“Less stiff and stuffy, more cool and funky” – Zén’s Tristin Farmer on the dining experience of the future

Giulia Sgarbi - 02/05/2023


At the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023 awards ceremony, the prestigious Gin Mare Art of Hospitality Award went to Singapore’s Zén, a Nordic-inspired restaurant with a focus on Japanese produce and a unusual dining experience spread across three floors. 50 Best catches up with executive chef Tristin Farmer to peek behind the curtain at an establishment helping take hospitality into the next era

There are a few things that set restaurant Zén apart. Opened in 2018 by the Frantzén group, it immediately stood out in Singapore thanks to its cuisine – it’s not everyday you find a restaurant inspired by Scandinavia firmly lodged into the dining scene of a tropical Southeast Asian capital. The second is the space: a former traditional shophouse on Singapore’s Bukit Pasoh Road, its unassuming white façade hides three separate dining areas inside, through which guests move over the course of the meal. The final factor is the chef at its helm, Scotsman Tristin Farmer.

The fast-talking yet reflective chef is perhaps Zén’s secret weapon. Under his leadership, the restaurant didn’t only become a jewel in Singapore’s culinary crown, but also developed a model whereby it only opens four days a week, giving its full staff regular long weekends off. Although more and more restaurants have been adopting similar models across the world, Zén was among the first in Singapore – and Farmer is adamant that’s the reason behind it winning the Gin Mare Art of Hospitality Award 2023.

“The longer people stay with us at Zén, the better restaurant we are,” he states. “Staff retention is really important to us. If people are happy, engaged and stimulated, if we’re pushing them to do better and giving them opportunities to be promoted within the restaurant, then we are creating a better experience for the guests as a result.”
Zén was among the first restaurants in Singapore to adopt a four-day working week

That experience takes the shape of a nine-course menu featuring Nordic techniques and mostly Japanese ingredients handpicked by Farmer and Zén’s team, served to a high-energy pop-and-rock music playlist as diners move from the shophouse’s ground floor for canapes to the first floor for mains, and finally into the third floor for desserts and petit fours. It sounds gimmicky, eclectic and feels like it shouldn’t work – yet it does, primarily thanks to the team’s attention to detail.

From the moment guests arrive at Zén, a well-oiled machine is put in motion. The front-of-house team – led by general manager Aaron Jacobson and restaurant manager Lisa Nilsson – observes guests, picking up on subtle cues such as the way they interact with each other, whether they want to know more about the meal or prefer not to be disturbed, if they look like they are warm or cold, and much more. They are on a mission to ensure that diners feel happy and relaxed throughout the whole meal, which can last in the region of three to three-and-a-half hours.

From Guns ‘n’ Roses to The Smiths, Nancy Sinatra to Fleetwood Mac, music plays a central role at the restaurant, setting a high-paced rhythm for the meal and immediately inspiring a sense of a down-to-earth experience, rather than one guided by the rules of old-school fine dining. “We play the music a little bit louder, which also makes the whole experience more private and intimate because people don’t have to keep their voices down, but they can still feel like no one’s listening,” explains Farmer.
The team at Zén is on a mission to make diners feel happy and relaxed

Although Zén doesn’t have a counter or open kitchen, the boundaries between kitchen and dining room are blurred. The restaurant has no food runners; instead, chefs and waiters alike are trained to plate and serve dishes tableside, with cooks enjoying plenty of face-time with customers. Indeed, if you were to peek into Zén on a service day, you wouldn’t even be able to tell the chefs and waiters apart: everyone wears the same uniform.

As you progress through the meal, the staff lead you higher up the shophouse ending in the ‘living room’ on the third floor, a relaxed setting for a dish that has become synonymous with Zén itself: heart-shaped waffles accompanied by premium seasonal Japanese fruits. The tongue-in-cheek nature of this unexpected dessert – which diners can order more of to their hearts’ content – is exemplary of the restaurant’s style of casual luxury.
Zén's ingredients feature Japanese and Nordic produce handpicked by the team 

“We’ve always wanted to do this style of service, where it’s less pretentious and more engaging,” says Farmer. “These days, it’s less stiff and stuffy and more cool and funky. We laugh, we make jokes and sometimes we say weird things. People say it shouldn’t be like that in a three-star restaurant, but that’s how we want fine dining to be – more fun.”

During its early years, Zén opened five days a week for dinner only. When it reopened in 2020 after the pandemic, it switched to just four days a week with both lunch and dinner services. In October 2022, it changed those four opening days to exclude the weekend; currently, you can only eat at the restaurant between Tuesday and Friday, meaning that most of the staff can enjoy a three-day weekend.
For Farmer, the Gin Mare Art of Hospitality Award is a recognition for the team's hard work

“We found a model that works for us by looking at how we could increase the quality of the food and decrease the working hours, while keeping everyone happy and engaged at the same time,” says Farmer. “But it’s not one-size-fits-all. We are privileged that we can do this and still be fully booked. Even if this wouldn’t work in your restaurant or in your city, it doesn’t mean that you should work all day every day. By looking at the reality and the factors you have, you can find ways to work around it.”

For Farmer and his team, the Gin Mare Art of Hospitality Award was the cherry on the proverbial cake. “It reflects the level of training and teamwork that we put into the whole guest experience. It’s a very chef thing to say: ‘it’s all about the food’. And it’s true, but it’s also about the experience and this is recognition for the team’s hard work. It also helps inspire them and push that little bit more.”
Signature heart-shaped waffles and tea milk honey ice cream 

Next, the team is working on the launch of a new concept for the Frantzén group in Singapore: an all-day casual brasserie following the model of Brasserie Astoria in Stockholm. With the first service scheduled for mid-2023, Farmer has assembled a crew of long-standing team members to lead the opening of the new venue, where he says “you could come with your friends for a pizza and a beer, or you could come and have caviar and lobster and create your own tasting menu – it’s going to be unpretentious, à la carte and open every day”.

As he looks ahead, Farmer wants to double down on the restaurant’s unique points. “The next step for us is to keep making the food better. It sounds cliché, but it’s true: you’re only as good as your last service. So we’ll keep pushing the food programme, we’ll encourage the team to grow, to take on more responsibility and to have more fun. There’s not much else to do. Maybe close four days a week?!”

Now catch up on the best moments from the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2023 celebrations in Singapore: 

The list of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2023, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, was announced on 28th March 2023 at an awards ceremony in Singapore. To stay up to date with the latest news, follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.