John Kunkel, the CEO of YardBird and 50 Eggs, is a celebrated name in America’s dining scene, with lauded restaurants from Florida to Las Vegas. Now, it’s his time to shine in Singapore with the arrival of The Bird Southern Table and Bar at Marina Bay Sands.
What’s the earliest memory of your relationship with food and how did it influence your career as a restaurateur?
A lot of people are influenced by food through their parents’ or grandparents’ cooking and that was the case for me too. The earliest memory would be watching my grandmother prepare meals for the family and it was her fried chicken that we looked forward to and the process of preparing it wasn’t easy. It’s a lot of work — it’s messy, dirty, and she used a humble cast iron skillet.
It wasn’t until I was in my 20’s that I realized that being a restaurateur was going to become my livelihood. And at The Bird Southern Table and Bar, the only deviation from my grandmother’s original fried chicken recipe is we use a giant pressure fryer, which she obviously didn’t have!
How did setting up a restaurant in Singapore come about?
It was two and a half years in the making. Our original restaurant is in South Beach in Florida and the Las Vegas Sands came calling for us. And like Singapore, they had all types of restaurants, competing for market share and diners, and wanted something that would be different. When we opened in Vegas, I knew they had a property in Singapore and I brought the idea up with them because I knew it would be great. We started making trips over and learning more about the food scene and trying to understand the property. I think everyone comes to Singapore with respect for the diners. That said, you have to bring your A-game, as well as an understanding of different palates and local culture.
Do you have any local partners?
I don’t have any and I’m amazed I pulled that off somehow! We managed to grow from one success to another, and it felt like I was a high stakes poker player. I’ve been very fortunate and all these restaurants are made possible with the support of the Sands.
For restaurateurs looking to expand their portfolio overseas, what would your advice be?
Operating a restaurant is never easy and then operating a restaurant remotely takes a couple of key components. For us it’s about having a great team on the ground, amazing training leading up to that, and a great chef and general manager who know our core values, the brand, working atmosphere, and service standard. We also made sure we gave the staff here proper tools for training. More importantly, it’s empowering your team on the ground and being able to delegate. Businesswise, you should never take your finger off of things like creative control, branding, and even recipes.
Where would you like to see the brand next?
I’d love to see the concept expand around the region to Australia, Japan and, Hong Kong, which are pretty much major markets that are a hop, skip, and a jump from Singapore. Once that’s all sorted out, we might find ourselves sitting and talking again about our newest space!
What do you hope to contribute to Singapore’s constantly evolving dining scene?
All I want is best in class for Southern cuisine. To be able to achieve what we’ve achieved in the States — I’d be happy. There’s a huge pride factor in everything I do and with this restaurant, it’s a lot more personal because it’s food from my family and food I grew up with. So at the end of the day, what’s important is to just make people happy.
Visit The Bird Southern Table and Bar at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, B1-07, Galleria Level