If you haven’t met Jacky Stevens yet, it’s only a matter of time. After 16 years in Singapore, the affable, hard-working Dutchwoman is a well-known face at her two Picotin Express restaurants.
If ever there was a true expat rags-to-riches story it’s this one. Jacky will dispute the “riches” ending, but bear with me, it is a great metaphor for her tale. In 1996, she decided she wanted a dramatic change, so she threw in her job in Zurich, Switzerland, and booked herself a ticket to Sydney, Australia. However, it was to be several years before she set eyes on that famous Opera House.
A quick stopover in Singapore changed everything. Overcoming her jet lag over a few drinks with a friend at Harry’s Bar, she happened to meet the company’s general manager. Noting her experience, exuberant personality and training at an elite Swiss hotel school, he quickly offered her a job. With a shrug of her shoulders and innate confidence, Jacky recalls, she said “Why not?” and started her life in Singapore.
She recounts this tale as we sit in Picotin Express in a quiet suburban street in Siglap, which she manages and jointly owns along with another at Quayside Isle on Sentosa.
In the intervening 16 years, Jacky has amassed a wealth of restaurant caps and, with the blunt, unassuming manner of the Dutch, rattles off her impressive resume. After a couple of months’ finding her feet at Harry’s, she ran Beaujolais on Club Street for one year.
“I then opened my own venture, Bisou in Tanjong Pagar, for four years, relocated it to Capital Square behind Boat Quay for another two years, and then sold my share,” she says. The hospitality business is renowned for its punishing, unsociable hours, so Jacky took some time off to travel for several months.
Returning, she joined Les Amis Group and opened Peperoni, the pizza trattoria in Bukit Timah, where she worked for three years.
“Next I joined forces with Sebastien, whom I knew from a nearby Greenwood Avenue restaurant, to start Picotin in collaboration with the Emmanuel Stroobant Group,” she says. Picotin at Turf City on Bukit Timah Road became a Singapore institution with an island-wide following.
The enormous 350-seat restaurant, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, operated for six years, employed close to 60 staff, and was, according to Jacky, “a monster to run”. It closed in June 2013, but Picotin’s reputation as a casual, family-focused destination is something Jacky has strived to retain in her new venues. Indeed, she is welcoming back many of the customers she came know so well.
“In Bukit Timah I knew people when they were single, engaged and then pregnant, and then I helped their kids with their mathematics homework. I got to know their in-laws at Christmas. I have seen them drunk, happy, sad. So many people became more than customers,” she says, while holding up a gorgeous Christmas card from an expat family who were loyal customers.
So, does the pressure as the face of Picotin ever get too much?
“It is a double-edged sword. Whether I am in Siglap or Sentosa, I get an SMS: ‘Jaxs, where are you? We are coming.’” But, Jacky says, this is changing.
“We have loyal staff who have worked with us a long, long time and now people are getting to know them just as well, and they really enjoy that interaction with our regular diners.”
The first question she asks when hiring staff is “Do you like children?”, and if the answer is no, she says, it is difficult to continue the interview.
“We are family-oriented, because kids largely decide where a family eats for dinner,” she adds. Both the Sentosa outlet, which opened 12 months ago, and the Siglap one, which opened six months ago, are geared up for families, but Jacky says she’ll be doing a few Valentine’s Day specials for those who want to get romantic. “Although I don’t mind if they bring their kids along too,” she laughs.
Would Jacky, who continues to work countless hours, recommend hospitality as a career?
“It’s like nursing; it is definitely a vocation. You must make sure you absolutely love it, because you spend so many hours on the job. It’s never just eight hours; it is so many more and can take over your life. If there are any doubts don’t even consider it. But I love it,” she confesses.
Prior to training in Switzerland, Jacky had her first part-time job at 14, as a dishwasher, which she says is a very European way to start out.
“I always loved it. Eventually I moved from washing to peeling carrots, to onions, and then proceeded through every department. So it was to hotel school for me.”
Last year, after nine years of living in Bukit Timah, she moved to the East Coast. She says she is very happy with the change, and discovering a new neighbourhood. She clearly still relishes living in Singapore:
“Who knows what the future brings? There are lots of possibilities for the business. The world is our oyster at the moment; it has gone according to plan. Time flies when you are having fun, correct?”
Picotin Express is at 1 Figaro Street, Siglap and #01-06 Quayside Isle, Sentosa.