The Life Interview With Otto Weibel

The Life Interview with Otto Weibel: First restaurant at 70

Otto Weibel almost gave up his dream of being a chef when the going got tough during his apprenticeship in a hotel

When chef Otto Weibel first came to Singapore in 1973, he could find Western dining establishments only in hotels, while standalone outlets were mostly Chinese restaurants.

And with his "humble wage" more than 40 years ago, he would feast on hawker food such as char kway teow and oyster omelette, which cost between 50 cents and $1 then.

The Swiss-born chef says that the food scene has since changed "a thousand times".

"Nearly every famous chef in the world is opening a restaurant here, making Singapore a food hub. There're always new concepts. We may not have the best food, but we have the best variety. There's nothing you cannot find in Singapore," he says.

After working his way through various hotels over the years, Weibel, at the age of 70, has finally opened his own restaurant.

Called Otto's Deli Fresh, the 46-seat bistro opened in Holland Village last month. Menu highlights include beef stroganoff fettuccine ($17); pulled pork burger ($19); Norwegian salmon capellini ($16); and burnt banana waffles with peanut butter gelato ($11.50).

The 1,250 sq ft restaurant is in partnership with seafood processing company Far Ocean, which approached Weibel in April for the collaboration. So besides the hearty comfort food made with Weibel's recipes, expect a deli section with a variety of seafood, meats and other seasonal items such as truffles, mushrooms, artichokes and asparagus.

For produce that is not sold, Weibel's win-win solution is to use it in the restaurant. "If we can't sell, we can cook it," he says.

While he is not running the kitchen - the chef de cuisine is Rick Chow,formerly from European restaurant Portico Prime in Dempsey -he is still very much hands-on.

It is clear that Weibel runs a tight ship. Immediately after the interview with The Straits Times, he turns to check in on the staff, speaking to them sternly.

And while conducting a food tasting with the media, he makes sure he tries the dishes as well, emphasising that he needs to ensure standards are high.

During the photo shoot for this story, when the photographer comments on the dusty floor (the restaurant was not open to the public yet), Weibel automatically grabs a broom and starts sweeping. He says: "Everyone started in the industry sweeping the floor and washing the dishes. I can sweep the floor,noproblem."

Weibel grew up in Zurich, Switzerland, where his parents ran a 300-seat restaurant on a farm and grew their own vegetables. At the age of 10,he started to help out in the kitchen, slicing potatoes to make French fries.

Weibel, the youngest of three siblings, says: "My father would never allow us to go to the supermarket. We would go to small producers for our groceries. They supported us and we supported them.

"Now, everyone talks about going organic and sustainable. But we grew uplike that."

His 74-year-old sister was a teacher and 72-year-old brother an engineer. Both live in Switzerland.

At 13, when he was still in school, Weibel set himself three goals.

He says: "I wanted to be a chef. I wanted to be the chef of the biggest hotel and I wanted to travel the world."

But his dream was very nearly shattered before it even began when he became an apprentice in a hotel.

"I got slapped and kicked in the a** by the chef," he recalls. "I would sit in the room and cry and consider killing myself. I could not go to my father as he would say it's my own fault."

But the tough training made him stronger and more disciplined. He worked his way through hotels in Switzerland and got to travel the world when he joined a cruise ship.

In his late 20s, the chance to come to Singapore came when he met someone from Shangri-La Hotel who offered him a job here.

To satisfy his "itch to travel", he arrived in 1973 as the sous chef in charge of the now-defunct Tiara Supper Club in Shangri-La Hotel.

Cooking up camaraderie

Three years later, he moved to the Westin Philippines Plaza in Manila and then helped to open the Kowloon Shangri-La in Hong Kong in 1980 as its executive chef.

He returned to Singapore in 1985 and joined the then Westin Plaza (now known as Fairmont Singapore) as director of kitchens. He held the position for 26 years until 2011.

Recalling the scene then, he says: "When I came back in 1985, I observed few changes to the food scene.

"The big change was more in the mid-1990s, when Hyatt Regency became Grand Hyatt and opened Mezza9. It was one of the most beautiful restaurants then offering different kinds of cuisine.

"Mezza9 was also an eye-opener to many hotels. It was the start where many other hotels began to create new restaurant concepts. Even today, Mezza9 is still one of the best restaurants."

On working in hotels, he says: "I like hotels. I like to organise things on a big scale and I know the strengths and weaknesses of my chefs."

Even after leaving the hotel industry, he has stayed active in the food and beverage (F&B) scene.

He works on international consultancy projects and is the co-founder of F&B consultancy OttScott, with Australian chef Scott Webster.

Weibel, who is a Singapore permanent resident, calls this country his home. His 56-year-old wife, who runs a real estate company, is Singaporean and his two children were born here. His 37-year-old daughter works in Singapore and his son, 25, is in New York studying design and technology.

Besides providing food consultancy services, Weibel is also respected in the industry as a mentor to young chefs and is actively involved in culinary competitions that Singapore teams participate in.

The president mentor of the Singapore Chefs Association is working with hospitality schools such as Shatec to offer jobs at Otto's Deli Fresh for students on attachment.

His love for competitions started when, as a 16-year-old cook, he took part in an apprentice competition in Zurich and won a bronze medal.

He is now a chief judge for various competitions. He served as the president of Bocuse d'Or Singapore and Asia-Pacific from 2008 to last year, and is now the honorary president of Bocuse d'Or Asia-Pacific. The Bocuse d'Or is a prestigious culinary competition started by acclaimed French chef Paul Bocuse.

He also heads the judging panel for the Otto Weibel & Norwegian Seafood Scholarship, which is established by the Norwegian Seafood Council to promote young Singaporean chefs. Four winners win a trip to Norway for a study and internship programme.

Weibel says: "I think the biggest contribution and greatest satisfaction for me is watching the young chefs I worked with develop and grow - and watching them hold good positions. It gives me a lot more satisfaction than my own awards."

One of the chefs he has mentored from a young age is Douglas Tay, 36, chef de cuisine of the Michelin- starred Osia Steak and Seafood Grill at Resorts World Sentosa.

Chef Tay recalls: "When I joined Westin Plaza in 1996, I was just a 16-year-old trainee. I didn't know anyone and I didn't know who chef Otto was then. But when he walked by me on my first day of work, he still said hello and shook my hand.

"He is stern and doesn't take any bulls***. I enjoy working with him because he helps me improve. I like that he is a supportive boss who doesn't take credit from you if you do well or push the blame to you if something goes wrong."

And it is this sense of camaraderie among chefs that Weibel greatly values. He says: "It is one for all and all for one. There's no profession like being a chef. Especially in the food competition arena, the world is so small for a chef. We take care of one another and it's one of the greatest things."

He proceeds to tell The Straits Times about his "prestigious" club of 12 chefs called Chefs On Tour. It is a mix of chefs from countries such as Germany, Switzerland and Australia and they travel together frequently.

It started 20 years ago when nine of the original Chefs On Tour group bonded on a private plane trip from Germany to Norway for an event.

Besides Weibel, two other chefs from Singapore in the group are Scott Webster and Frank Arne Naesheim of seafood supplier Snorre Food.

"Now, we drink less and go out less often. Last time, we would all get back to the hotel at 4am. Now, we're in bed by 11pm," he adds, laughing.

To unwind, he plays golf at least once a month and goes brisk walking for 10km three times a week at MacRitchie Reservoir and Singapore Botanic Gardens.

To stay in touch with the changing restaurant scene, he dines out frequently.

His favourite restaurants include Dempsey restaurants The Disgruntled Chef, The White Rabbit and Culina, as well as seafood restaurants Red House at Robertson Quay and the Jumbo Seafood chain.

He is also a fan of local food such as chilli crab, rojak and char kway teow.

The straight-talking chef also speaks frankly about the issues of labour and rent and how it could affect a lot of eateries next year. He says: "Next year, a lot of restaurants will close. They won't be able to afford the rent."

He also talks about the struggle to help foreign students stay in the industry after their studies and to ease the restrictions on guest chefs coming here to work - like a "chef exchange".

He hopes that the image of the service industry here will change.

"In Singapore, people still don't see being a service staff as a profession, unlike in New York, where being a waiter is a profession," he says.

So while he may have accomplished the three goals he had set as a 13-year-old and gone beyond them with Otto's Deli Fresh, there is still much more to be done, he says fervently.

"It is every chef's dream to open a restaurant. I spent so many years in the hotel line, I was well paid and had a stable, good job. I felt very comfortable. When I think back, I guess I should have started this 10 years earlier.

"My life is all about food. I will always be involved in the restaurant business and remain passionate about it."

•Follow Eunice Quek on Twitter @STEuniceQ

•Otto's Deli Fresh is at 02-01 Raffles@Holland Village, 118 Holland Avenue, opens: 11am to 10pm daily.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2016, with the headline The Life Interview with Otto Weibel: First restaurant at 70. Subscribe