How Chef-Restaurateur Willin Low Found the Confidence to Design a Restaurant in Singapore
It’s not hard to see how various art forms could collide naturally with one another to rather stunning effect, particularly where the culinary arts and the diverse world of design are concerned. From artful plating to the trendy halls of our favourite restaurants and cafes, not to mention their equally dapper staff, the synergy—though at times subtle—is undeniable. As such, it is not surprising to find proponents from complementary creative fields combining a passion for gastronomy with a keen or trained eye for design and vice versa.
Widely recognised as the pioneer of Mod-Sin (modern Singaporean) cuisine, local chef and restaurateur Willin Low is famously imaginative—not just when it comes to his exceptional brand of cuisine. The lawyer-turned-chef certainly knows how to pull off a cropped pants suit, but his flair for looking his best while doing what he does best is just as apparent. This involved designing his own chef’s whites, inspired by a traditional Chinese robe or Tang jacket for men. “It’s because I’m Chinese,” he quips, before affirming that he wanted something different from the traditional uniform, a design that would speak to his heritage because while subtle, “it’s part of what my cuisine is about”.
Less obvious but significant is the creative eye Low brings to setting the stage for guests to comfortably immerse themselves in the dining experience. He may not have designed the much-talked-about nest-like lattice structure of his since-shuttered restaurant Wild Rocket (that was the work of design studio Produce and is now a feature at his Roketto Izakaya), but Low has since grown confident in designing a restaurant space. His first successful attempt was for the first version of Michelin-starred modern French restaurant Lerouy, helmed by chef Christophe Lerouy, which debuted on Stanley Street. It has since relocated to Amoy Street, complete with a stunning feature lighting that Low—who is a partner in the business—had also designed.
One of the things I have learnt from many friends who get things done is to ‘just do it’; if we sit around until we are confident enough to do anything, nothing will be achieved.
“The original design of the restaurant featured a curvy counter because the shape of the narrow interior made it necessary,” he shares. “In the new design, we wanted to make a reference to the old design but also wanted an updated and more sophisticated feel to reflect the next stage of the restaurant’s growth,” he expounds, highlighting the “little things” that may go unnoticed, such as the storage spaces for crockery and equipment that was previously visible to guests seated at the counter.
“We also know a restaurant with so much hard surfaces will be noisy with unbearable echoes, so we added sound absorbing material, hidden in plain sight, unnoticeable to the untrained eye,” he asserts.
(Related: Chef Han Li Guang of Labyrinth on Why Singaporean Cuisine is Worth a Michelin Star)
Low admits that it was frustrating not being able to foresee all the issues a professional would have seen. Not to mention laborious when it came to finding solutions to help the contractor pull off the desired design idea.
“But I think it helps that I have opened and/or operated a total of nine restaurants in the last 16 years,” he explains about the confidence he had taking on the task.
“One of the things I have learnt from many friends who get things done is to ‘just do it’; if we sit around until we are confident enough to do anything, nothing will be achieved.”