Chef Bjorn Shen: Di Balik Satu Restoran yang Sukses, Ada Empat yang Kandas

First thing first, Jakarta Culinary Feastival was amazing! Ismaya kembali berhasil mempertemukan para pecinta dan pelaku di industri kuliner selama empat hari acara berlangsung di Senayan City Mall. Para pengunjung diizinkan untuk memanjakan diri dengan hidangan mulai dari jajanan dengan gerobak hingga hidangan spesial dari koki internasional. As for me, of course, I experienced something beyond that. Apalagi kalau bukan berbincang dengan koki tersebut!

Setelah bekerja selama lebih dari setahun dan bertemu banyak figur publik dengan berbagai latar belakang, izinkan saya mengatakan bahwa pengalaman yang satu ini cukup berbeda. Ya, saya tidak pernah bertemu dengan sosok seramah dan seantusias ini. Pemilik dari restoran Artichoke di Singapura dan sekaligus juri dari MasterChef Singapore, Bjorn Shen! Perbincangan berlangsung dengan begitu santai seolah sedang berbincang dengan seorang teman. Sosok yang tampak jenaka ini memang mampu membuat suasana menjadi lebih ringan. Namun tentunya, perjalanan karirnya jauh dari kata ringan tersebut. 

Hi, Chef! Okay, let's talk about Artichoke. The first time you created Artichoke, what was the first must-have dish?

Wow, that was a long time ago, my goodness. That was more than nine years ago. To be honest with you, I cannot even remember. I knew that it was going to be a Middle Eastern restaurant, so we needed to have some certain basics, for example hummus. You must have hummus, right? So, we knew that we were going to have hummus, we have my special, Roasted Carrot Hummus, which is not a little special twist of hummus that I did. So, we have that. There were certain classics that we needed to have, also like baklava for sure.

What is you favorite dish in Artichoke?
The menu changes very often. We change our menu every month. But, we don't change the whole menu, just maybe half of that. There are some dishes that have stayed the same for many years. One of them that has stayed for so many years is the Green Harissa Prawns. It is very loud in here, get a bit tired of shouting. Can we move somewhere else?

Ya, di tengah perbincangan, Chef Bjorn memutuskan untuk pindah ke tempat yang lebih hening. Akhirnya, kami pun dipindahkan oleh Tim JCF ke salah satu outlet Ismaya di Senayan City, yaitu Kitchenette. Memasuki outlet, sang koki pun memuji desain interior dengan segala dekorasi yang ada. Menurutnya, memiliki sebuah restoran dengan tampilan serupa akan membutuhkan begitu banyak uang di Singapura.  "I think Indonesian restaurants are beautiful. In Singapore, it is gonna cost a lot to make a restaurant this nice. Especially if they are like new startup, they do not have the money to make it so nice. If you wanna buy things like that in Singapore, you gotta have to buy that from Indonesia. Whereas all over here (in Indonesia), it is all local. Like if you wanna make a furniture, you're gonna get it shipped from Indonesia. Here, it is all local, hahaha," katanya.

Okay, so, based on that, how did you set up Artichoke nine years ago?
I made it on a budget, exactly was a shitty restaurant, it looked really shitty. The restaurant sucked, the furniture sucked, I spent 120.000 SGD to build the restaurant. That amount of money was like a spare change. People usually spend half of a million in Singapore to make a restaurant. I did it on 120.000 SGD. Everything I had to begin with was second hand. The only thing that was first hand was my renovation. Furniture was all second hand, equipment was all second hand. My uncle was my contractor, so he gave me a big discount. He asked me, "what do you want to put on the walls as the decoration?". I said, "I have no money, can you just paint it black and then I will write on it like a chalk board." So, we had chalkboard walls. As we get money, we re-invest. After one year, we got rid of all the old furnitures and put the new ones. We needed to have the business going to have some money, so that we could re-invest. 

Interesting story! For you personally, what do you think it takes to be a great chef?
Wow, the thing about being a chef today is you are no longer just a person cooking. You have to be very good manager, a very good leader of people. So, you have to understand people management skill. You can't just cook. If you are a good cook, you are a good cook, not a good chef. So, for me, anyone who is rising above the sous chef position in my kitchen needs to be a good people person. If all you are good with is food, you are stuck at the level below sous chef and you cannot get promoted unfortunately. If you wanna get promoted, you need to be good with people. On top of that, to be a good chef, a good executive chef, or a founder or a business owner, not only managing your people and your business and your food. You need to be historian. You have to be cultural anthropologist. You have to study culture, history, and geography to understand the story behind your food. Because you are not only selling a plate of food, you are selling a story, you are selling an experience. So, I find that there are a lot of times the greatest joy in my job is researching the origins of what I'm doing. Either that, or researching for the sake of coming up with ideas.

Chef Bjorn Shen (Foto: Dok. Ismaya)

Okay, I read an article about you sharing that you love Doritoz and indomie. Is that true?
Why not, right? My favorite flavor for Doritoz only exists in Indonesia. It is the grilled corn, the green one. You cannot find it anywhere else, only in Indonesia.

It is so cheap here, you know. Then, what do you think about Indomie?
I was an university student living overseas. So, obviously I didn't buy Indomie by a packet, I bought it by the carton. I would have two Indomies for lunch everyday and get constipation after that. 

Hahaha, so true! Back to the question before, what is your favorite dish in Artichoke?
We changed the menu very often, but there is one dish that has stayed for many many years. It is also the dish that I am serving tomorrow night at the Chef's Table (05/10) and the dish that I am doing the demonstration on Sunday. It is the Green Harissa Prawns. Harissa is the Moroccan version of sambal. So, it is a green color sambal tumis. But, then we put cream in it and some prawns inside. So, it is like a bright green.

If you can describe yourself as a food, what would you be? 
Chicken wing (sembari menunjuk pada tato chicken wing yang terdapat pada lengannya).

Oh my God, it is right there. Why?
It is not ashamed to be what it is. It is a very working man. It is not pretentious, not luxurious. It is what it is. 

Great interpretation! Okay, what do you think of Jakarta?
It is not my first time here, I have been here many times. I had to come back and forth to set up the Duck Down Pizza Party. So, there were many trips before to look at the market, to see what people are liking, to check out on other people who are doing well and see why they are doing well and learning best practices from other restaurants and all that. It is an amazing food scene I can tell you that. I think it is because of the people. In Singapore, most of the people are middle class. And, most of the middle class people are struggling because houses and cars are very expensive. So, they are middle class, but they do not have the disposable income to eat out very often. They are asset rich, but not cash rich. Whereas i believe in Indonesia, there are a lot of people in the upper and middle classes who do have the disposable income for consumption experiences. 

Kemudian, ponsel milik Chef Bjorn berdering. Ia menunjukkan ponselnya kepada saya dan mengatakan bahwa chef asal Singapura lain menghubunginya. Namun, ia memilih untuk mengabaikan panggilan tersebut. Berpikir bahwa ia sedang dibutuhkan di tempat lain, saya pun memutuskan untuk segera menyelesaikan sesi wawancara.

Okay, okay, I think this will be the last question.
No, no, it is okay. I am not in a rush at all. I was just showing you that I'm ignoring him. My time is all yours.

Hahaha, okay then. What do you think about JCF?
My first time here. I think it is very well organized. I think it is massive. I don't think that I have ever been in any other event that is more well organized. Like I requested for my ingredients, on day one they have it all done. Minus like five, but it is okay. Out of like a hundred ingredients that I requested, five are not there so it is okay, it is mind blowing how organized it was. And, the number of people going around and the number of people who are taking care of the chefs, I have never felt so cared for before in my life. We all have different people we look for for various things. The only other time I had the similar treatment was when I was acting on a TV show. And, I had someone following me everywhere that I went. I feel very well taken care of. And, just the skill of the event is very massive, like you can see the street food to restaurant food. The only thing is I cannot buy anything.

What? Why?
I have the Gojek application but I do not have Indonesian number. I told the people that I would give them money to top up, but they refuse. I don't want to trouble people.

Chef Bjorn Shen (Foto: Dok. Ismaya)

Lalu, kami pun ditawarkan untuk memesan. Sembari memesan, saya pun merasa bahwa perbincangan sudah cukup memuaskan. Tampak raut kekecewaan ketika saya mengatakan bahwa sesi wawancara sudah selesai. Ketika saya mematikan voice recorder, kami masih terus berbincang bersama dengan tim Ismaya. Ia justru yang bertanya kepada kami yang ada mengenai pekerjaan kami masing-masing. Unik, bukan? Hingga saya kembali menemukan hal menarik untuk menyalakan kembali voice recorder.

Do you think you are going to be a chef for the rest of your life?
You know I have done this for like 15 years already. I mean, I know how to do any other things, I am a chef and also a business owner. My background is actually marketing. I have a degree in marketing. I used to lecture in a culinary school for 7 years. The subject was financial management and branding. I have a master degree in branding. But, I also went to a culinary school before all of that. So, I'd love to go back and teach one day. I don't know if I can handle the phase, the easy phase after having been on my feet for so many years. But, you know, as I settle down and have the family and the kids, I may appreciate that. I have been offered by the culinary school to teach, and I would like to take the offer one day because it is amazing. You will have the three months off per year, you get to enjoy the school holiday. Of course the pay is not as much as I get paid now doing business. But, you know the stability is there, I do not have to worry about how the business is gonna do next month. So, I may take the offer to do research, or teaching, or consulting. For now, I also do a lot of consulting and the things on TV. I am signed with an artist agency in Singapore, for all the TV shows and that kind of stuff. I also have quite a lot the TV and brands engagement. After this, when I return to Singapore, I will do a big campaign with one e-commerce. So, I mean you know I couldn't continue doing this, all that are temporary. I need something fix and stable. I mean if my restaurant goes on for another ten years, I will hang with it for another ten years, it is okay. 

But, are you going to open another restaurant?
I will never open another restaurant in Singapore. For the one that is successful, I have four that have closed. 

Really? What type of cuisine?
The first was bakery. I lost 250.000 SGD in three months. The second was a popsicle business. After two years I broke even, then I gave up. It was not worth the effort. The third one was a fried chicken restaurant, that was when I got this chicken wing tattoo. In two years, I lost 850.000 SGD. In every month I was bleeding for the rent and all the other expenses. And, then I had a burger place and my partner decided to close because it wouldn't make money fast. It was profitable but it wouldn't make money fast.

All these happened before Artichoke or?
All these happened during Artichoke. So, Artichoke has been around and funding all these things. So, all these money that I lost came from Artichoke. 

You are the sole owner of Artichoke, right?
Luckily, hahaha. I am the sole entrepreneur behind Artichoke. So, meaning that all the money that I lost was my own, not the bank's, not the family loan, or someone else's money.  It was all my own money that I could have kept, you know. But, that's life, isn't it? So, I lost more than a million dollars in the time that I have Artichoke, which means if I had not done all those things, I would have been a million dollar chef now, hahaha. But, a million is not much in Singapore. You can't even buy a condominium. I know you can buy a lot of properties here. In Singapore, my 30-year old apartment is more than a million dollars. It is not located outside the CBD area, it is an old place.

Yes, but now you have a story to tell, don't you?