“I’m always here”: How Chef Kirk Westaway keeps his 2-Michelin Star Team motivated

7 years ago, Kirk Westaway had found temporary residency, albeit sleeping on the carpeted floors of his restaurant in Jaan. The British cook who took over the helms from high-profile Chef Julien Royer who had split to launch Odette in 2015, found himself spending twenty-four hours a day trying to assert a sense of identity on his cuisine.

He found himself in the same scenario in 2018 when he reprogrammed the cuisine type to ‘Reinventing British’. “I didn’t go home,” says the Devon-born chef, owner of the now 2-Michelin star (and current #21 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list) establishment, “I gave everything I got to plug into this shift from the somewhat messy organisation of European and French ingredients into British.”

Those sacrifices were rewarded when the Michelin Guide Singapore (after taking a break for a year in 2020 due to Covid) awarded Singapore’s high-rise favourite with the celebrated 2-Michelin stars accolade in September of 2021. “I was actually sat right there when they made the announcement”, he says while pointing at a sun-drenched corner of SKAI Bar, “lots of people were texting me congratulatory texts and it was amazing! It kind of puts the 10 years into value.”

Famed for championing a spirit of presenting British food in its best light, Jaan’s menu is actually centred around his relationship with food as a child growing up in a vegetarian British family in Wales. A personal belief that was constantly bombarded by over-gregarious opinions and suggestions, some including requests to elevate jellied eels as well as steak and kidney pie. “If you’re not cooking a certain dish for yourself, then why should it be on the menu?”, he says in response to these self-appointed authorities, with playful panache.

Kirk is no pushover in the kitchen as well: his mantra, inspired by David Goggin’s 40% rule are manifested in his conduct and leadership approach. In between brutal 15 hour shifts and half marathon runs, we sat down with Kirk to find out a little more about the challenges he faces in putting his personality on a plate, and what it takes to inspire a multi-starred kitchen team.

Popspoken: Could you recount what it was like when Jaan was announced to have accomplished 2 stars in October last year?

Chef Kirk: The awards were ran on digital format then,  so we did it on my lap top after service. At around 3pm, the team came in and we all sat down, and everyone had their earphones in.

On screen, you could see everyone, all the familiar faces, all the famous chefs from all over the country. As they finished announcing the one stars, I suddenly received a deluge of texts as the commentators had yet to call out Jaan. Once it was announced that we had landed our second star, lots of people were texting me ‘Kirk, Omg!’, and other congratulatory texts. It was amazing. To be honest, it kind of puts the 10 years into value.

Popspoken: Did you encounter a turning point at any stage of your career with Jaan since taking over the helms in 2015?

Chef Kirk: Things definitely changed after they put my name on the restaurant brand. All of a sudden, it felt like they no longer harbour thoughts that I was going to jump ship. It was a vote of confidence in addition to the fact that, by putting my name on it, I was finally getting the recognition that I deserved.

In a big hotel establishment, your name as an acting chef can get washed away pretty quickly. “Great, Jaan in Swissotel won a Michelin star! Who’s the chef? I don’t know. Some guy,” Kirk reenacts.

However, if you win it with your on name there, it’s a different scenario. Accor is a big brand hotel around the world, the opportunity to be recognised is immense but in contrast, a chef’s name can also be diminished quickly. Whereas if it’s a restaurant, like Odette or Rishi Naleendra’s place then everyone knows the chef. Therefore, to have that stamp on that brand, was a big thing. It’s also allowed us to build a customer base which is more interested in coming in to meet the chef and the team – a bit more of a relationship based restaurant rather than a business.

Popspoken: ’Reinventing British’ cuisine is an identity that you’ve stuck with after rebranding Jaan when you struck out on your own. Tell us more about your journey in advocating that.

Chef Kirk: That was the goal, realistically being here to change the concept into an unheard, unique concept – modern British – which was kind of slated by everyone for a long time. We’re not talking just customers, but restaurants, hotel management and other peoples’ expectations. When they learned that I was going to come into this famous restaurant, take over and do that; they thought, “Oh the audacity!“, “You’re going to make brown food more brown?”. It was demoralising at first.

As I suggested the idea to the marketing managers at that time, there wasn’t a lot of positivity around the table. Even my front of house staff were unsure about it. The reason being that because no one has really done it.

Technically, we were entering into unchartered territory. Inside of Britain, yes, amazing chefs are doing amazing things, but outside of that, people are contented with fish and chips.

Fine dining is rarely associated with British cuisine outside of the UK, except for Simon Rogan in HK. By virtue of this absence, we were sort of the ambassadors for this direction of cuisine anywhere. It was a bit nerve-wracking.

Popspoken: and your first order of business in this conversion is?

Chef Kirk: I gave everything that I got towards this plug into a shift from a ‘European, French and ingredients from everywhere’ – kind of messy organisation, into British.

My first order of business was to get rid of everything French. That is not to say that I have anything against the French. But because we are dealing with the expectations of fresh guests, we didn’t want our diners to get confused upon introductory. In their minds, they might be thinking, “So, Modern British, but you’ve still got petit fours and you’ve got canapes, souffles and beef tartare.” No, you simply can’t do that. You have got to just eliminate all those items.

So we changed the word, ‘canapes’ to ‘snacks’ and ‘petit-fours’ to ‘final sweets’, which was a small step but an important one.

The most difficult part of it, was that I was doing it on my own. As much as I had good moral support, there was no template from my predecessors to copy-and-paste from. Neither can I copy people from around the world. From thereon out,  I had to ride on the decision to stick by my ideas despite the influx of ideas from so many others. I took all those advice and opinions, truly with gratitude, but still stuck to my guts and my heart and worked towards what I truly believed in. People were telling me, “Oh you should do jellied eels” or “Oh, you should do steak and kidney pie”. Personally I hate jellied eels, why would I do it it in my restaurant?

Popspoken: More than just reinventing classic British dishes, how would you define your culinary ethos?

Chef Kirk: “My focus is my interpretation of British cuisine, of food that I enjoyed as a kid, which to most people’s surprise, is majority vegetarian.”

My family is still vegetarian, and I much prefer seafood and vegetables; hence even the present menu just has a single lamb dish, with tons of vegetables running through. That’s what I find a true appreciation in. So to put it out there, I’m not reinventing British food or bringing it to the next level, instead, I’m presenting diners with my interpretation of what British food can be and should be. It’s very healthy and delicious, not that stereotypical stodgy fare – pies, flour and soggy fish and chips. Those that I just mentioned, they are not the real part of what people eat at home.

Back in my home in Wales, we have a garden with lots of vegetables; rhubarbs, potatoes, cucumbers and apples. What I’m trying to do, is take away from that rustic style and elevate it, so that the end product becomes more clean and delicious.

Popspoken: Do you only stick to UK produce?

Chef Kirk: I concentrate on sourcing quality ingredients, organic even, and when I can, I source my ingredients from the UK. That being said, it’s not always possible, but our cheese, our dairy, our fish and seafood, generally comes from the UK. The lamb comes from the UK as well. Since I’ve come to understand that beef from the UK is not amazing, I’ll take Australian beef, which is amazing by the way.

Bottom line is, I’m not going to take something substandard just because I have to. Ever since moving to Singapore, with every nationalities’ beef on your doorstep, the taste difference becomes evident. English beef, it’s kind of dry, kind of grey; Australian beef is a whole different world. Japanese of course is amazing. At the end of the day, it’s all about quality and taste and bringing the best to your guests.

Popspoken: In 2019 when Jaan got its first star, did that instantly fire an urge to reach for your second star? For the sake of the many other restaurants in the same boat, could you enlighten us on the the evolution involved over the two years, and how did the restaurant prepare itself for this new standard.

Chef Kirk: Personally, when we had one star, I thought that we were ready for our second. At that moment, we were motivated and ready, however, after the first and second year of not being able to make the mark, it started to get frustrating. Michelin skipped a year in 2020, and we finally achieved that accolade in September of 2021. Honestly, when I look back now, to where we were 5 years ago, I can see the big growth and development, just in terms of presentation and style.

Before, we had a lot more ingredients, a lot more complications on the plate. Now, we practise more simplicity on the plate. At present, we’ve really removed all the distractions from the plate and present the bare minimal in its shiniest pedigree. Like the lamb you had today, a combination of pea puree, mint sauce and lamb – now, that’s super English! But it’s done in such a clean way in stark contrast to what we would have done 5 years ago.

In actual fact, I can safely say that we weren’t really ready then.

In terms of change, it was more about refinement. Making it cleaner and sharper. We often ask ourselves, “Are the flavours working?” And then proceed to taste it repeatedly until it’s all balanced.

Just cooking for myself. That’s the key.

Know your audience, but don’t cook for them. You have got to cook for yourself first and in turn, hopefully they will come to appreciate it. If you’re not doing that, then what’s the point of doing anything? Same thing as taking advise, everyone has advice, but you should just listen to what you want to listen to, and cook for yourself.

White asparagus with kristal caviar

Popspoken: How do you keep the team motivated?

Chef Kirk: By being “here”. Lots of people joke that I’m always here. There’s rarely a day I miss a service. I come in at 9 o’clock in the morning and I’m still doing 15-16 hours a day. Simply put, I think that to be here, to chit-chat, is to motivate the guys. Most of these guys in the kitchen and my restaurant team aren’t just my employees, they are my friends.

In fact, just this morning I was talking about playing frisbee. Before Covid, we used to play frisbee at 4 o’clock just outside of of Chopsticks – The Asian Kitchen. We are going to try it again next week, maybe Wednesday, when we have more time.

I’m genuinely interested in what my staff do on their day-offs. I want to know more about who they are, who their families are, what they’ve done in the past and what their aspirations are, who their partners are, what they like to eat, what do they like to cook. I like to bring people into the menu, into the concept. We are all mates. It’s tough to do in a big organization, in this hotel, for example. But in a smaller restaurant like ours, you can maintain quite a good relationship with your co-workers. Ng Guo Lun, my head chef, is one of my best mates, he has been with me 7 years in the kitchen. He’s just been in Australia with his family.

Also, it’s good to see people moving. Go to Les Amis, go to Zen! It’s invigorating to see them move to broaden their horizons, to learn new skills, and not solely because they are motivated by money.

Popspoken: From one star to two stars. What changed for you in terms of operations and menu pricing structure?

Chef Kirk: During Covid, everything got a lot more expensive. So realistically, everyone in Singapore needs to increase their pricing. Generally, we are quite affordable and we try to maintain that. Since we’re part of a hotel group, we can balance things out a little bit with lower overhead costs. We consider ourselves extremely fortuitous, unlike independent restaurants that have bills coming out of every hole. It’s tough.

Popspoken: Who is the one chef who has shaped your career or inspired you the most?

Chef Kirk: No. 1 would have to be Julien Royer. We have had a very long relationship together. 11 years here in Singapore and a couple of years in London, maybe 2. Our friendship and the inspiration, support and suggestions from him definitely helped to shape my career.

I’m grateful for the time he spent on developing me. Back when I first moved to Asia, he had introduced me to this country and the people here.

Popspoken: If you could open a second restaurant any where else in the world, where would it be?

Chef Kirk: England would be amazing. London, being the heart of culinary anywhere in the world, would be perfect. The food scene is dynamic. Being on home turf and showing people what you’re doing would be nice. I probably wouldn’t call it “Reinventing British” there though.

Popspoken:  Do you think many chefs in the UK support your ethos about ‘Reinventing British’?

Chef Kirk: I can’t quite say that I’m popular, but I’ve got loads of friends in the UK who would phone me when they have friends or family coming in and I’ll make the reservations. It’s a very good question that I don’t know the answer to it. It’s always a concern that people might feel that my concept is very controversial.

At the end of the day, I’m not looking to take anything from anyone or reinvent the wheel, it’s just cooking based on my beliefs.

I’m not looking to change the queen’s favourite food or anything. Sometimes I mull over my hashtag, is it too pompous? I don’t want people to look at me and think, “Who the hell is this guy, who does he think he is, doing British food?” It is not my intention and hopefully my motives are not seen as negative.

Popspoken: From our observation, you’re quite the runner and do enjoy hitting the pavement after service. When did you pick this habit up and is there a reason behind it?

Chef Kirk: Running wasn’t for health purposes. Exercise was for the purpose of pushing myself. I like to challenge myself, pit myself against others to see what I can do. When I was working, I slept under a table for 6 months. I like to torture myself, because I believe it makes you stronger. I don’t believe in ‘sick-and-tired’, it’s a state of the mind.

“Our motto in the kitchen which I’ve drilled into my teams’ head over the last few years is ‘never sick, never tired’ which is not what millennials want to hear.”

If you’re sick and tired often, it gets kind of embarrassing. I’ve instilled this thought process into my team throughout the years but also, I’ve lived and breathed this motto. I’m rarely sick, I am capable of getting over a cold in 28 hours. After being here all day and night, I head out for a 10 – 15km run, chase that with a couple of hours of sleep and then it’s back to work. The stronger the mind, the more you can manage. It doesn’t always work though.

Pushing through tiredness, you’ll realise that there’s more you’ve got to give. David Goggins, a navy seal, wrote a book and I read it about 4 years ago. He has this 40% rule which is rather extreme. When you’re at breaking point, super tired and you’re exhausted, navy seals are trained to believe that that is your 40% mark and you’ve still got 60% in the tank; which I love. I live by this for a long time.

Popspoken: If you could be an olympic gold medalist in any sport, which would it be?

Chef Kirk: I used to box when I was younger. Did a couple of bouts when I was 16 or 17. It was cool and I really enjoyed the fitness aspect. The level of intensity is high when you’re sparring. You’ve got to be super fit: skipping, swimming in the sea, lots of exercise and endurance training. Then you’ve got to take a lot of punches. 16 or 20 years ago, you get to be hit quite a lot and that builds up your strength, your tolerance.

Bookings for Jaan by Kirk Westaway can be made here.

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