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Star chef leaves Les Amis to start his own venture

(SINGAPORE) Barely two months after being named number 83 on the Restaurant Magazine's World's Top 100 Restaurants, Les Amis has lost its chef, Gunther Hubrechsen, who has decided to venture out on his own with a new fine-dining French restaurant that will bear his name.

The move comes as a surprise, some three years after the Belgium-born Mr Hubrechsen took over the reins at Les Amis when its star chef Justin Quek left the group at the end of 2003. Amid initial resistance from diners, Mr Hubrechsen eventually earned a strong following, being named Rising Chef of the Year 2006 at the World Gourmet Summit Awards of Excellence.

'After five years with the group, I just want to try some things on my own,' says the reticent Mr Hubrechsen. His new restaurant is a 50:50 joint venture with the Garibaldi group, headed by Roberto Galetti, who is also executive chef of Garibaldi restaurant. The group comprises Garibaldi, Menotti, two Ricciotti outlets and Brotzeit, a German restaurant in VivoCity.

Mr Hubrechsen's restaurant - located right beside Garibaldi on Seah Street - will be the group's sixth outlet, but he will run it independently, with the group offering back-end support like administration, accounts, and licence applications, says Mr Galetti. 'The idea is to give the chef an opportunity to express himself without having to worry about the back end.'

Mr Galetti says that it is the right move for Mr Hubrechsen to come out on his own, at the young age of 33, the same way that he himself did with Garibaldi. 'I too, was 33 when someone trusted me and gave me the financial opportunity to operate my own restaurant.' He feels that he wants to give Mr Hubrechsen that same opportunity.

In fact, he had actually approached Mr Hubrechsen a year and a half ago, but 'he rejected it as he felt he had not done enough for Les Amis (to bring it to the same level as Justin Quek did)'.

He adds: 'But when the restaurant was listed in the Restaurant Magazine, he felt that it was the right time. Les Amis did a lot for him and he is very grateful, but it is time (to leave).'

Still, it does not mean that Les Amis will be left high and dry. As Desmond Lim, chairman of the Les Amis Group, says: 'Life goes on. We've gone through one hurdle, we will get through a second one.'

Having learned from the same experience nearly four years ago when Mr Quek left to open his own restaurant in Taipei, Mr Lim and his management staff are already working to make the transition as smooth as possible. A new chef has already been hired - Italian German Thomas Mayr who has worked in the three-Michelin-starred Tantris in Munich and with top American chefs such as David Bouley and Charlie Trotter. He is now the executive chef of Restaurant Laurin in the Park Laurin hotel in Bolzano, Italy.

Perhaps timely, Les Amis is also scheduled to close for major renovations at the end of July, reopening on Sept 12. 'It will be two levels with a mezzanine and private dining,' says Mr Lim. The private rooms will also have their own cellars.

Now it's all about exposing the new chef to the local dining environment and tastes - 'we'll let him settle in and take it from there'. Of course, 'things might be a little bumpy,' he concedes. 'People will miss the cooking but then they will hopefully get used to it (the new chef's cooking).'

But more important, though, is his belief that the restaurant's appeal is not just due to the chef but the whole dining experience from the service to the ambience. 'Les Amis goes beyond one single personality - it should even go beyond me as the owner - it just represents people who do their best, and are very passionate about what they do.'