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Duo realise dream of serving French food to the masses

Chefs Joshua Khoo (left) and Dylan Ong, who trained at Shatec, opened Saveur four years ago with the aim of keeping prices low.
Chefs Joshua Khoo (left) and Dylan Ong, who trained at Shatec, opened Saveur four years ago with the aim of keeping prices low.ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN

Mr Dylan Ong has a tattoo of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper on his right forearm. "It's related to my passion for food. And it reminds me that I must always serve others," he says.

Mr Ong, 28, and business partner Joshua Khoo, 31, do that - on more than one level. The duo opened French restaurant Saveur four years ago to serve haute cuisine, but at prices that would be easy on the average Singaporean's wallet.

"Our dream was to bring French food to the masses," said Mr Khoo.

At Saveur, a foie gras starter will set you back $7.90, while a main dish of duck confit costs $13.90.

Mr Ong is the son of hawkers; Mr Khoo's mother was a hairdresser and his father ferried construction workers between sites. They did not grow up eating fancy French food as they could not afford it.

In fact, they got their first taste of it only while training to be chefs. Mr Khoo still remembers his first taste of foie gras terrine while he was working at Raffles Hotel.

"I was like, what is this? It's like butter!" he recalled. "And then I couldn't stop eating it."

The duo both left school - ITE College Central in Mr Ong's case and Nanyang Polytechnic in Mr Khoo's case - to pursue their cooking dreams. They became best friends while training at hospitality school Shatec, and decided they wanted to take that experience of French food to others.

To that end, they started Saveur in 2011 as a hawker stall in a Joo Chiat coffee shop, with the help of business partner Eric Chiam, a medical doctor.

It was a gruelling start. "It was hot, sweaty and the space was very tight," recalled Mr Ong. "If one of us was on medical leave, the stall could not open."

What kept them going was seeing the delight their diners took in their food. Said Mr Ong: "We would see young kids in their primary school uniforms sitting at the coffee shop tables eating foie gras and beef tenderloin. That was something that brought us a lot of joy."

They also recalled a customer who came all the way from Clementi late at night to try their food, just as they were closing shop.

"The look on his face was so sad," said Mr Khoo. "We felt sad too, that he had come from west to east just to try our cooking; so we opened the stall just for him and cooked him the duck confit he wanted."

Soon, people were queueing for two hours or more to eat at Saveur. The pair moved to restaurant premises in Purvis Street in 2012.

Another outlet at Far East Plaza and an Italian spin-off, Concetto, at the Cathay followed. They also ventured into high-end dining, opening the more upmarket Saveur Art at Ion Orchard last year.

To reach even more people, they are now experimenting with islandwide takeaway delivery and planning a buffet brunch menu which they refer to as "French dim sum".

Keeping prices low sustainably is a constant juggling act, for which they rely on the support of their suppliers. They maximise the use they get out of quality ingredients and minimise waste.

"For example, we don't go for top-grade truffles but the grade used by the masses," said Mr Ong.

Mr Khoo added: "We make our gnocchi in-house. That cuts down costs by about 20 to 30 per cent, compared to if we brought it in frozen from suppliers."

This effort to keep prices low has cost them - their first stall suffered losses for half a year and they have yet to break even for the Ion outlet.

"But what we want is for Saveur to be a blessing to people," said Mr Ong. "And if prices go up, then we are really not being a blessing.

"We wanted it to be like going to McDonald's. Today you can eat, tomorrow you can eat, every day you can eat."

Olivia Ho

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2015, with the headline 'Duo realise dream of serving French food to the masses'. Print Edition | Subscribe