Seasoned To Succeed
Tatler Singapore|May 2021
The story behind culinary power couple Sebastien Lepinoy and Olivia Lee’s unlikely match is written in the stars—with stars
Yuen Lin Koh

He is the reserved French chef who, in a bid to raise the quality and value of his offerings, defied conventions by increasing his food costs to almost 80 per cent—more than double the industry norm and a potential financial suicide—and was rewarded his third Michelin star. A protégé of legendary chef Joël Robuchon, he is known by gourmets around the world for the quintessentially French haute cuisine he presents at Les Amis: each course is decadently generous yet with a refined lightness and purity. Think a starter comprising discs of tender roseval potatoes topped with a cloud of crème fraiche and adorned with micro-blooms, served around a handsome dome of glistening caviar; or an ethereally light sea urchin flan given weight by a velvety fennel sauce and slivers of prized truffle.

Within the industry, however, he is respected for more than just his exceptional culinary prowess. Throughout his 31-year career, he has proven his mettle as a cool-headed tactician who can strategise for the long-term, and one with the tenacity to follow through his plans. In him is also a fearlessness to break conventions and take huge but calculated risks for what he believes in. Sebastien Lepinoy is a quiet titan of the fine dining scene: when he speaks, people listen.

If Lepinoy is the strategist with his foundation set deep and his sights set far, his wife, Olivia Lee, is a dynamic overachiever rocketing into new frontiers at lightning speed. As a culinary and pastry management and arts graduate of Switzerland’s DCT International Hotel & Business Management School (now known as the Culinary Arts Academy Switzerland), she became Korea’s very first female chef to work at Dubai’s iconic Burj Al Arab, and went on to work for Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris, including three-star establishment Le Meurice by Yannick Alléno.

In 2008, within five years of working in some of the top kitchens of the world, she was scouted to join CJ Group—a South Korean conglomerate with beginnings in the food services industry, but is now a global giant with businesses in logistics, pharmaceutics and biotechnology—to oversee overseas CJ food brands. In the same year, she also became the youngest person to be appointed an adjunct professor at BaekSeok Culture University at age 26, imparting her knowledge on the global food scene as well as the requisite skills for excelling on the world’s stage. A fearless go-getter, Lee does not hesitate to deep dive into new roles.

One with an unaffected elegance and disarming vivaciousness, Lee also charms with her sincerity and generosity. When we met for the photoshoot, she treated the crew to the premium Korean strawberries exclusively retailing at Culina—and made sure every single member of the team tried the seasonal gem. She builds relationships with her wit and her warmth, and it’s no surprise that she quickly attracted the attention of South Korea’s biggest names in politics, business and entertainment to become their personal cooking instructor and private chef. She was also engaged to host food shows, and contribute as columnist for Chosun Ilbo, the country’s leading daily newspaper. As part of the tourism policy and advisory committee, she even served the executive office of the president between 2012 to 2013.

The two are drastically different: he, shy and unassuming, while she is a bubbly ball of energy. Yet their deep interest and appreciation of fine gastronomy, a shared sense of ambition—and love, of course—united Lepinoy and Lee. Seven years together as a married couple, they are one another’s pillar of strength.

In 2019, Lee founded Korean produce import and marketing company Brandfit. Armed with her influence and connections in Korea, and influenced by Lepinoy’s meticulousness in planning and subtly aided by his clout, she now plays an instrumental role in bringing uber premium Korean produce into the kitchens of revered establishments such as Odette, Nouri and Cloudstreet—and also into the homes of connoisseurs seeking the best for their everyday consumption.

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