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Setting up a cafe in Singapore: We chat to Fine Palate owner Heather Barrie

By: Verne Maree

It seems odd to call Heather Barrie a Melburnian, when Singapore has been her home for the past 23 years. I first met her some eight years ago, when she hosted a cookware launch at her home and her business premises in a colonial black-and-white terrace near Newton Circus. After that (call me shallow), I was always keen to attend an event where Fine Palate was doing the catering – it was definitely going to be good.

After moving her main kitchen to 51 Waterloo Street and opening Fine Palate Café there, Heather finds herself spending more time at this equally attractive location.

Heather Barrie sounds like Halle Berry, but they are different really 

What brought you to Singapore?

My then-husband’s job with Citibank, in 1990. We had a year-old son, James, and I was pregnant with our second child, Daniel. James (24) now works for me here, and Daniel (22) is studying in Melbourne.

 

How did you get into catering?

After James was born, while we were living in Sydney, I’d sold my partnership in a computer technology company. Being used to a fast-paced work life, it took me just ten minutes in Singapore to realise I had to do something to keep me amused.

To make new friends, I started inviting people over for dinner at our black-and-white home in Adam Park. In those days – more than 20 years ago – much less was available in the shops, so I had to make many of my ingredients from scratch, such as fresh pasta and fresh cheeses. People’s interest was piqued, and they asked me to show them how it was done. So I started informal classes at home. More than sharing recipes, it was more about sharing my philosophy on home and lifestyle – how to approach a dinner party for 12 as opposed to one for 30 guests, for example.

 

Why was that so popular, do you think?

It was a case of right time, right place. In those days, it wasn’t easy for a trailing spouse to get a work pass; what’s more, many of us had very young children and only expected to be here for two or at most three years. There was also a demand for the training of maids in how to run a Western-style kitchen too, how to shop, how to manage a household and how to entertain flawlessly.

Next came the question: can you help me entertain 20 people? And that’s where the idea for my own catering business was born. I’ll always remember the words of a friend who said: “Don’t be crazy, you’re putting too much time and effort into this and no one is going to pay you for it.” My response? I told her I enjoyed the challenge so much that I didn’t care if they didn’t pay.

 

You had the talent and the interest. How did you acquire the necessary skills?

I undertook a journey of self-learning. First, I needed to get some real Singapore industry knowledge. In those days, Western dining was almost all fine-dining and almost all in the big hotels – there were hardly any independent restaurants. So I made a proposal to the Shangri-La: I would work for them without pay, but on my own terms, coming and going as I wished. They welcomed me with open arms.

That helped me get accepted into a course in France in 1994, a kind of finishing school for chefs that required me to be working in a professional environment. We got to experience traditional European produce from various regions, we visited farms that produced them and we had to cook for and be critiqued by chefs from those regions.

 

And so Fine Palate was born?

Yes. I was now ready to start professional catering, mainly for the expat community: poolside buffets, sit-down dinners and so on. Because there was nothing like it at the time, I got noticed. Expats understood what I was doing and it grew from there. I’ve never been interested in serving $10 meals for a thousand people; that’s just business, with no creativity or style involved, and other people do it so much better. My ethos is to focus on quality of the food we offer, and looking after our clients by giving them good value.

The fabulous Fine Palate Cafe at 51 Waterloo Street 

Why did you move to 51 Waterloo Street?

Our growth has been organic. For a small company like this, our centralised Bukit Batok kitchen was too removed from clients; I need to be able to see what’s going on in the kitchen. Fine Palate Café has been another learning curve; it was born because we couldn’t have this kitchen space without doing retail, too. It has also been an opportunity to present the Fine Palate brand to the wider public, though catering is still our main business.

You can’t afford to mess up catering; each event, be it private or corporate, is a one-off. The smallest event we do is a gourmet sit-down dinner for a minimum of 12 people; engagements, weddings, 40th birthdays, 50th birthdays and so on. The biggest was H&M’s opening party, where we served canapés for 2,000 guests. For a BP event we provided live cooking stations to feed 1,000 diners.

51 Waterloo Street is a gem. We work well with the art galleries upstairs, Art Trove and Yavuz, either catering for their events or proposing them as venues to our own clients. I’ve done a few weddings up there.

 

Any challenges?

Because all our food is handmade and I insist on things being done a certain way, it takes a long time to train staff to the proficiency level that I want. I’m also a control person; I’m not happy if today’s hummus tastes slightly different to the one I usually make. What’s more, current market conditions are not at all favourable for a small business, so increasing costs and staff difficulties mean we have to make adjustments to our business model.

With so many restaurants opening (and closing) all the time – I counted five last week alone – they can’t possibly all sustain repeat business and develop good followings. There’s a lot of culinary noise right now; tapas, for example, can be an excuse to serve very little food for a lot of money. I understand that it’s because rents are so high, and chefs can be so expensive. Opening a restaurant can be like buying a boat – a bottomless money-pit.

 

What are your all-time top three canapés?

That’s easy: zucchini frittata, duck rillettes and crispy chicken triangles. But we have over 100 canapé items that we use regularly. In fact, I’m about to start offering self-service canapé platters that can be picked up from us or delivered to your event venue.

They’re designed for someone who is entertaining on a very small scale and wants freshly handmade, artisan-quality products delivered to the door. The market is already there, as I’ve been doing it informally over the years; but, now I’m designing the packaging and trays, we need to formalise the service.

 

Fine Palate Café

51 Waterloo Street

6463 1761 | finepalate.com.sg

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