The Life Interview With Daphane Loke

Saybons founder Daphane Loke on her affair with food

Saybons' founder and executive chef Daphane Loke fell in love with the food and beverage business after working as a waitress

Ms Daphane Loke, the founder and executive chef of Saybons, a French-inspired food brand, did not like food as a child.

The 38-year-old would sometimes beg her older sister to finish her lunch for her.

Their grandmother, a former samsui woman, was the main caregiver and had frugal tastes. She fed Ms Loke bland fare such as taukwa (firm beancurd) and sweet potato porridge.

Their kitchen was off-limits and deemed "dangerous" for children, recalls Ms Loke, the second of three daughters. In secondary school, she disliked her home economics lessons, where she initially had problems lighting the stove with matches.

From these unlikely beginnings, she has built a successful food business with Saybons eateries in shopping centres and kiosks in places such as hospitals, as well as a catering arm.

It all began when she became interested in the food and beverage industry after working as a part-time waitress in her late teens.

She was drawn to the service aspect of the sector and wanted to set up a food business of her own.

However, she kept this dream a secret from her parents until she was in her late 20s. They were entrepreneurs and had expected her to take over their power-generation business.

After she graduated with a bachelor's degree in business from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), she took a business fellowship overseas and later worked at a government agency before telling her parents her F&B plans.

With her savings and investment from some partners, she started Saybons in 2007 as a kiosk in the basement of Plaza Singapura selling soup and crepes. Three years later, she more than doubled its original 200-sq-ft size and it is now a 30-seat eatery.

The name sounds like "c'est si bon" ("it's so good" in French), but is spelt Saybons to make it easier for non-French speakers to pronounce.

Saybons marks its 10th anniversary this year. It has three eateries at Plaza Singapura, Junction 8 and OUE Downtown, the last of which opened earlier this year. There are also three kiosks selling food to go, as well as a retail wing. Its French-influenced casual food will be available in 11 vending machines at various locations early next year. There are plans to expand overseas.

When she worked as a waitress at the now-defunct Olio Dome eatery at Wheelock Place after her A levels, she liked it so much that she gave up another part-time job giving tuition, sacrificing $25-an-hour earnings for a $5 hourly rate as wait staff, she recalls.

While she was studying at NTU, she continued waitressing part-time, including at a grill house and a cafe specialising in tea. She wanted to learn about different F&B business models before setting up on her own.

She enjoyed interacting with customers: "I liked the service line and the atmosphere, where conversations can be very relaxed. Food is a happy industry."

Her stint at Olio Dome also kickstarted her career in another way. Flipping through the food magazines during her breaks, she came across an advertisement in Gourmet for a professional cooking course at Le Cordon Bleu.

After her last examination paper at NTU, she flew to London for a three-month course at the renowned culinary institution, where she learnt the principles and techniques of French cooking, such as the desired colour for a classic roux (pale yellow).

But it was the wrong time to graduate in 2001 with a degree that focused on hospitality and tourism. The Sept 11 terrorist attacks in the United States made it difficult to find work in these fields.

She also wanted to "defer" her parents' expectations that she would take over the family business. So she accepted a two-year work attachment to Shanghai under a Ministry of Trade and Industry fellowship programme.

That was where she met her husband, Mr Ian Choo, 39, who was a fellow participant. She later worked for two years at International Enterprise (IE) Singapore.

She sees this part of her curriculum vitae as a way of developing "domain knowledge", such as when she worked with go-getting business-owners whose passion she admired.

In 2006, her grandmother who had raised her died at the age of 102. That gave Ms Loke the impetus to chase her dream.

"When you lose a family member, you realise you should make the most of life," she says.

But first, she had to break the news to her parents.

Her father, Mr Cliff Loke, 67, says he was shocked.

He had regarded her as his successor as she is "the most energetic" of his daughters. Ms Loke's sisters are not in the family business.

She also "has a sense of trying to make money", he says, adding that he was surprised when she took up waitressing as she did not need the money.

His wife, Mrs Corinne Loke, 64, says their middle daughter had an early entrepreneurial streak. She sold stamps to their neighbours when she was about eight.

"She didn't tell us in advance. She's quiet and reserved, and very obedient and independent," Mrs Loke says.

For 30 years, Mr Loke and his wife ran a business that provides power generators. Mech-Power Generator (MPG) was sold in 2013 for $17.4 million and Mr Loke is now its managing director. Mrs Loke has since retired. Mr Loke says their daughter's business did not factor in the decision to sell their company.

Ms Loke, who did not want to accept financial support for Saybons from her parents, told them to give her a year to prove her business idea would work. This bargain later stretched to three years.

She and Mr Choo invested with a few friends in Saybons' first takeaway kiosk in 2007 with a capital sum of more than $100,000.

She says she initially considered options such as selling Chinese handmade noodles. But she preferred non-spicy Western food and felt that casual French fare, such as savoury crepes, was not well known in Singapore then.

She also had a Proustian food memory from her childhood. Like famed French author Marcel Proust's evocative recall of a madeleine cake, she remembers the humble yet delicious potato wedges she bought at her school canteen in Primary 1.

After working at Olio Dome for two years, she had asked to work in the kitchen because she liked watching the chefs cook and plate food. But she had no training and the management turned her down, citing a lack of manpower in other areas.

Mr Robin Chee, 49, who was a manager at the Olio Dome outlet when Ms Loke was working there, says: "The kitchen was a bit rough with its non-stop work. She was an 18-year-old girl at the time and so small-sized. We let her try other duties such as coffee-making. We needed staff in the dining section and usually kitchen staff matters were handled by the chef."

He now works for Ms Loke. They had lost touch over the years but, one day, he saw that she was looking for a manager and sent her his resume as a joke. He has been Saybons' operation manager for about three years.

About 80 per cent of the staff are women, but Ms Loke says this was not deliberate. However, she intentionally hires seniors aged 55 and older. She calls the "aunties" reliable and motivated workers who are "pillars of stability" in her company.

Her husband joined the management about six years ago when Saybons opened its second eatery in Junction 8.

The couple have two children - Lorraine, four, and Logan, three.

Ms Loke says she had another reason to learn to cook.

"I knew that if I were to run my own business in the future, I would have to own the IP (intellectual property). I always felt there was a disjoint between the kitchen and the front-of-house," she says.

She resolved not to be "at the mercy" of cooks who may leave at a moment's notice and devises the recipes at Saybons herself.

Mr Choo, who was running his own trading business before becoming Saybons' director for finance and business development, describes his wife as a "people person". The couple say there is a good balance and division of labour. She deals with operations and human resources, while he works with figures and on new partnerships.

Ms Loke retains her dedication to her work, 10 years on.

She developed 10 versions of French onion soup before introducing it to Saybons' menu this year.

"Every single product that goes out has to be perfect," she says. "For me, the standard is: 'Would you serve your mother this?' "

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 25, 2017, with the headline Saybons founder Daphane Loke on her affair with food. Subscribe