Interview with Shaun Gian: The Story of My Little “Battlefield”
By Denise Chua | September 7, 2017
- Shaun Gian
The Betterfield is a casual eatery in Singapore that serves French and Italian cuisines at reasonable prices. My favourites here are the French Duck Confit and Black Angus Ribeye Steak.
Read on to find out how Chef Shaun Gian (Chef-owner of The Betterfield) became his own boss at 22 years old, why his cafe was named The Betterfield and other interesting tidbits!
I interviewed Shaun back in 2016 when My Food Story just started. Although the interview was posted then, due to the various webpage revamps, the original post was taken down. With the addition of the new Non Foodie Days section, I have decided to repost the interview contents for fans of The Betterfield and as an inspiration to young entrepreneurs.
Turning A Childhood Dream Into Reality
When Shaun was 4 years old, his grandma bought him a toy cooking set. Little Shaun loved his cooking set so much that he told his grandma “Ah Mah, I want to be a chef.” And she just laughed. She probably thought of it as a joke but that seed was sown. Then, throughout the years, when people asked Shaun what he wanted to be; he replied that he wanted to be a chef.
At 16 years old, Shaun told his father that he wanted to enrol in a culinary school. His father warned him of the long working hours and the family times he will miss while working on public holidays. The picture that his father painted wasn’t pretty. As Shaun recalled, “My father did not want me to be a chef.”
So Shaun went for his National Service, still pondering about his childhood dream. He thought long and hard. Finally, he decided that he will enrol in Shatec despite all odds; even if he did not know how to cook beyond instant noodles and eggs. Taking the crucial first step, he began to turn his childhood dream into a reality.
Life At Shatec: The Toughest Time Of His Chef Career
“The Dream is free. The Hustle is sold separately.” – Author Unknown
Shaun wasn’t very academically inclined before he enrolled into Shatec. But he wanted to do better. So he set a target for himself; to be the top in class, both in practical and theory and learn as much as he can. Right from the start, Shaun juggled a 8am – 12 midnight schedule 5 days each week because he was selected for competition training after school. When that ended, he got a part time job after school hours and his day extended to 8am – 3am. Shaun shared that at that first kitchen job, he willingly gave up his sleep because he was determined to learn real cooking. Eventually he did. But in the first few weeks, he only washed the dishes and cut vegetables. That was the toughest time of his whole chef career because he was still working towards being the top in class in spite of the little sleep. At the same time, he had just started to learn cooking and the learning curve was a steep one. Shaun almost gave up.
In his own words, “It was also that time that I almost gave up as a chef. Why? Because reality hits me. I was thinking like I come out the pay is so low. And the first time I actually started cooking, it was not what I thought. I had to do chicken stock and the chicken smelled so bad. I was asking myself, why am I tahan-ing (tolerating) all this?”
But somehow, he persevered and his hard work paid off. As he cheerfully puts it “At the end of the day, I really got it leh! My GPA was highest in class. I got 3.64. I was ecstatic! Because initially, I was a normal Tech student, not very good at academics, but I was Shatec’s top culinary student; top in practical and theory. Practical was because of my 9 months training.”
How He Became His Own Boss at 22!
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” – Steve Jobs
Shaun was one to dream big. He did not only want to be a chef; he wanted his own establishment, a place where he can sell whatever he wanted to sell. And he started working towards it.
The first dot: Learning the administration to start a new eatery.
For his internship, Shaun joined a three star hotel that was preparing to open so that he could learn what he needed to do to open a shop. Instead of cooking, he learned to create the SOP, to do costing, to make new menus and to arrange for photo shoots. Being a meticulous person, he kept a simplified list of all that he had learned.
The second dot: Finding suppliers.
After graduating from Shatec, Shaun joined a bar at Boat Quay as their chef de partie (supervisor). Little did he know that after a mere two weeks, the head chef resigned. So all of a sudden, Shaun the newbie was promoted to be head chef. It was the first time he was working unsupervised and he did not know how to do much. His most immediate problem was that he didn’t know any suppliers. ‘So where and how should he get supplies in?’ As he contemplated his next step while cleaning the kitchen, a book of suppliers surfaced miraculously! But he still did not know which supplier sold what. Diligently, he called everyone in the book to enquire about what they sold and what their process for ordering and payment was. His hard work paid off- Till today, he is still dealing with some of these suppliers. After that, he applied what he had learned from school and internship to change the menu and to do cost management. In just 4-5 months, he managed to bring the bar from loss making into profit making territory. Shaun said “The boss was very happy. He wanted to promote me again to be the head chef of both his outlets. But I declined.” Shaun was ready to learn something new.
The third dot: Honing his skills.
Next, Shaun joined a French restaurant. There, he improved his cooking skills and learned about more ingredients. He learned how to make risottos, steaks and duck confit.
As Shaun admitted very frankly “When I first joined, I knew how to cook, but it wasn’t great. I remembered my first risotto that went out; the customer complained and said that it wasn’t very nice. But when I was about to leave the establishment, the customers were saying ‘Compliments to the chef. The risotto was superb.’ And I was very happy that there is at least one particular dish that I did well. And till today, very seldom do I have any complaints about my risotto. Most of the time, it will be good or great.”
The fourth dot: Taking the plunge and emptying the bank account.
In 2014, Shaun, then only 22 years old, felt ready to open his own establishment. He did his sums and figured that a café was more suitable than a restaurant because the cost outlay was more manageable. So he decided that he will open a café doing good food at a budget price.
Armed with a first-in-class title from Shatec and 3 years of cooking experience, he emptied his bank account and dove in. He opened The Betterfield and became his own boss at 22 years old.
Connecting the dots: The benefit of hindsight.
At that point, what he did may seem risky to many. And perhaps not many will do the same. I am not sure if he could predict what The Betterfield would have become in the future. But today, on hindsight, we see that the dots he made so far had connected well.
How The Betterfield Got Its Name
Originally, Shaun had intended for his café to be an army themed one. The place will be decorated to give a military feel and food will be served in mess tins. I am thinking that it might be an eatery where army boys can come reminisce about their National Service days while the rest of us get a feel of how dining in an army canteen might be like. Naturally, it had to have an army related name so it was named The Betterfield, a word play on The Battlefield, which he thought sounded too fierce. But just before the official opening, a friend of Shaun’s advised him against it. She feared that the novelty that came with the specialized theme might die down, dragging the café with it. Shaun took her advice but kept the name. And the new Betterfield came to represent better food, better quality and better price, which became his guiding principles.
Chef Recommendations, Straight from the Horse’s Mouth
We asked Shaun to name The Betterfield’s star dishes. Shaun recommends the risotto, a dish he has received no complaints about since the café opened; the French duck confit, whose recipe is already at its best for its price point; and the Black Angus ribeye steak, whose crispy crust is The Betterfield’s trademark.
The Unexpected Connection Between Absinthe, The French Ladle and The Betterfield
According to Shaun, The Betterfield’s star dishes were mainly learned during his last working stint, which was at the French Restaurant, Absinthe.
And guess who he met there? The French Ladle’s chef. The very chef whose position he was taking over was leaving to open The French Ladle, which by the way also serves a pretty good duck confit.
Shaun said “He told me that he wanted to open his own place. And I was like; someday I want to be like him.”
The People In The Betterfield’s Kitchen
At the point of our interview, there were 4 persons in The Betterfield’s kitchen, including Shaun’s Dad and two other ladies, who were chefs-in-training.
Are you surprised? I was. It seems to me that Shaun and his Dad had come a long way; Shaun’s Dad had changed from not wanting his son to become a chef to accepting it, then supporting it and eventually cooking alongside with him. Perhaps such is a father’s love. As for Shaun, it is a testament to his power of perseverance.
The Expansion Plans Of The Betterfield
At the point of our interview, The Betterfield was still situated in its old premise on Waterloo Street. Then, Shaun was planning both a menu and space expansion. Currently, The Betterfield has relocated to The Treasury. Boasting a much bigger space, Shaun's “little Betterfield” has become a big Betterfield!
Q & A Section on Duck Confit And Ribeye Steak
Because My Food Story loves The Betterfield’s duck confit and ribeye steak very much, we have dedicated a Q&A section for them. Read on to find out why The Betterfield’s duck confit and ribeye steaks are so good.
BLACK ANGUS RIBEYE STEAK
MFS: According to your menu, you serve chilled Australian Black Angus Ribeye. Why Australian Ribeye?
Shaun: Mainly because I love Australia’s Mid-Tier Ribeye. But sometimes I will get New Zealand’s one and I will pre-empt the customers. I tell them, ‘this time is New Zealand one. You try and tell me the difference.’ Sometimes, I will tell them, ‘You buy 400g. I will give you 200g from Australia and 200g from New Zealand. You tell the difference.’ Side by side all could tell the difference; in terms of fattiness level, texture and flavour of the meat. There are very subtle pros and cons of each beef and to me no beef is bad. They are just different in their own way. For every beef, there is a most suitable way to cook it.
We only use chilled beef and I am biased to the better countries like Australia, US, New Zealand and Japan because they are known for better quality meat. I am not inclined with those that don’t disclose the breed, the farm, the source or what they eat. It becomes very ambiguous. ‘Why are they hiding all these things?’ Beef is a product we eat medium rare, the flavour is there. You can’t heavily marinate it to taste good. Some customers don’t even like a heavy marinated beef. For me, salt and pepper, that’s all.
MFS: You mentioned that for every beef, there is a most suitable way to cook it. How do you cook each type of beef at The Betterfield?
Shaun: The searing plays a part. Wagyu is fattier so it is harder to get the crispy crust. There are techniques you need to use to make it crispy and not to overcook the beef. And cooking time differs. The one from New Zealand and Australia may differ a minute or two for the same doneness. It is because of the characteristic of the beef.
MFS: Why do you serve Black Angus?
Shaun: I know Angus itself is one of the better breed rather than the mixed breed beefs. If I want to give something to a customer, I give a good one. And Black Angus is the most I can give without hurting too much of the cost.
Even now, some customers are demanding more. They want Wagyu and higher-end beef and say that price is not an issue. But I know, in my establishment, I have customers like them, I also have customers that come for a 20 over dollars beef, not too much. So I just try to feed them both together. I get higher tier product but I sell them at reasonable price. Like my Marbling Score 7, it is S$50. I think in Singapore, this is one of the cheapest. And my supplier, because currently we actually get a lot of meat from them, they make an effort to knock down the price. And whenever they knock down the price, I knock down to the customers.
MFS: Are your beef Black Angus certified?
Shaun: No leh. Black Angus itself is just a breed. Like Wagyu is a breed. If the customer asked, we can always show you the packing. We are not lying to you.
MFS: We love your steaks, how do you make them so good?
Shaun: For the steaks here, the cooking technique, I actually created it myself. It is slightly different from the rest. Actually the technique that we used, it is actually not really the right way as my teacher will see it. I was going for a thicker cut. Most people will portion down one whole ribeye. I would first cut the ribeye into half before portioning down to 200g, just to get a thicker cut. So I get a tenderloin thickness. If I were to just portion down the whole ribeye to 200g, it will be very thin. I took a different initiative so that I can get double the doneness. So it’s thicker. So that’s one thing that my customers like about the steak here. It was the thicker doneness. And second, it was the crispier crust. This is where I think I am different from the rest.
But mainly one more part helped my steak sales. When it started, it didn’t do very well. One blogger came by. She’s Veronica Phua, a tastemaker from Burpple. She featured my steak and I got popular for steak. Then, I got featured for the top 50 steaks in Singapore. And then my steaks became from good to great. Because today I cut the steak, it will be sold by the same day. So my steaks are very fresh. Meat works this way. When you have a whole carcass, you can keep very long. When it comes in a smaller part, like one whole ribeye, the shelf life decreases to 2 weeks. When you portion down to 200g, it can only be 3 days. But do you know what the best thing is? You cut today, tonight it is gone or at most by tomorrow. And this is the assurance I can give you for my particular place.
MFS: And can you share with us how do you make the crispier crust?
Shaun: That’s a trade secret. This is the signature of The Betterfield.
MFS: Why do you cut your steaks before serving?
Shaun: After cooking a steak, we need to rest a steak. But some people take for granted that the steak is supposedly resting while we serve it. To ensure that my staff did not take short cut, I get them to cut the steak. If they cut the steak without resting, I can tell straightaway because the whole plate will be filled with the juice of the meat. I can also ensure the doneness. Lastly, I don’t want my customers to need to wait a little while before eating because they are doing the resting. So my steaks here will take a little longer than others. Because we bother to cook the steak then rest the steak then we cut.
To summarize, one, it was for me to QC the steak cooked by my staff. And two, my customers can eat immediately when served. The third reason is a little funny. Initially I didn’t have steak knives so I had to cut in the kitchen for the customers.
MFS: Can I ask for it to be served uncut?
Shaun: Yes. But so far, I did not have any complaints. What I want to tell my customers is this, ‘Whatever I do to the steak; I do it because this is the best way to serve to you.’
FRENCH DUCK CONFIT
MFS: Is it true that the ducks from France are bigger?
Shaun: Yes. The ducks from France are bigger and fattier.
MFS: Is that the reason you get your ducks from France?
MFS: How do you make your duck confit?
Shaun: Initially we have to cure the duck. Then we confit it, that means to cook the duck at low temperature for a long time. After that, we preserve the duck in its own fat. Then the finishing will be heating up the duck and making the skin crispy. This one I cannot tell you how.
MFS: Is the recipe for your duck confit at its best?
Shaun: This is the best recipe for this café at this price now. If I were to go for a higher tier menu, I actually can improve the duck confit. One, I can buy a better quality product. And two, I can buy better oil and better marinate. All these will play a factor.