The Life Interview: Beppe de Vito goes from floor-sweeper to top restaurateur

The man who runs the successful il Lido Group of restaurants personifies good service

"Excuse me," calls a voice from a corner table at Aura Sky Lounge, the roof-top dining space of upscale Italian restaurant Aura at the National Gallery Singapore.

A woman is trying to attract the attention of a waiter, but he is out of earshot and busy tending to someone else.

You hear the customer holler a second time, at which point, restaurateur Giuseppe de Vito, better known as Beppe, swiftly excuses himself mid-conversation.

He stands up and immediately walks over to the customer to see to her needs. Never mind that he is the boss.

Such is the dedication of the 45-year-old front-of-house-trained Italian restaurateur, who has made a name for himself over the years by personifying good service in an industry that demands it.

In fact, the concept of pleasing customers creeps into the conversation time and time again throughout the course of our 2½-hour interview.

The restaurateur has seven establishments in Singapore to his name under the il Lido Group, of which two-year-old Aura, a 9,000 sq ft restaurant and bar that spans two levels, is his largest.

I have always viewed Singapore's competitive dining scene as a good thing. It's tough, but it keeps us on our toes.

MR BEPPE DE VITO on Singapore's cut-throat dining scene

Other restaurants under the il Lido umbrella include the food-centric Venetian-styled bacaro wine bar &Sons at China Square Central; classic Italian restaurant Osteria Art in Market Street; and Southbridge, a roof-top oyster bar in Boat Quay. Fine-dining Italian restaurant il Lido is located at Sofitel Singapore Sentosa Resort & Spa.

Before long, he returns to our table and apologises for the interruption.

"Now, where were we?" says the ever-charming de Vito in mildly Italian-accented English.

You also detect a faint Singaporean twang and some colloquial inflections in his speech. Not surprising, given that the Bitonto native from Italy's Puglia region has spent 22 years here - more years than what was spent living in Italy - and is married to a Singaporean woman.

He takes the MRT, too, because he does not have a Singapore driver's licence - it was revoked in 2008 after a drink-driving incident. The permanent resident applied for citizenship here in January.

Two months ago, his intimate 16-seat restaurant Braci in Boat Quay was awarded a Michelin star, just nine months after its opening. Its open kitchen takes up about half the space, so eating there makes people feel as if they are dining at someone's home. Pastas are a strong suit here as well as at the other il Lido Group restaurants.

 The restaurateur and his wife Lynn Yeow with their children (from far left) Marco, Lucio, Nico and Tanin recently.
The restaurateur and his wife Lynn Yeow with their children (from far left) Marco, Lucio, Nico and Tanin recently. PHOTO: COURTESY OF BEPPE DE VITO

Mr de Vito may not be a trained chef, but he helms Braci's produce-driven kitchen. And clinching a Michelin star certainly works to dispel any reservations diners and industry peers may have had about this self-taught chef's kitchen prowess.

"The way I cook at Braci is the way I cook at home. At home, I don't have to worry about putting a label on my food. People liked it and encouraged me to do it at a restaurant."

He adds: "It's easy to be creative when you don't give yourself any boundaries or specific parameters for dishes."

Trained chefs may have better knife skills, Mr de Vito says. But the hotel management graduate, who has worked front-of-house and spent "a fair amount of time" at the back of the house, believes that to run a restaurant well, there must be an understanding about creating dishes to make customers happy and deriving enjoyment from that.

"It's not about fuelling a chef's ego," he says.

The newest addition to his stable of Italian restaurants is four- month-old Amo, a casual 90-seat eatery in Hongkong Street that specialises in pizza and pasta.

The restaurant, which was first conceptualised three years ago, has already gained a steady following.

He laughs when you ask him if he has more restaurants in the pipeline.

"It's empty," he says, with a small tinge of dismay.

He adds that if the right locations become available, he may come up with concepts to suit them. He then lets on, his eyes twinkling, that opening new restaurants, from choosing marble countertops to the design of the kitchen and layout of the dining area, excites him.

He also makes it a point to know everything about his business. "I would be very uncomfortable with myself if there was an aspect of the business that I was unsure of. Even if I couldn't do a certain part on my own, I would still need to be clear about how things are done."

Indeed, he is fiercely passionate about his business.

Yet, his wife Lynn Yeow, 37, with whom he has three sons aged seven, five and three - his eldest son, 13, is from his first marriage - says that he is the type of person who does not let passion or sentimentality get in the way of a problem.

The co-founder of online portal Sassy Mama Singapore and integrated communications firm Loop says: "If there is an issue, he confronts it, then moves on - he does not make it personal."

She is also chief operating officer of skincare label Equal Beauty. They live with their four sons in an apartment in River Valley.

Mr de Vito says: "I don't care who I p*** off as long as I know that I am doing the right thing by customers. And most people understand that, at the end of the day, it is always about the customers and that it is never really about me," he says unapologetically.

"I don't do things half-heartedly. I'm just not that kind of person. If you have good advice, I'll take it. My only principle is that everything can be done better every day."

His passion, one that has at times been misinterpreted for arrogance, has no doubt ruffled more than a few feathers over the years.

But he must be on the right path if his restaurants are anything to go by. Running a successful group of restaurants - since striking out on his own in 2006 with the opening of il Lido restaurant, then at Sentosa Golf Club - is no small feat in Singapore's increasingly competitive food and beverage scene.

Seven years old and working in a barber shop

He first came to Singapore in 1995 at the age of 23, a month shy of his 24th birthday, to be part of the opening team for the now-defunct Italian restaurant Bice at Goodwood Park Hotel.

He rose the ranks quickly to restaurant manager, then to the restaurant's general manager and also oversaw the creation of menus whenever the eatery was between chefs during the four years he worked there.

In 1999, he moved to the now-shuttered Italian restaurant Ristorante Bologna in the Marina Mandarin hotel, where he also worked on menus and dishes in addition to his front-of-house duties, for about a year.

Next, he had a short stint at the Conrad Hotel in Hong Kong's Pacific Place where he ran Nicholini's and some other eateries before moving back to Singapore to open the now-defunct Rossi Ristorante in 2001, then Garibaldi in 2003 - both with then-business partner chef Roberto Galetti and other silent partners.

As Garibaldi partners, the group went on to open two more restaurants together before Mr de Vito proceeded to open a restaurant at Sentosa on his own as his partners were reluctant to take the risk.

That was how il Lido was born. He invested $3.5 million, with the help of two new investors, to open the restaurant and, within three years, he bought them out, paying them twice-fold what they had put in.

He expanded with another high- end restaurant Forlino at One Fullerton in 2008, a business which he sustained through the global financial crisis, but later sold to the Deliciae Hospitality Group in 2011.

He also sold Latteria Mozzarella, a mozzarella bar in Duxton Hill, to private investors in 2015. He introduced the concept to take the place of his failed British gastrobar The Jackson Plan a month after he opened it in 2011, and thereafter managed to double his sales within three months.

He also learnt the hard way that riding on il Lido's upscale reputation to open casual offshoots with the same name was not a good strategy because it caused confusion among diners.

He is of the view that if something does not work, one should change it or close it to cut losses.

Closures over the years include il Lido Wine & Tapas at Changi Airport's Terminal 3 in 2009 and Cafeteria il Lido at Suntec City Mall in 2010. He also closed il Lido in Bali, Indonesia, last year after about two years, to focus on his Singapore expansions, he says.

From an opening team of 13 people at il Lido in 2006, he has grown the group to about 150 staff today.

He says: "I have a responsibility to my family, staff and customers, to take care of them. It's a commitment that I make and I take. Ultimately, this is my main motivation that keeps me pushing forward."

His wife adds: "I know for a fact that if anything were to happen to the business or the family, he would take on five jobs and stretch himself to capacity just to get through. He's passionate and responsible."

The second of four children born to a housewife and construction worker, Mr de Vito came from humble beginnings.

While his two sisters got to share a bedroom, he and his younger brother had to make do with a pull-out bed in the dining room.

When he was growing up, his hometown had a high youth crime rate. So, in a bid to keep him off the streets, his parents made him take on a job from the young age of seven.

At the time, Mr de Vito resented missing out on playing with friends, but now looks back on having to work as a blessing in disguise - it cultivated a sense of independence and spurred his entrepreneurial spirit.

"If families could afford it, they would send their children for tuition, classes, sporting activities. We couldn't afford it, so I had to work," he says matter-of-factly.

His first job was at a barber shop where he swept the floor and collected scrap paper for barbers to wipe their blades on after shaving customers. He earned 1,500 Italian lira a month, which would be enough to buy 30 ice-cream cones.

He later worked at a homeware shop, where he delivered and installed cooking gas drums, as well as at a cafe. There, he would pull coffees, clean and make ice cream and pastries.

Looking for a way out and a way to see the world, he decided to enrol at Istituto Alberghiero A. Perotti, a catering school in Bari, Italy, when he was 14 years old.

While at catering school, he spent the summer months working as a waiter at resorts around Italy, before joining the service team aboard famed cruise ship Pacific Princess, the Love Boat from the 1970s and 1980s hit American TV show.

That job took him around the world, from the Caribbean to Europe. He then worked at The Savoy Hotel in London, Le Fouquet's and The Restaurant at Plaza Athenee in Paris, and joined another cruise liner. Prior to relocating to Singapore in 1995, he worked at a restaurant in Ibiza, Spain.

"The F&B industry is my calling," says Mr de Vito. "It's the one industry where I can channel my passion as an entrepreneur, as a chef, as a maitre d' and as an enthusiast of art and design."

•Follow Rebecca Lynne Tan on Twitter @STrebeccatan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2017, with the headline 'Guests come first'. Subscribe