Sean Lee, who co-owns Sin Lee Foods with his girlfriend Jerraldine Chen, seems to have a personal vendetta against eggs benedict.
For one, their menu states, “At Sin Lee Foods, we don’t and we won’t serve Egg Benedict but we sure do serve awesome food and beverages. Take a leap of faith and be a convert.” He also brings it up in our conversation, expressing his distaste for run-of-the-mill cafes which serve the ubiquitous dish.
“You won’t find that at Sin Lee,” Sean says. “In fact, I don’t really think of Sin Lee as a cafe. I would rather describe as a restaurant which also does good coffee.”
While many new restaurant and cafe owners nowadays tend to have the same working-professional-turned-food-establishment-owner type background, Sean has been in the business for an impressive nine years. (Did we mention he’s 25?)
He studied Culinary and Catering Management in polytechnic, was made captain of the Singapore National Culinary Youth Team, and led his team to either win or place second for most of the regional and international competitions that they participated in (think Masterchef-style Mystery Box challenges).
Following this, he set up a company doing consulting for bars and restaurants, went into food trading for a while, cooked in fine dining restaurants like Guy Savoy, and now he co-owns Sin Lee with Jerraldine.
It’s no wonder, then, that he’s very particular about the food served in his restaurant. When asked about how Sin Lee has managed to come up with such a stellar menu that has people raving, Sean says, “Experience definitely plays a part, and other than that, it’s just travelling, cooking at different places, constantly wanting to learn and see new things. So the key difference between a cook and a chef is that a chef is constantly innovating, but the cook merely executes the chef’s plans.”
We asked about the thought process behind Sin Lee’s most popular dish, the broccoli aburi salad, and Sean says:
“I wanted to do a dish that could be made with simple, humble ingredients, so I thought, let’s try broccoli. We wanted to play with new techniques, so we tried torching it, and aburi is something I like eating, so we added it in as well. So now there’s a nice smoky flavour, and we need some acidity, so we added the white balsamic sauce, and for the crunch, instead of croutons, we decided to use papadum. So it’s really about how all the flavours come together to form a dish that will satisfy diners a lot.”
For those interested in running a food and beverage business, here are some tips:
1) You need to know how to cook. If you can’t, you’ll effectively be at the mercy of whichever chef or cook you hire.
On that same note, Sean is of the opinion that it’s silly for bankers to throw away their jobs and start an F&B establishment based on “passion”.
“You have to look at the opportunity cost,” he says. “Let’s say you’re currently making S$12,000, S$13,000 a month. You’re forgoing all of that, and throwing S$200,000 into a bakery. If you don’t have a strong product and experience in F&B operations, your ROI (return on investment) will take very long, and when you can’t make money in what you determine is a reasonable amount of time, chances are that you’ll close your bakery, and go back to banking.”
2) Do not start a cafe.
According to Sean, it’s much easier to run and profit a place like Toastbox, which serves mainstream food. You get better volume, and there are less expectations that you are expected to fulfill (e.g. cafes are expected to have good customer service).
3) Have enough money.
If you’re really bent on running a cafe, Sean pegs your required capital at S$400,000 – S$500,000. Many people try and start with half of that, but you need enough cashflow to sustain you for the first six months to a year when you’re not making much money.
All photos reproduced with permission from Sean’s Instagram.
Sin Lee Foods is located at 4 Jln Bukit Ho Swee, Singapore 162004.