SINGAPORE — Raffles Hotel Singapore closed its doors last December for its first renovation in almost 30 years. The work updates the entire 130-year-old property, even adding new buildings.
So important to the high-class social fabric of Singapore is the hotel that a starring role in the soon-to-open summer blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians was non-negotiable.
"We got in there soon enough that they were able to hold off in one little wing before the whole thing shut down," director Jon M. Chu tells Bloomberg.
Whatever the cost — hotel owner Katara Hospitality says only that it was a "significant amount" (the last major renovation was estimated at over S$385 million) — the outcome will be astonishing, particularly the lineup of culinary talent.
New chefs include Ms Anne-Sophie Pic, of the three-Michelin star Maison Pic in Valence, France; venerable French master chef Alain Ducasse; and Mr Jereme Leung, who has garnered accolades for his groundbreaking Chinese cooking.
The Singapore Sling will continue to be a house specialty served at the hotel's refurbished Long Bar, where guests will still be able to toss peanut shells on the floor.
The new Raffles emphasizes food and drink so much that, with 10 food and beverage spaces that represent more than 1,100 seats for just 115 suites, it can claim far more tables than beds.
For Singaporean food lovers, the timing is good.
When recently deceased chef Joel Robuchon closed his eponymous French restaurant, the city lost its only Michelin three-star restaurant.
The city's famous food scene was taken down further with the release of the latest Michelin results in June. Some local chefs worried that travellers seeking best-in-the-world restaurants might start looking elsewhere.
"We are catapulting our property to the front of the culinary world again," says Raffles' general manager Christian Westbeld, who estimates that most local restaurants have a two-year lifespan. The two French powerhouses attest to the city's current obsession with that country's cuisine.
THE NEW LOOK
Mr Westbeld describes the renovation as an opportunity to cater to the needs of modern travellers while "preserving all the things from the last 100 years that have made us famous and unique".
The iconic white facade of Raffles will remain untouched. Ms Alexandra Champalimaud, whose self-titled design firm is handling the redo, compares it to a "very beautiful wedding cake".
Inside, the original eucalyptus floors that date back to 1895 have been revarnished and reinstalled, plank by shiny plank.
The colour palette is bolder. The Peranakan-style bathrooms are now bigger, swapping dark green marble for a bright, white look; some have walk-in dressing rooms and freestanding tubs.
Throughout the hotel are various new categories of suites, from 500 sq ft studios to five sprawling "residences".
The most significant changes are downstairs in the lobby and the many rooms that surround it.
"It's sort of like the Taj Mahal, with its huge personality," Ms Champalimaud said of the space, which has evolved from small, separated parlours to an expansive, open area that will be accented by a huge chandelier being constructed in the Czech Republic.
"We replanned the entire lobby to make it a social space, whereas before it was just a place to sit," says Mr Jon Kastl, Ms Champalimaud's project lead.
Now, he adds, "there aren't hard lines drawn between the lobby and the restaurant spaces", facilitating entry to the dining rooms.
EATING AND DRINKING AT THE NEW RAFFLES
When Raffles opened its restaurant in 1899, it was the first hotel in Singapore to hire a French chef. Once again, the hotel is spotlighting French cuisine.
La Dame de Pic
Chef Pic has a personal connection to the hotel: She stayed there on her honeymoon. This is her first restaurant in Asia; when the hotel offered her a partnership, she saw it as an opportunity to be part of a legendary property, as well as the city.
"Singapore appears to me as a real dynamic and inspiring, multicultural city," she tells Bloomberg. "It reminds me a little bit of London, with its diversity of kitchen horizons that allows me to create a great culinary symbiosis."
The chef is known for transforming under-appreciated ingredients, such as cabbage, and incorporating a battery of spices and herbs like cardamom, star anise, and shisho with traditional French technique.
"The common thread of my cuisine will remain in the menus but will be imbued with market products. I have always been attracted to Asian ingredients… creating new flavors will represent a full time job for me and my team," she says.
One dish she promises to serve is her signature berlingots: cheese-stuffed pasta shaped into pyramidal packets, like the old-fashioned French hard candies she grew up with.
La Dame de Pic's drinks pairing menu will be notably ambitious, with options from wine and sake to whiskey, dashi, and consomme.
The wine list will be geared towards France, particularly Ms Pic's native Rhone Valley.
Ms Champalimaud describes the vibe of the pastel-toned dining room as "exquisite, like wearing a beautiful, simple stone on your finger", with lots of space between tables.
Because the chef loves peonies, they designed plaster renditions of the flower for the walls and ceilings. Even the chef's name figures in the design: Because pic translates as "spade", the light fixtures were designed to highlight the curved shape.