“We just had a couple come in to celebrate their anniversary and they said: “Oh, we think we were your last guests before the circuit breaker.” They had been celebrating their anniversary last year too and now they were back,” shares executive chef Kirk Westaway. “That’s when it struck me that wow, it’s been a year since Covid-19 hit and everything changed.”
He recalls that when Singapore entered the circuit breaker period in April 2020 and dining-in restrictions kicked in quickly and suddenly, the team sprang into action closing the restaurant. “We cleared everything, the fridge and freezers and pots and pans. We put them all away as though we were moving. We weren’t sure what was going to happen, how long we would be in this situation, whether we would see everyone back here again when it was over. It was emotional for everybody.”
But a year on, the windows overlooking expansive views of the Singapore skyline are gleaming, the linens are starched and business back in full swing since MICHELIN-starred JAAN by Kirk Westaway re-opened its doors in August. It is a situation that the chef is not taking for granted after a “bizarre” 2020.
“I’ve been enjoying every day. I haven't missed a service since we came back! There are worst places to be, and I get to see this boring view every day,” he jokes, gesturing at the magnificent view of the Marina Bay area from the 70th floor of Swissotel The Stamford.
Here, the chef shares how he took the time during lockdown to recalibrate and explore another facet of British cuisine, the challenges he faced reopening and what he is most looking forward to bringing diners this year.
What was the priority in the immediate aftermath of the circuit breaker?
The whole focus was to make sure nobody went unpaid, that nobody had to lose any salary. The hotel did an amazing job controlling that situation: everyone was put into secondment and everyone else managed to clear their leave. If you look around many other places in Singapore and around the world, it wasn't the case. I tried to keep in touch with my team. We had group Zoom calls so everybody continued to stay in touch as much as we could.
It must be rare for a chef to get so much downtime, what did you get up to during the circuit breaker?
When it started, I was still very involved with a lot of media around the world, setting up talks and virtual collaborations and talking to a lot of chefs and different restaurants, finding out about people's experiences in London, France, Stockholm, Norway, America, chefs all around the world. It was a strange time, but I tried to make the best of it—a bit of fitness, I was cooking a lot at home, making videos, baking bread. I was also running every day. It was nice and even now I continue to run quite a lot. I also started planning for when we would be able to return to JAAN and for the Casual British pop-up at Anti:Dote.
What inspired the Casual British pop-up at Anti:Dote?
It has been a plan of mine to create a casual concept that reflects my Reinventing British philosophy, but with classic gastropub fare. The idea of the pop up came about as we wanted to put something into place quickly so that teams can still be kept busy while JAAN remained closed for business. We actually developed the entire casual menu while coming up with new ideas for JAAN, both of which included lots of R&D. You would think that fish and chips would be one of the easiest dishes for anyone to create, especially an English chef, but it was the most challenging dish on the menu to cook. I mean, often we were here at one o’clock in the morning cooking chips!
What was it like re-opening JAAN after five months?
It was tough but it was great, a really good feeling to be with the whole team again. We brought everyone back up here to clean the whole area after being closed for so long. We had to bring out all the pots and pans and plates, and everything had to be cleaned and sterilised. We had to re-order all the food and supplies, even flour and salt, everything. It was basically starting from scratch. Complications included having to speak to suppliers quickly to see what we could import, as there were still so many restrictions in place.
Given JAAN’s intimate setting and existing layout, our tables are already fairly far apart, but we removed an additional table to comply fully with safety distancing measures. We wanted to prioritise the comfort of our guests, so we made sure there was at least 1.5 metres from the back to back of each guest’s chair. But generally, as a MICHELIN-starred restaurant we were already maintaining a very high standard of cleanliness and hygiene before the pandemic and it was just a matter of heightening that.
Did the past year bring about any mindset shifts for you?
It was interesting to reassess what we do and where we are. It was a time we could really take a step back and look at what was necessary and how we could make it better. The food got a bit more simplified, we are focusing on what’s important: truly harnessing the excitement of seasonal ingredients, enjoying the quality of it and visually minimising what you see on the plate but packing massive flavour, massive quality.
That extends to refining everything we do, from the service to the food and customer experience. And that's the opportunity we have right now to make it very special for everyone that comes through the door.
What are you most looking forward to at JAAN now?
We reopened JAAN in August last year and the summer menu was short lived. The fall and winter vegetables started early and it has felt like a very long season—not just for JAAN but all my friends in restaurants around the world. Everybody’s had a long winter and we are all very eager to begin spring. Spring means micro vegetables, baby carrots, peas and asparagus and morel mushrooms—we’re just getting deep into the spring menu and it’s quite nice to switch it around and do something exciting with this.
What’s in the pipeline for JAAN?
Normally I’d answer this question with some overseas collaborations, four-hands events (laughs). But generally, it’s quite an exciting time to be here with the team and just, continue. We’ve been seeing a lot of our customers coming back and a lot of new guests we haven’t seen before wanting to come in and try out what we’re creating. And we’re looking within Singapore to do something with locally-based chefs— it can be quite exciting to recognise all the faces rather than people you might not necessarily know from overseas.