Indra Kantono first tasted Rosemead’s Californian-inspired dishes on opening day, which might not seem strange until you realise Kantono owns the restaurant.
“And I had to pay for it,” he laughs, before adding that he was happy to do so. Many people might think Kantono insane, but the restaurateur had the utmost faith in David Tang, Rosemead’s executive chef and someone Kantono has worked with for over four years.
Kantono is an old hand at F&B. The 38-year-old co-founded the Jigger & Pony bar in 2013 with his wife and business partner Gan Guoyi. That joint is now part of an expanding Jigger & Pony Group empire, which comprises seven establishments and one brand of bottled cocktail. Keeping a bar running for as long as the duo have in the competitive F&B scene is an achievement; juggling seven successful establishments makes you suspend disbelief.
“We paddle really hard!” Kantono chuckles when I ask him what their secret is. “Singapore is hard, undoubtedly. You can serve the best experience yesterday, but it counts for nothing if you screw up today. You are only as good as your last visit. So we keep improving, day by day.”
Better Today Than Yesterday
The group advocates for kaizen, a Japanese term made famous by Toyota that means “continuous improvement”.
Kantono elaborates: “We improve by 1 percent every day. It might not be noticeable immediately, but over time, when you change the process and culture, you change the way people eat and drink.”
He gives the example of Singapore’s bustling cocktail culture. There are four local bars — Jigger & Pony ranks second — in the top 10 of the 2021 edition of Asia’s 50 Best Bars.
What motivates me is that in order to succeed in Singapore, you have to be great and competitive. You’re playing in the biggest leagues in the world! What is more exciting than that?Indra Kantono
“But cocktail culture in Singapore didn’t exist a decade ago!” Kantono notes. “Together with like-minded peers, we’ve created this amazing culture. This only comes from improving every day.”
Similar sentiments apply to Singapore’s dining scene. There is probably nowhere else in the world where you can find spectacular tasting food spanning the entire price spectrum.
“No one cares about labels anymore, too. Increasingly, these labels are merely suggestions. The dining scene in Singapore now is so rich and diverse, and you can find all kinds of cuisines from all over the world here,” says Kantono.
He’s also noticed a rise in discretionary spending in the premium and ultra-luxe segment. With Covid-19 still making its rounds and travel being quite the hassle, in spite of the recent relaxation measures, many are splurging on fine dining. It’s one reason F&B in Singapore continues to grow, despite the stratospheric rental costs and staffing woes.
The Best in the World
Rosemead has received some flak for its pricing. Large roasted items like the turbot and lamb shoulder will set you back between $120 and $280, while other items are about $70 each. Kantono says that the average spend at Rosemead, inclusive of alcoholic drinks, is $150 per person.
“Singapore is expensive. At the same time, diners want high-quality products. Rosemead sits in the segment where consumers demand the best because the restaurants here are some of the best,” Kantono explains.
“To be honest, once you go below $60 per person in Singapore, it’s hard to get a great full-service experience. Diners have to accept that. We believe in the quality of our ingredients and hospitality, and we are delivering this experience in a beautiful space,” he continues.
The high prices at Rosemead, or anywhere else for that matter, have not dampened diners’ enthusiasm. Demand remains strong, evidenced by the months-long wait times to get a seat at Singapore’s hottest tables.
Getting a seat at places like omakase restaurant Esora and dining favourite Burnt Ends can be a religious experience; foodies stand by their computers or smartphones, their fingers hovering over the button to snap up a reservation once booking opens. The wait is worst for new restaurants. This excites Kantono.
“What motivates me is that in order to succeed in Singapore, you have to be great and competitive. You’re playing in the biggest leagues in the world! What is more exciting than that?”
A Higher Purpose
Kantono is also driven by a more esoteric calling. He strongly believes that Singapore’s central business district (CBD), battered by the pandemic, will rebound and he wants Rosemead, housed in a neo-classical heritage building called The Quadrant, to lead the charge.
“The vibrancy of the CBD will return, but in a unique form. Based on our other establishments in the area, we’ve noticed that the area has become a desirable destination for locals. People go jogging along the waterfront or just visit the area. So I want Rosemead to be an anchor destination that people will travel to,” Kantono says.
Beyond the restaurant on the first floor, Rosemead has just opened a bakery “to create a sense of neighbourhood within the district and become an accessible outreach of the brand”.
He has also brought back the popular Sugarhall bar, which shut its Amoy Street doors four years ago. The reopening was more accidental than by design. When Kantono and team looked at the space, they thought Sugarhall would be great on the second floor.
“On the business front, it also made sense. Every bar now wants to serve good food while restaurants want a great cocktail programme. But putting together an excellent team on either end is hard because bartenders want to work in a bar while chefs want to work in a restaurant. So we co-located the two,” says Kantono.
“Also, the coolest spaces always have diversity. Consumers don’t want cookie-cutter generic options. They want a bar beside a coffee place that’s beside a fine dining restaurant, with a humble shop selling the best buns opposite!”
Whether Kantono achieves his dream is still up in the air, but the man continues to paddle hard together with his team. The success of all their establishments is not a happy accident. Even after a decade, he remains motivated and brimming with ideas. More importantly, he trusts the team, tastings be damned.