David Thien has got big shoes to fill — and he's ready to step forward.
Come 25 March, the French-born Eurasian chef will be taking the reins of one-MICHELIN-star restaurant Corner House as its new executive chef, after its chef-patron Jason Tan leaves on 31 March to start his own fine-dining restaurant.
Opened in 2014, Corner House is widely bookmarked as one of Singapore's most iconic dining destinations for its beautiful setting in a heritage black-and-white bungalow in the Singapore Botanic Gardens, and for its “gastro-botanica” cuisine inspired by the restaurant's horticultural surrounds. It received a MICHELIN star in 2016 when the guide debuted in Singapore and has retained it ever since.
Tan, meanwhile, is a household name in Singapore as one of the few homegrown chefs who has won numerous global accolades for his brand of French haute cuisine. The alumnus of three-MICHELIN-star restaurants such as Les Amis in Singapore and Robuchon Au Dôme in Macao regularly represents the country abroad, and during his tenure made Corner House the restaurant of choice for many local and foreign dignitaries on their Singapore visits.
"Of course, I feel pressured. I am as much excited as I am worried, but it keeps me in check," Thien tells MICHELIN in an exclusive interview a week before assuming his new role.
A new experience, the same "essence"
Despite the leadership change, the kitchen will retain the natural and artisanal "essence" of Corner House, he says.
While it is "a bit early" to mention long terms plans, Thien will not change the entire menu instantly, but slowly introduce new dishes from April in order to ensure a smooth transition. He explains: "I still have to discover the team, the restaurant’s identity and our customers’ demands."
The dining format will remain the same, but the team will propose a "slightly more affordable" menu and "a new experience" by May, he hints without providing further details.
"Up till now, Corner House’s legacy has been defined by a Singaporean chef with French skills and Asian roots. Now, it will become the venue for a Eurasian chef with French roots and Asian inspirations," Thien says. "My cooking will represent the way a French chef is inspired by and celebrates the diversity of Asian food in a contemporary way, such that not one culture is more important than the other."
A Franco-Asian identity
It has taken Thien 25 years to define his brand of "cooking without shackles", as he calls it, which expresses his personality on the plate.
"After 12 years here, I have become attached to this country which I call home and it greatly influences my inspiration on food and the direction of my cooking. My cuisine will reflect my roots and journey working with chefs of MICHELIN-starred restaurants as well as my time spent in Asia and Singapore," says the 39 year old who is married to a fellow chef and Filipino Lisa Revilla, who leads MICHELIN Plate restaurant The Dempsey Cookhouse & Bar as its head chef.
Thien was born and raised in Bordeaux, France with Alsatian and Chinese-Mauritian heritage. While he initially aspired to be a veterinarian, he discovered his knack for hands-on learning during a spell as a dishwasher in his uncle's restaurant in France as a teenager and decided at the age of 14 to enrol in hospitality school.
After graduation, he embarked on a career that took him through top French kitchens like Domaine du Roncemay and MICHELIN-starred Cordeillan Bages under lauded French chef Thierry Marx.
He arrived in Singapore in 2007 as part of the St Regis Singapore’s opening team and went on to become sous chef at now-shuttered L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Sentosa before exploring more casual concepts during his executive chef stints at the TWG chain of cafes, with private members club Straits Clan and with food and beverage group Refinery Concepts.
He had previously worked on several consulting projects with the owners of Corner House, who also run wine import business Wine Culture and now-shuttered restaurant Shelter in the Woods that Thien used to helm, and they got back in touch when the opportunity came up, Thien says.
"I love Singapore and it is an honour to work in an established venue such as Corner House. I feel a closeness to this place today, as a chef with a shifting culinary identity that is influenced by Asia," he adds.
"It’s a new start for everybody, we will have to work hard to retain the restaurant’s legacy and its awards and recognitions, but it’s also an opportunity to move forward and bring new ideas to the plate."
Photos courtesy of Corner House.