker stall, like from a condominium to an HDB flat."

Today, the two run Garcons with a 12-man team, including chef-partner Liew Gao Gi, 31, who has been working with Mr Teo since Le Petit Paradis; and Mr Alexander Chong, 30, who oversees the operations of the outlets and has been working with Mr Tee since Immanuel French Kitchen.

On Mr Teo and Mr Tee's partnership, Mr Chong says: "I strongly believe that with their ability, our food and beverage business will be a success. After all, two heads are better than one.

"We would like to improve our operations and motivate our employees to take our business to the next level."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2016, with the headline 'Two chefs are better than one'. Print Edition | Subscribe