Chef Willin Low, Wild Rocket – Cooking Up Happiness
Why would a legal eagle ever give up a comfortable, high-paying desk job for the heat and toil of a kitchen? But Willin Low, chef-owner of Wild Rocket and Wild Oats, did exactly that some seven years ago.
At that time, Willin was already exploring his culinary side as a private chef-for-hire during weekends in 2002 and 2003. But when he finally quit his job after eight years in the legal profession, it was truly the start of his culinary adventure. He first joined Italian eatery Ricciotti – part of the Garibaldi Group – as a trainee in its pastry department in October 2004, honing his trade baking breads and making pastries. His talent must have been evident to his bosses, for he was quickly promoted to Chef de Partie in December that year and was moved to Ricciotti‘s sister establishment, the fine-dining Garibaldi.
But it wasn’t long before the entrepreneurial bug bit, and he finally left to start his own bistro. The culmination of a lifelong dream, Wild Rocket opened in October 2005 - a quaint joint set in lush, tranquil grounds on Mount Emily along Upper Wilkie Road. This was followed by chill-out bar Wild Oats in February 2007, a mere stone’s throw away from Wild Rocket, and burger joint Relish in December 2007 at Cluny Court. So far, he’s pumped more than a million dollars into the business.
“Wild Rocket is my dream to open my own restaurant to serve food I love to eat – Western food with a local twist,” Willin shares. “Wild Oats’ inspiration is that there are very few places where one can chill in a nice environment and have a drink without having to compete with loud thumping music.”
“Since I love cooking, eating and hospitality – it became very clear what business I should get into,” explains Willin of his decision to venture on his own. “I rather regret the things i do rather than regret the things I don’t do – so I just did it.”
He’s come a long way since he first learnt how to cook as a student in England, when he cooked for homesick classmates as a way to cheer them up – and to avoid the resident food service which he says ‘made his tastebuds sad’.
The People Business
“Cooking is about providing happiness. Providing good food and service is the most basic need anyone requires. I think that is why I love cooking – and eating – so much,” Willin says.
Willin is quick to point out that food is just one aspect of the restaurant business. “The bigger picture is actually hospitality.” He’s worked some four-and-a-half years as a lawyer at what he calls one of Singapore’s best hospitality companies – Singapore Airlines. “I am sure part of its hospitality culture has rubbed off on me!” Willin laughs.
Each of Willin’s eating establishments may target different audiences, but they all share a distinctive personable hospitality. That, Willin says, is Wild Rocket‘s unique selling point and – everything they do ‘is personal’. It’s the result of having the outlets run by people who own the business – the majority of Willin’s full-time staff has a stake in his business – and their dedication and commitment shows in the customer’s dining experience.
It’s telling how much he values his people. When asked what has been a key achievement for his business, Willin replies, in mock-seriousness, ‘being able to provide salaries to all his staff’.
The first objective he has for starting any establishment is ‘to treat staff fairly’. “(Burger joint) Relish came about partly because we wanted the staff to be able to grow professionally and if we have only one restaurant, very quickly staff would outgrow the restaurant and they will have to leave,” Willin explains of his business’ expansion, “As we open more restaurants, the staff will also have the opportunity to grow.”
“The most important lesson I learnt is that you need a team to deliver,” Willin reveals, “and in order to have a team to deliver, you need to manage and lead the team.”
Willin’s culinary career has been illustrious, with accompanying accolades. He has been with invited to cook for events in New York City and Tokyo, and has been featured as a TV cooking show host.
Willin was identified by fellow contemporary chefs as one of 100 emerging culinary stars in the book Coco: 10 World-Leading Masters Choose 100 Contemporary Chefs – to be nominated by peers made this recognition all the sweeter. A recent New York Times article praising his skill has also seen a stream of curious tourists and locals alike visiting his ‘ulu’ (out-of-the-way) establishment.
Willin currently has no plans for further expansion, however. “There are tonnes of restaurant ideas that I have but I am unable to pursue all of them because of limitation of resources,” he says.
“You need a higher purpose to drive any business and to me that is passion”, says Willin. “It could be passion in the product or passion to pursue something for any reason for example it could be a passion to earn lots of money so as to contribute to society.”
Don’t just concentrate on making money, Willin says, just pursue what you are good at and enjoy – then the money will come. And when the money comes, help the less fortunate, he urges.
“Without a higher purpose, any business will just be a money-making machine without soul.”
You can find Wild Rocket at Mount Emily, hangout Hotel 10A Upper Wilkie Road.
Daniel Goh is the founder and chief editor of Young | Upstarts, as well as an F&B entrepreneur. Daniel has a background in public relations, and is interested in issues in entrepreneurship, small business, marketing, public relations and the online space. He can be reached at daniel [at] youngupstarts [dot] com.