Violet Oon ties up with new investor

Manoj Murjani wants to transform Violet Oon into a global brand

Meeting of minds for Violet Oon Singapore: (from left) Mr Yiming Tay, Ms Su-lyn Tay, Ms Violet Oon and Mr Manoj Murjani -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF VIOLET OON
Meeting of minds for Violet Oon Singapore: (from left) Mr Yiming Tay, Ms Su-lyn Tay, Ms Violet Oon and Mr Manoj Murjani -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF VIOLET OON

SINGAPORE - Violet Oon's Kitchen in Bukit Timah is undergoing something of a rebirth.

The business, which the 66-year-old cooking doyenne's two children started three years ago, has an investor: TWG Tea co-founder Manoj Murjani.

The restaurant is being renovated and will feature a new show kitchen which doubles as a private dining area, a new restaurant is set to open here in October, there are plans to open overseas and product and merchandising lines are also in the pipeline.

Instead of Violet Oon's Kitchen, the business will now be called Violet Oon Singapore.

Mr Murjani, 45, chairman of Group MMM, an investments and acquisitions group that focuses on developing lifestyle, hospitality and food and beverage companies and brands, dined at the restaurant in August last year, met Ms Oon's son Yiming Tay, 33, the next day, and, by December, he had become an equal partner in the business.

To hear both sides tell it, the venture was a meeting of minds.

Ms Su-lyn Tay, 38, says that she had sent her brother a photo of an Aug 21 Straits Times article last year, about Mr Murjani's investment in Singaporean pastry chef Janice Wong's business, asking: Where can we find someone like him?

She says: "People had approached us to talk about partnerships, but we felt we were not ready. Then I read the article on Janice and Manoj and he sounded like he understood who she was and what she wanted to do.

"I didn't think we were going to call him, but then he came to the restaurant one day and contacted us after the meal."

Her brother says of that first 90-minute meeting: "Something clicked. He wanted to meet all of us and I sent a text message to Su-lyn, who was in Bangkok for her first holiday in years, telling her she had to come back immediately."

Ms Tay flew back the next day and went straight to the meeting.

Mr Murjani, who was born and raised in Hong Kong and is a Singapore permanent resident, says a friend had taken him to the restaurant.

He says: "It was more than just the food at Violet Oon's, the magic was actually in her family. On meeting all of them together, I just knew this was the family and team I could mentor and work with to transform Violet Oon into a global concept and brand.

"I could visualise the evolution of the whole concept and brand immediately."

Mr Murjani, whose family built a fashion empire, says he had been thinking of developing a concept and brand around Singapore cuisine to launch here and then internationally.

"I strongly believe now is the time and opportunity to build Asian brands; brands with an Asian flavour that appeal to and resonate with a local as well as a global, audience," he says.

"I travel constantly and often miss the food I have at home, in Singapore."

He cites successful restaurants built around Asian cuisines, such as Nobu and Hakkasan.

"However, I found it strange that Singapore, being known for its food, did not have a similar brand or concept," he says. "There was not a globally recognised or successful Singapore brand and concept around Singapore cuisine."

Neither he nor the family would say where the second restaurant will be as negotiations are on-going, but Mr Tay says it will be bigger than the flagship in Bukit Timah and located in the city.

Mr Murjani says: "We will invest the amount required to build on prized locations in Singapore, following which or concurrently, look to expand in key cities internationally.

"This is second nature to me, as, from my background and experience, I always think of creating and building brands which have a global opportunity."

Meanwhile, the restaurant in Bukit Timah is set to open in the middle of next month. Its new look, menu and food presentation go back to the roots of Peranakan culture.

Ms Tay says they scoured the island for Peranakan tiles to decorate the walls. The show kitchen will feature photos of her mother through the years and other memorabilia.

The restaurant will open all day serving breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner.

Gone is the Italian espresso machine. The eatery will serve its own blend of local coffee with a mix of Arabica and Robusta beans roasted with margarine and sugar, made with coffee socks in metal jugs.

And instead of ordering meals built around a main dish served with rice and garnishes, which some diners found unsettling, they can now order a range of dishes to be placed in the centre of the table, with rice to go with them.

The expanded menu will include old-style recipes from Ms Oon's cookbooks, where she wrote recipes her aunts taught her.

Some new offerings include Daging Chabek Beef Cheek, an Indonesian Peranakan dish of twice-cooked beef, Lamb Shank Semor, Udang Goreng Chilli, Nyonya Sambal Kimchiam and Sio Bak Kiam Chye soup.

Diners can make reservations for a DIY Poh Piah lunch at the restaurant on Sundays, finished off with cashew nut and dried scallop porridge.

Favourites such as Ms Oon's famous Shepherd's Pie will still be available, but only as party trays for takeaway.

Ms Oon says of working with Mr Murjani: "We needed a fourth talent to come in. He has a sense of excitement and the international experience of building brands.

"I'm very excited. Instead of trying to create something, this is my life: cooking and doing it the old-fashioned way."

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