STYLEGUIDE pops by Saute Singapore to find out more about this cozy vegetarian bistro tucked away on the second floor of Bugis Cube. Highly popular with both vegetarians and non-vegetarians, it is a common occurence to see additional tables set up along the corridors of the mall to accomodate all the hungry diners - a testament to the bistro's belief in serving quality food made from natural ingredients without mock meat.
How did you get started initially and what inspired you to do what you do?
Shah: How we got started with Saute was because my wife, Ee Ren’s sister, is actually a vegetarian so we would go to vegetarian places to eat and dine all the time. I enjoyed the food but as my taste buds are a bit strong, I felt the food actually lacked this punch that I was looking for.
We’ve always had inspiration ourselves to be entrepreneurs so we thought of an idea to combine vegetarian food with more taste and bring it to a different level. Of course, we didn’t have any culinary background, so we had to engage in a very long research and development process to figure out if our idea is even feasible or not. After many months of rigorous testing, we came up with something that we thought would work and didn’t look back.
Ee Ren: I will say that most vegetarian places try to add a punch to the taste by using mock meat. For example, some would just use mock fish and then say it’s curry fish. I think there’s nothing wrong with it, but I’ll say that it’s not the most creative way of doing it, and it’s not the original way of why people go meatless.
Can you tell us about the months of rigorous testing and how you actually went through that process?
Shah: Well, we would actually meet up extremely often at Ee Ren’s house. We were trying everything on meatless dishes that we saw on Youtube. Once we spot a dish we like, we would try many variations and different combinations before eventually deciding on one. It was extremely time-consuming but very satisfying before once we had the dishes we wanted, we lauched them here at Saute.
Frankly, the whole R&D process took probably around three to six months. I wouldn't say it's very long but we were very intense and meticulous for all the dishes. Moreover, the recipe of the dishes would become more complex for cooking on a large scale and we had to tweak it to make it suitable. So if we have to cook for fifty people, the magnitude is not times fifty as well. It’s not proportional. That was why after the R&D was done, we still had a lot of problems to solve.
Some of our R&D Food Photos
What makes Saute unique?
Ee Ren: We didn't want to just supplement meat, but we wanted to also use natural ingredients like nuts, mushrooms, vegetables in their raw form rather than processed. What makes Saute unique is our extensive menu, because we have a large variety of food and a wide range of cuisines.
We have everything from asian to western to even ramen, and the idea behind this is that we want to cater to as many people as possible and let them feel comfortable here. When our guests come, we want to ensure that they can find a dish which suits what they are looking for and make them feel comfortable, contented and happy while enjoying the food.
What were some of the biggest challenges you've faced along this journey?
Shah: I think the biggest challenge was that Ee Ren discovered his wife was pregnant just before the launch of Saute. This was after he had already left his job and we were ready to launch, and suddenly we were short of someone to help out at the store.
Ee Ren: You could imagine how busy we were with the daily operations, and I cannot afford to neglect to take care of my wife’s psychological, physical, and mental health. This was going to be our first child and I could just imagine her anxiety and worry about the business and our baby at the same time.
That was what we had to juggle at that point in time, and it was a toil on me as well, but I just had to be strong and pull through it with everything coming together at the same time.
In retrospect, this actually turned out to a blessing because it made all of us push really hard to make sure Saute succeeded. Nevertheless, it was a challenge in the sense that there was so much at stake and so much to lose that we had to make it succeed. Looking back on it now, it still brings a smile to my face. It was definitely one of the driving forces for us.
Co-founders of Saute Singapore: Ee Ren, Shu Hui, Ai Lin, Shah (From Left to Right)
How did you cope with all the pressure, with everything coming together at the same time?
Ee Ren: I think before one gets started on something, if we are unable to accept failure, then we should never get into the business. The fear of failure is not my priority. So I don’t waste my time and energy thinking “What if I fail?”
My primary focus was on how to make the business succeed, how to do it well and ensure that my wife and team have a peace of mind so that we can move forward together.
What is your main driving force?
Ee Ren: The driving force is always family. Of course, deep down it must come from within me, but my supportive pillars come from my family.
Before my wife got pregnant, she had just recovered from a rare disease called Kikuchi Fujimoto – it’s an autoimmune disease but before we knew what it was during the diagnosis, the doctor said that it could be a cancer. That moment, and that point in time, was really the deepest down of my life.
The doctor told us that the chances of my wife actually having this rare disease instead of cancer was very low, the probability would be equivalent to selecting one card from a deck of cards. Having experienced the lowest point of my life, any other thing, even the difficulty of business, simply cannot compare. It cannot be as intense as what I had gone through. That has given me a jab to how strong I can actually be.
Shah: For both of us, it's undoubtedly our families. They're the driving forces behind everything that we do. They are very very important to us, and they motivate us any way that they can.
Now both of us have a child each, though I have one more on the way. We’re also exploring the expansion of Saute with another branch, and it’s like history repeating itself because once I left my job to concentrate fully on Saute, we discovered that my wife was expecting our second child.
What would you say is your purpose in life?
Ee Ren: From young, I always had the thinking that I'm here for good and that there must be a purpose, else I wouldn't be working so hard.
What am I doing it for? If it is for dollars and cents, then I think there is no meaning. There are so many other things that we can probably venture into.
I think the purpose in our lives has to be something meaningful. I always think that you must be good to others. For Saute as a business, what is poignant to us is that we have to take care of our staff because they have their own families to feed too, and not just themselves. We have to make wise decisions because any consequences will not just affect us and our children but a whole chain of other people too. Hence, this makes us very cautious in what we do.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Ee Ren: There is no "What ifs" in life, so as you move forward every day, keep asking yourself "What is the motivation I need andwant now such that I will not regret in the future?"
Whatever decision we make now, we should try to make it the most conscious decision. Once you make that decision, even if ultimately you face failure, it will not be the ultimate failure. It just means that that method does not work, and you have to move on and try another way.
Every decision I make, I will try to make it positive without dwelling too much on the negative aspects, even if that is the outcome eventually. This way, I can be more positive and move on resiliently. If you think too much about the risks and negative portions, I think there are just too many things to worry about and it will only serve to hold you back.
Shah: If I could look back, I would try to do as much as I can every single day rather than to leave it to the next day. Whenever we have a meeting for Saute, we are in consensus that if we can resolve anything on the day itself, we would do it and finish it so tomorrow is a fresh page. If things keep piling up, it’s going to be really difficult to complete eventually. So if you can do anything today, do it.
What are your hopes and aspirations for the future?
Ee Ren: We intend to expand into a mall to grow Saute further and hopefully with that standing, it will bring the Saute brand even further. We hope that there will be more people who ntoice us, and by then we will grow another concept of Saute, something similar yet different at the same time. We can bring a different experience to each shop or branch that we have. In this sense, we want to bring in greater variety and different ideas to inject into meatless dining so that it is not just for the vegetarian community, but for everyone in general.
Shah: This will mean a lot of hard work on our part, because a new concept means a lot of R&D, but I think that’s part of the fun too! When you lose that spark, your business becomes very dry and constant. That is not something we want to achieve for now because we are still young – we want to enjoy the process and have that fun.
Chinese New Year 2018 with the Saute Family
Before we end, can you share 3 quick tips for people who want to eat vegetarian/healthy?
Ee Ren: First, choose a variety of colours. For example, this could be purple cabbage or pumpkin. Occasionally of course you can also eat unhealthy items to indulge yourself. It's all about balance. You can be healthy and at the same time, satisfy your cravings. If you are too extreme in eating healthily without the proper knowledge, you may look malnourished.
Secondly, you need to know what you're eating. Know and understand the food science behind and how it works. Of course, the Health Promotion Board does advocate for lesser calories in your food and educate people in having a balanced diet but I think we have to go even further than that. For example, instead of simply drinking more milk, you should also take foods rich in Vitamin D that can help you more in absorbing calcium.
Lastly, choose the food that you eat wisely. Don’t just simply go for the mock meat even though they are readily available. What many don’t realise is that mock meat is also processed, and may not be as healthy as one may think despite being a vegetarian option. Hence, be selective in how you choose your food down to your day-to-day meals.