Jia Ling Lee
« Caring is the key to success. »
Jia Ling Lee – everyone calls her Ling – is the smile, the host, and one of the key elements of Odette restaurant in Singapore. In fact, she is much more than that, but her job as “Assistant Restaurant Manager” can be difficult to define: “leading the brand, the identity of the place, and making sure the whole team is strongly connected”.
Having worked her way up the ranks, from waitress to manager, helps her “make sure everything is going well and in the right direction”, and ensure a comprehensive customer experience.
She was by no means predestined to work in the hospitality and catering industry. Born in Singapore to a middle income family, her 3 siblings and her were not exposed to travels (“not part of the family culture”) nor to the dining industry.
« When I was a kid, McDonald’s was the only restaurant I knew! »
Her self-confidence was built on encounters and experiences, opening the doors to a world of which she knew nothing, forever shaping her path (she met the love of her life on the journey) and where she now plays a key role.
Jia Ling Lee’s path:
- 1988 : Born in Singapore.
- 2005 : Made her debut in the F&B industry.
- 2010 : Started working at restaurant “Au Petit Salut”.
- 2013 : Started working at Jaan.
- 2015 : Opening of Odette.
- 2016 : Odette receives two Michelin stars just 9 months after opening.
- 2017 : Odette joins Les Grandes Tables du Monde.
- 2019 : Odette receives its third Michelin star.
Like for many, it was first and foremost a student job, a way to finance her Early Childhood education, which led her to work as a waitress in a sushi chain. She quickly – and almost unwillingly – rose through the ranks and became manager after 3 years, at only 20 years old.
It was a formative but difficult experience, leading her to question whether she belonged in this industry.
« It was a new opening. Too many responsibilities, too little guidance, too young. I wanted to try something else, and ended up working in customer relations and insurance for two years. »
This experience helped her take the full measure of her passion for hospitality, and prompted her to start back from the bottom – working as a waitress – in an Italian restaurant, where her commitment and natural skills quickly led her to oversee VIP customers. A definite confidence boost that played a big role:
” The first time a Chef and a Manager acknowledged that I was good at my job truly helped me feel legitimate. It gave me confidence, and truly lifted me up.”
« It’s something I always think about whenever we welcome young people into the team: building someone’s self-confidence can change everything!»
This willingness to pull people up is a particularly valuable skill as a team manager: trust is built over time, and a positive comment can help people give their best – male or female.
Though she was becoming increasingly aware of her abilities, Ling hadn’t yet set her sights on high-end gastronomy. It is Jérôme Desfonds, her manager at “Au Petit Salut” where she worked as headwaitress, who advised her to take an interest in the fine-dining industry. In this French restaurant in Singapore, she was introduced to cheese tasting, one of her great passions, which she managed at Odette for a long time: “I learned to love it through tasting, especially Bernard Antony’s fourme d’Ambert.” At the confluence of the dining room and kitchen, the cheese platter is too often neglected by restaurants, even though it is a core part of the customer’s experience: a key asset that should be used more often to enhance the room staff’s know-how and offer an additional moment to bond with the guests.
Son caractère affirmé et son sens du détail font la différence et la poussent à candidater chez Jaan, restaurant du Swisshôtel où travaille déjà Julien Royer. Car entre-temps, son manager Jérôme Desfonds est devenu… sa moitié : « il m’a tiré vers le haut, en voyant en moi les qualités nécessaires pour y réussir ». Chez Jaan, de chef de rang, la voilà maître d’hôtel pendant deux ans, puis embarquée ensuite dans l’incroyable aventure d’Odette, couronné rapidement de deux étoiles Michelin seulement 9 mois après son ouverture, et tout récemment de trois. Au cœur de la National Gallery de Singapour, cette ambassade française a su faire de la délicatesse, de la précision et de l’élégance sa marque de fabrique, des valeurs que l’équipe partage en parfaite cohérence avec le chef Julien Royer.
A common thread binds Ling’s varied experiences: caring for the well-being of others, caring for those in her care, both customers and teams. The most striking thing when taking the time to chat with Ling is her modesty and uprightness, how her energy is always focused on the needs of others, not forgetting her elegant determination. Looking back to her very first vocation working with children, one can easily realise that caring for others has remained a guiding principle in her know-how.
To be a good waiter, you must first of all “make people feel your hospitality and want to come back”. A role to coordinate closely with the chef, since “you are their messenger, you are there to help customers understand the stories behind the dishes, to convey the chef’s message, the meaning behind the place, the project…”
Does this mean you have to take a back seat to be a good messenger? Not at all! “After all, a restaurant is like a play, in which I have a role. But it’s not an act: I always tell the truth. I learned to respond with subtlety, and to highlight the right things”.
In this close-knit team, while everyone has a well-defined role to play, Ling’s role is to ensure that the team’s workings are running smoothly, while constantly seeking to improve them. Every day is different, the tasks differ but the objective stays the same : to question and improve what is already in place, “to pay attention to the smallest details, which often seem irrelevant to others”.
Planning, organising, keeping an eye on the dining room (watch how she almost imperceptibly readjusts a tablecloth as she walks by) and the well-being of her team: her job is to be everywhere, absolutely essential… and at the same time almost unnoticeable from the outside world.
She humbly advises all women in the industry to invest themselves fully, above all to prove to themselves what they are capable of, and to show both kindness and strength of character: “My mother, who is now retired, used to work two jobs. I know what it’s like to work hard. She taught me to know what I wanted, what should not be done at the expense of others. Caring is the key to success. You need strength to be nice, and to find your place in a restaurant, you need to know who you are.” And the most essential aspect: always value the abilities of your teams to nurture talents they don’t even know they possess.