Meet Singapore’s Culinary Power Couple: Les Amis Executive Chef Sebastien Lepinoy and Olivia Lee
He is the reserved French chef who, in a bid to raise the quality and value of his offerings, defied conventions by increasing his food costs to almost 80 per cent—more than double the industry norm and a potential financial suicide—and was rewarded his third Michelin star. A protégé of legendary chef Joël Robuchon, he is known by gourmets around the world for the quintessentially French haute cuisine he presents at Les Amis: each course is decadently generous yet with a refined lightness and purity. Think a starter comprising discs of tender roseval potatoes topped with a cloud of crème fraiche and adorned with micro‑blooms, served around a handsome dome of glistening caviar; or an ethereally light sea urchin flan given weight by a velvety fennel sauce and slivers of prized truffle.
Within the industry, however, he is respected for more than just his exceptional culinary prowess. Throughout his 31-year career, he has proven his mettle as a cool-headed tactician who can strategise for the long-term, and one with the tenacity to follow through with his plans. In him is also a fearlessness to break conventions and take huge but calculated risks for what he believes in. Sebastien Lepinoy is a quiet titan of the fine dining scene: when he speaks, people listen.
If Lepinoy is the strategist with his foundation set deep and his sights set far, his wife, Olivia Lee, is a dynamic overachiever rocketing into new frontiers at lightning speed. As a culinary and pastry management and arts graduate of Switzerland’s DCT International Hotel & Business Management School (now known as the Culinary Arts Academy Switzerland), she became Korea’s very first female chef to work at Dubai’s iconic Burj Al Arab, and went on to work for Michelin‑starred restaurants in Paris, including three-star establishment Le Meurice by Yannick Alléno.
In 2008, within five years of working in some of the top kitchens of the world, she was scouted to join CJ Group—a South Korean conglomerate with beginnings in the food services industry, but is now a global giant with businesses in logistics, pharmaceutics and biotechnology—to oversee overseas CJ food brands. In the same year, she also became the youngest person to be appointed an adjunct professor at BaekSeok Culture University at age 26, imparting her knowledge on the global food scene as well as the requisite skills for excelling on the world’s stage. A fearless go-getter, Lee does not hesitate to deep dive into new roles.
One with an unaffected elegance and disarming vivaciousness, Lee also charms with her sincerity and generosity. When we met for the photoshoot, she treated the crew to the premium Korean strawberries exclusively retailing at Culina—and made sure every single member of the team tried the seasonal gem. She builds relationships with her wit and her warmth, and it’s no surprise that she quickly attracted the attention of South Korea’s biggest names in politics, business and entertainment to become their personal cooking instructor and private chef. She was also engaged to host food shows, and contribute as a columnist for Chosun Ilbo, the country’s leading daily newspaper. As part of the tourism policy and advisory committee, she even served the executive office of the president between 2012 to 2013.
The two are drastically different: he, shy and unassuming, while she is a bubbly ball of energy. Yet their deep interest and appreciation of fine gastronomy, a shared sense of ambition—and love, of course—united Lepinoy and Lee. Seven years together as a married couple, they are one another’s pillar of strength.
In 2019, Lee founded Korean produce import and marketing company Brandfit. Armed with her influence and connections in Korea, and influenced by Lepinoy’s meticulousness in planning and subtly aided by his clout, she now plays an instrumental role in bringing uber premium Korean produce into the kitchens of revered establishments such as Odette, Nouri and Cloudstreet—and also into the homes of connoisseurs seeking the best for their everyday consumption.
And with her unwavering support, Lepinoy earned his third Michelin star in 2019. In 2020, Les Amis became one of two dining establishments in Singapore to be bestowed five stars by the Forbes Travel Guide. Says Lepinoy: “Olivia is the one who has taught me a lot about communications and how to build social connections, which I am not strong at. But most importantly, I don’t think I would have gotten into the fight for three stars without her, for she understood the importance of the fight and gave me the tremendous amount of support I needed.”
Even though they are on their own path, Lee and Lepinoy are the wind beneath each other’s wings. “Are we a power couple?” thinks Lee out loud. “We give one another advice and support, but we do not interfere. And each day we chat for hours about food and work. So, while we are successful independently, we share our knowledge and ideas, and we are united. Within this lies our power.”
While we are successful independently, we share our knowledge and ideas, and we are united. Within this lies our power.
AN UNEXPECTED PAIRING
For one who has carefully charted every step of his career, Lepinoy admits that there are things that one cannot plan for. After all, his meeting with Lee was as random as it gets. It was a February night in 2014. Les Amis’ pastry chef Cheryl Koh invited him to join her for a beer with a friend, from her days of working at Burj Al Arab, who was visiting Singapore for the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony. The events of the night, as described by Lee: “He went red the moment we met, and just sat there the whole night, staring at me!” she says, breaking into laughter. “It was definitely love at first sight. For him!”
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For her, however, it was love at first bite—almost. The blushing boy, though hypnotised by Lee’s radiant beauty and magnetic charms, had put the strategist in him to work and invited her for a meal at Les Amis. “He had asked me out for drinks again after the first meeting, and I thought it was time for me to spend, after having had so many beers on him!” says Lee with a chuckle.
“I figured he was a trustworthy person because my good friend Cheryl has been working with him for so many years, but I knew nothing of his background, or of Les Amis’ for that matter.” She admits candidly that she was surprised to find that the restaurant helmed by this shy and humble man ranked 14 in that year’s Asia’s 50 Best list. What surprised her more was his food. “Coming from the industry, I know high rankings do not necessarily translate into exceptional food,” she shares. “But he impressed me at the bread course.”
Everything—from the eight flavours of butter served with the rolls, to the starter of potato salad with caviar—floored her. “I’ve worked in a Michelin three-star restaurant in Paris, and nobody serves such a large amount of caviar. Nobody. I was practically doing sums in my head trying to figure out how this man can be so generous,” Lee recalls. “And how is it possible for a simple plate of potato and cream and seasoning to taste so amazing? And the salmon, and the uni souffle … I had never tasted anything like that, despite having lived and worked all around the world,” she gushes. “How could somebody as exceptional as him be so humble? In the three days that we’d met, all he did was smile and listen. This was the first time somebody showed me who he is without saying anything. This guy is truly something.”
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The two continued to message each other until two months later, when they both found themselves in Tokyo for work. Lee had her reservations about meeting Lepinoy again though: having lived abroad, she always pictured her ideal partner to be one who shared her Korean background, and one who didn’t have the punishing schedule of a chef. “I was worried about falling in love with him.” But met him she did. And he found her crème brulee at 10pm when she mentioned a craving in passing. And waited for two hours in the morning cold at Tsukiji to have market-style sushi with her, even if it wasn’t his idea of a good breakfast.
After two days together, Lee found herself unable to get Lepinoy out of her mind. Three weeks later, she sprung a surprise on him by spending a week in Singapore. By the end of the week, she proposed to him. He gave a positive reply two days later, and went on to win her parents’ approval with his sincere and humble ways.
“We really connected through our shared passion for food, and his vast culinary knowledge impressed me. But what made him different from all the guys I have met is his generosity, and how he makes things happen. This is a man of action. Seven years later, he is still the same man: he is still my genie who gives his everything for his family,” Lee shares. “I know the life of a chef, but he always tries to come back to spend time with me, even if it’s just 30 minutes to have tea in the afternoon, or messaging me in the middle of a busy day so that I know what he is doing. He never gives me cause to worry.”
I know the life of a chef, but he always tries to come back to spend time with me, even if it’s just 30 minutes to have tea in the afternoon, or messaging me in the middle of a busy day so that I know what he is doing. He never gives me cause to worry.
MOMENTS OF HAPPINESS
Now the proud parents of a three-year-old daughter Laura, Lepinoy and Lee are setting roots in Singapore as a family. “It took me three applications to attain PR status—before that, there was greater uncertainty as to where we will set root as a family,” shares Lepinoy. “That is what I mean when I say that life cannot be planned. I can come up with a battle plan for a three-star status. But I do not have a formula for a PR status.”
And Singapore has been a rewarding base for the family. “As a young boy growing up in a little village in the Loire Valley, I had never met a single Asian person in my childhood. Laura, however, gets a very international exposure from young here, and it is beautiful. She speaks Korean, French, English, Chinese, she has a Myanmarese nanny, an English teacher from India … she is surrounded by so many different cultures, and it is something that she can take advantage of as she grows up.”
Do not mistake them for tiger parents though. “There won’t be a big drama if she doesn’t excel in school,” says Lepinoy nonchalantly. “There is no reason to push a toddler to do math, we rather let her explore her interests, and be happy.”
I plan to keep Les Amis’ three Michelin stars for many years, and that takes an even bigger level of commitment.
And while Lepinoy has given up on his morning ritual of Muay Thai, and now spends his Sundays devoted to taking Laura out (“She says to me every single day: ‘Papa, it is Sunday today. No work.’”) for little excursions to the zoo, or swims at Marina Bay Sands, followed by a meal at her favourite place, Spago, becoming a father has not distracted him from his professional endeavours. “Where I could come up with new dishes within a day, I now think months ahead, for there are no margins for error when you are operating at this level. I plan to keep our three Michelin stars for many years, and that takes an even bigger level of commitment. I don’t see it as a pressure, but a motivation to reach even higher, for that non‑existent fourth star.”
One who sticks by his principles, Lepinoy even turned down a large hotel group in Paris when they offered to hire him recently, with an offer that was hard to reject. “But I didn’t feel that it would be fair to my wife or daughter to relocate to France. And it didn’t feel like the ethical thing to do professionally. So even though Olivia told me to take the opportunity if I wanted to, I turned down the offer. The strategy now is to stabilise and cement our status as a Michelin three-star restaurant by keeping it for five to seven years—only then will I think of expanding, diversifying or taking up new opportunities.”
Motherhood hasn’t slowed Lee down either. “Being with a Michelin-starred chef makes me think about my own career and how I can push myself further,” says Lee. “I feel that I have become more resilient because of Sebastien supporting me and empowering me to do more through the trust he has in me. Through his maturity and wisdom, I have also learned new ways to attain success that I might not have known when I was younger.”
Raised by a high school principal father and a mother who was also a career-minded businesswoman, Lee shares: “Women often feel guilty for spending time growing their career rather than taking on childcare responsibilities. However, I have always been proud of the fact that I work hard, learn fast, and manage to be successful in whatever I do. And I feel that my daughter will be proud of my achievements too, just as I see my mother as a role model and would ask her for advice even today. Being busy with work doesn’t diminish my love for my daughter. What matters more is that whatever time we spend together is meaningful, be it just 30 minutes in the morning baking muffins or making waffles.”
“We might make grand plans for our careers, but at home, we simply try to make more time for each other,” says Lee. “For it is the smallest things that create the greatest happiness.”
- Photography Darren Gabriel Leow
- Art Direction Matilda Au
- Styling Joey Tan
- Hair Kenneth Ong using Kevin Murphy
- Grooming Kenneth Ong using Kevin Murphy
- Make-Up Cheryl Ow using Dior Makeup
- Location Culina
- Photographer's Assistant Halid