Anyone who knows Yuan Oeij knows his passion for gastronomy. Having grown up in a (large) family of food-lovers,his childhood was filled with aromas, from daily spreads fit for royalty, wafting through the house. Having an adventurous palate was imperative to the journey.
Beginning his professional life in the finance industry, Oeij (pronounced Wee) never set out to be a restaurateur. His passion for everything culinary was ignited in mid-90s London, where the dining scene was (and still is) both inspiring and thriving.
In this day and age where career-switches are all the rage, Oeij started small – more than a decade ago with a home-styled bistro. Through failures and lessons learnt, Oeij has come out triumphant. Today, The Privé Group, of which he is Chairman, has several restaurants and nightlife establishments across the island.
As a doting father of an energetic four-year-old, a devoted husband and a keen fitness enthusiast, Oeij’s days are kept busy with creating experiences and concepts for the hard-to-please. In a social world of constant change and competition, especially in the dining and nightlife scenes, keeping ahead of the game is only for the brave, or the crazy.
With a ceiling fan providing some respite from the Singapore heat in his new home, Oeij interprets this “Who.What.When.Where.How.Why.” interview with humility and honesty.
I have always been a little non-conventional, slightly off-center, not quite normal, but not quite extreme either.
I believe in balance. So many things about me can sound contradictory, but that works for me. Just like it does for a plate of food – you can have elements of sweet, salty, sour, bitter all in harmony on a plate or in the sequence of a meal.
I like exploring but also like to return to things that are comforting. I live healthily and unhealthily. I am active and laid back.
I used to think and worry too much. Now, I’m trying to think a lot less and go with my feelings a lot more. I believe in being kind.
I want to live life fearlessly. I am getting a lot better at not caring what others think of me or what I do, and more about what I feel about myself. I am trying to find true joy, peace and happiness, yet suspecting that you get there by not trying.
I aim for a simple life – to appreciate what I have and to be true to myself. I love my family, and I love what I do.
Apart from enjoying my role as a husband and parent, I also enjoy working on my food, beverage & entertainment business, The Privé Group. It’s been over ten years, and having lived through a major crisis or two in the early stages, we have emerged very strong and have been growing steadily and organically for the past five years.
I learnt along the way that being true to yourself extends to the business, and by being true to the culture & personality of The Privé Group, we have been able to grow the Privé brand, initially conceived as something exclusive, private and posh, into an everyday approachable lifestyle brand known for high standards of all day dining & drinking experiences and unique locations.
What many people don’t know about me, is my intimate involvement in the nightlife business, which is a legacy of my first foray into clubs in Singapore with Stereolab. Unfortunately, we lost a lot of money. In hindsight, I went into the business because I thought it was easy, and I was trying to make more money to compensate for the losses generated in my main business.
It’s a lesson learnt on not being too complacent, but failure always leads to success (if you learn the valuable lessons and change your behaviour accordingly), and from the ashes of Stereolab came the highly successful Mink, which got us out of the very deep hole that we had sunk into as a Group. When Mink’s life came to an end after a very good three-year run, the energetic Bang Bang was conceived and is still going strong, and about to get even stronger with a sister concept that is just about to open next door – the sexy and exclusive Lulu’s Lounge.
It was in 2005. I was working in the fund management industry in Singapore, having returned in 2001 after 12 years in London and Hong Kong.
I realised I wasn’t really interested into money or stock markets, and whilst the job was fun and cushy, it wasn’t really what I wanted to do.
Since my university days, I had become increasingly obsessed with food, cooking, dining out and hosting dinners, and eventually dreamt of becoming a chef. I explored that, checking out culinary schools in New York and California, and doing kitchen stints in Singapore. I think I could have been a very good chef, except for the fact that I like balance in life. I feel that becoming a truly great chef requires an unhealthy obsession with the craft at the expense of many other things, and it was not for me.
The love of food and the dining experience is what got me into my business. I think the seeds had already been sown in my childhood.
Growing up in a family of 11 that loved food, dining at our massive round table with a built-in Lazy Susan, chewing on fish bones, fish eyes, chicken bones and all things edible. My father loved his food. Our dinner table was always full, and we dined out a lot as a family and feasted on fried hor fun (rice noodles) for supper whenever my parents went out at night to the movies.
But it did take a while before I was brave enough to take the plunge.
There was a time in Hong Kong around the year 2000 that I had the opportunity to open a restaurant in Soho just above Lan Kwai Fong. The business plans had been done and the location was available. I also wanted to open a chicken rice and bak kut teh joint as I felt there was a gap in the market for that. But nothing was done and I stayed put in my comfort zone.
In 2005 when I was looking back and thinking that I should have just taken the plunge then, I realised that I did not want to be in the same position another five years on, not having been brave enough and regretting it. I took a step back to be able to see the big picture of what was truly important in my life, and it allowed me to defy the conventional notions of what success means and to take that leap, knowing that there was no turning back.
With that, I resigned from my job at the start of 2005 with vague plans to set up a DIY salad place, ahead of its time, much like what Salad Stop and the likes are doing now. I felt that was a simple place to start, low investment, to learn the ropes, before opening a proper restaurant.
Sometimes curve balls were thrown at me. And sometimes I was the adversity, making silly mistakes, being inexperienced or just being too trusting. Either way, they cost me dearly and I always made sure I learnt from my mistakes. After all, I had paid for them!
My first venture, Brown Sugar opened in November 2006. It worked out well, and everyone around me was very supportive. It was a small bistro in a unique location around River Valley, run on a relatively low budget, and I made a tiny amount of profit each month.
Being a small start up, it was tough to find staff, suppliers didn’t extend you credit, and I had to put on many hats and be very hands on. I was the first to arrive at Brown Sugar and the last to leave, I was cook, server, accountant, events team, handyman, cleaner, HR, marketing, designer, graphics artist, technician and every other role that is needed.
Life was not easy, but it was fun and fulfilling. It was helpful that the business was not bleeding. Unfortunately within 2 years of opening, we had to close as the government reclaimed the building from our landlord. I just about made back the money that I had put into the business.
My second venture, Privé at Keppel Bay, opened at the end of 2007. It was a lot more high profile and money was flowing in for the first year as there was lots of interest from the public. However our costs were not managed well at all, and when the sales started dropping from the second year, losses started accumulating. Our product was not good or consistent enough and people did not respond well enough to it after the initial hype. Over the next three or so years, sales continued to drop and we could not turn things around or trim our costs fast enough.
The most stressful was Stereolab, opened in 2009. A club makes a lot of money if successful, but also consumes a lot of cash to operate. Losses accumulated month after month but I just couldn’t bring myself to close it, thinking that success was just round the corner. Was it a good decision? I think I have no regrets and Bang Bang and Lulu’s would not be around to enrich our lives if I hadn’t kept Stereolab alive for two years, encountering the likes of Richard Branson and Boy George in the process. Worth the money 🙂
These were tough lessons to learn and it took us a long time to turn the entire Group around, which we finally did from 2013 onward and both are now among the strong performers in our portfolio.
I realise that I enjoy what I do tremendously. It didn’t start out like that. Initially while it was fulfilling to know that you’re pursuing your dreams, I also found it extremely stressful.
Through the extreme challenges, I learnt so much about myself, and I feel that I am constantly evolving and improving, and I have emerged so much stronger from it.
I think that’s one of the ongoing things that inspire me to continue with what I do – the chance to challenge myself bit by bit and evolve in the process.
Other aspects are also about personal growth and evolution. I first got into the business because I love food and cooking, but I have since started to enjoy running the business, interacting with people, working with ingredients, thinking about concepts, checking out the interesting things that others do, doing music playlists, indulging in food photography (another passion of mine), branding, interior design, management, franchising, property investment, business development… the list goes on.
From the initial wearing of many hats to perform the key functions of operating a restaurant, I now particularly enjoy things that are more creative. Having a great CEO who takes care of the structure and operations also allows me to dream a little more and indulge more on my creative side.
Currently, I am very inspired as I am working on things that I love and are true to me.
Empress, a modern Chinese restaurant by the Singapore River came about as a result of an opportunity to do something in a gorgeous location. It didn’t sink in until after we were awarded the tender by the Asian Civilisations Museum that I was actually fulfilling a dream of mine, to open a Chinese restaurant (I love Chinese food).
I am in the midst of coming up with an informal, happy seafood-centric restaurant by the water at Keppel Bay, allowing me to indulge in my love for fish. And I am also trying to find an avenue to express my passion for chicken rice – what I would pick for my last meal – that allows even more people to share this passion of mine.
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