SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Some people eat to live. Some people think a month-long wait for a table at Odette is unacceptable. This story is not for them.
This is a story about people who live to eat. Over-zealous food-lovers who will spare no expense and all the time it takes to snare a reservation at the hottest or most obscure restaurants, jumping through hoops just for a taste of what the world's best chefs have to offer.
Take restaurateur Michel Lu, who together with his fiancé, make an annual trip to Tokyo every January. "Bookings are done about six months in advance, although some restaurants may take up to a year," he says. "As this is a regular affair, we plan for it during the year, as and when we hear about new places that we would like to experience."
He has waited for months to dine at places like Isegan, a monkfish restaurant that dates back to 1830; Sasanoyuki, a 310-year-old tofu eatery; and Otafuku, a 100-year-old oden stalwart.
Mr Lu's years in the F&B industry has given him a strong network of foodie contacts even in Tokyo. "I have good friends who can get us into some hard-to-book places," he says. "Otherwise, the concierge at the Park Hyatt Tokyo and The Capitol Hotel Tokyu have also been helpful," he says.
In Tokyo, he skips restaurants that are either on the Michelin Guide or the World's 50 Best Restaurants list.
"There are plenty of other amazing restaurants that go unnoticed," he says. He also avoids restaurants that are too popular, especially with fellow Singaporeans. "Somehow a place loses its charm when I hear too many Singaporean voices," he muses.
Instead, he hunts down restaurants that serve food the way he likes it. He has a strong interest in aged fish, which has more pronounced flavours. His go-to place is Sushi Takumi Shingo, an eight-seater joint with a month-long wait for bookings. His favourite is the kawahagi or leather jacket, as it is "very flavourful and has amazing umami."
Mr Lu adds, "The sushi rice here has a higher vinegar content, to balance out the flavours of the aged fish. This is how I like my rice too."
While his friends may pack in up to six meals in a day, Mr Lu is all for quality over quantity. "Two meals a day, and sometimes two dinners, but rarely," he says.
COME RAIN OR SHINE
For Tan Su-Lyn, being heavily pregnant with her first child six years ago didn't stop her from standing in the cold, waiting to get into Sutamina-en, a hole-in-the-wall yakiniku restaurant in Oji, in the northern outskirts of Tokyo. The humble eatery does not accept reservations and boasts a clientele that includes former Japanese prime ministers, as well as local and international celebrities.
"It was winter and there was a snaking line at 4.30pm for the first 5pm seating. This meant that if we didn't get in for the first seating, we would have to stand in the cold until the first group of diners were done with their meal," says the CEO of a communications agency. Fortunately, she and her husband managed to get into that first seating.
Ms Tan says dining at Sutamina-en is much like going to a zichar stall in Singapore: no frills, noisy, and the restaurant rapidly fills up with families and salarymen.
Her favorite dish is yukke (Korean-spiced wagyu tartare), an off-menu item that isn't readily available in Japan due to food poisoning fears. "I love the rich, tender texture of the hand-chopped beef which is marinated in a spicy, sweet and savory sauce before pine nuts are folded into it," she says.
"The trick to ordering this dish is to befriend the owner Mrs Dai. Being able to converse with her in Mandarin is a major bonus."
There was another time when she flew to Spain at short notice. Not just for any restaurant, but for the then-revered elBulli, no less.
"We had two months' notice but that is short for us because of our work. But friends of ours managed to get a table and asked if we wanted to join them. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Ms Tan says excitedly. She had been hoping to dine at the restaurant for nearly a decade, especially after interviewing chef Ferran Adria in 2001.
"The reservation system at elBulli was a mystery - reservations were only accepted on one day and the restaurant was only open part of the year, so the chances of ever getting a reservation on our own were slim," she says. When the opportunity came, Ms Tan and her husband did their sums, threw caution to the wind and said yes.
Eight years on, Ms Tan still vividly recalls her favourite dish: Water Lilies, a 16-component cold, floral jasmine tea and orange blossom infused soup containing begonia blooms, geranium leaves and cashew rocks. "It isn't a universally appealing dish taste-wise, but it reflects the sublime artistry of chef Adria. I adore the fact that the dish looks like a Monet painting," she says.
Ms Tan says that for her, food is a window into a country's way of life. "I go to this trouble because I want to learn. I love tasting a chef's ideas, and I enjoy discovering the flavours of tradition as well as innovation," she says.
IT'S WORTH THE JOURNEY
Iroshini Chua is one who is not deterred by distance when it comes to the pursuit of a good meal, even if it involves crossing continents.
Some years ago, she sampled Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez Veliz's food at a Savour event and loved it so much, she decided she must dine at his Central Restaurante in Lima. "His food was so good, I hunted him down," says Dr Chua, a GP.
That was in 2012, before the restaurant was on The World's 50 Best Restaurant list.
"It wasn't hard getting a reservation then, but it did take a long time to get to Lima," says Dr Chua, whose favourite dish is the grilled octopus with purple corn. Depending on the flight, a trip to Lima can take about two days.
Another time, together with her husband and father, they were in a car going at breakneck speed to Restaurant Schwarzwaldstube, in Black Forest, Germany.
"I remember it was a long and winding drive, and our GPS led us somewhere else, and we were driving really fast to get there on time," says Dr Chua. "My dad commented that it was just a meal, but I told him that I had booked it seven months in advance and we had to get there."
She is known among her friends as the one who plans her holidays around food. The self-professed fussy eater says she doesn't like having a bad meal when she is on holiday, which is why she always plans everything ahead, down to which coffee joint to go to.
"At most restaurants, you can book 28 days ahead, so it makes planning easier," she says. It also helps that she and her husband run their own practice, so getting time away from work is not too difficult.
The only place that took more trouble was Noma, and only because she had a specific date in mind, says Dr Chua, of her experience booking at the Danish restaurant to celebrate her 10th wedding anniversary four years ago.
Reservations only open for one day, and Dr Chua even did a trial run before the actual day. She waited for 90 minutes on the phone before she got connected. "They didn't have tables for two, but suggested that I get a bigger table," she recalls.
Since reservations only open at 10am Danish time, she set her alarm to remind herself of the magic hour. She managed to secure a table for five, never mind that she had no idea then who would take the other three places. In the end, her two children came along, and "I asked another close friend, who immediately said yes to joining us," she recalls.
"I have like-minded friends so no one thinks I'm crazy for going to all this trouble," she says.
PLANNING IS ESSENTIAL
Lawyer Sylvia Taslim says that food has always been an important part of her family, and so planning food trips are the norm for her.
Her tips for snagging hard to get restaurant reservations include planning for trips more than a month in advance, setting reminders to make reservations, being open to counter seats, and making friends with hotel concierges. Her advice when wanting to cram in as many meals in as possible? "Order from the ala carte menu rather than the full degustation menu to save time."
One of her most memorable meals was at the eight-seater é by Jose Andres in Las Vegas in 2015. Ms Taslim was trying her luck when she made her reservation request via email and was expecting to be turned away. "I was so stoked when they confirmed my reservation and they sent over the Golden Tickets, which were required for entry into the restaurant," she says.
She was served over 20 dishes in about two and a half hours. "On top of dishing out creative and imaginative offerings, this was also a theatrical culinary experience," says Ms Taslim. For example, the Empanada dish had a crust made from cotton candy, sprinkled with some corn nut and filled with foie gras.
Ms Taslim scoffs at the suggestion that she is doing this for bragging rights. "No, that's silly because it takes too much effort, such as waking up in the wee hours to make a reservation at French Laundry," she says.
Instead, she enjoys "deconstructing the various elements that go into a dish, and appreciating how the final product is often greater than the sum of its parts. Seeing how the experts do it also gives me ideas for new recipes to try out at home."
Entrepreneur Mak Sin Wee relies on the concierge service provided by his credit card company to get into hard-to-book places. Where possible, he stays at the Mandarin Oriental's hotels, "not only because they are great hotels, but also great help in table bookings."
Unlike Dr Chua, who has had better luck with bigger tables, the opposite is true for Mr Mak. He was surprised to get a table for two at the three-Michelin starred Le Pre Catelan in Paris, two weeks before his trip. "Maybe because it is easier to seat a smaller party," he says.
Mr Mak also makes it a point to be polite with a restaurant's maître d regardless of whether or not he will return. "Always rub shoulders with the maître d as they are known to keep a black book of patrons who can spend," he says.
He recalls how another three Michelin-starred restaurant insisted on his credit card details and a deposit before allowing him to come for lunch. He didn't have the same issue at Le Pre Catelan. "The other restaurant must have contacted the maître d to verify my standing, and in the end, they did not require a deposit, and were welcoming."
If you have no patience for planning, there are travel agencies to do it for you.
Travel company RevePlanner's Gourmet Trail - Holiday for Foodies service has fixed and bespoke itineraries, and can even help clients get bookings at uber popular restaurants such as Noma and Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo.
"Securing reservations at hard to get restaurants is one of our specialties, as we have personal contacts and an established network of local gourmet purveyors," says its spokesman Sia Jia Hui.
"Besides Michelin guides, many food lovers are now looking at the World's Best 50 Restaurant listings," says Ms Sia. "Gourmands are also interested in unique eateries such as rustic family restaurants with home-style cooking or farm-to-table dining concepts."
While that's the easy route, sometimes it's the thrill of the chase that is as satisfying as the actual meal. Call these food-seekers crazy, but at least they always come back with a story to tell.