SINGAPORE – “It’s an addiction,” laughed Bernie Utchenik of the food and beverage industry, “in the sense that it’s a ‘terrible’ occupation.”
“You work harder than anybody [who is not in the F&B industry] could even think. You definitely put in hours that are outlandish. You miss all the holidays, birthdays, things like that.”
Utchenik, who turns 69 this year, is the man who opened Botak Jones in 2003, the popular Western food stall chain with large portions and unique offerings. After leaving Botak Jones, he started another chain called Big Bern’s American Grill, with outlets at Timbre+ and Gluttons Bay (they also had an outlet at Toa Payoh in 2017), before closing it down earlier this year.
Today, he has re-opened Botak Jones under the name “The Original Botak Jones”, at a coffee shop at 118 Depot Lane, with many favourites returning to the menu such as his fish and chips, chicken gumbo soup, and cheese-topped cajun chicken.
On why F&B is an addiction, Utchenik had this to say. “There are very few things, outside of performing on stage or F&B, that give you a very immediate response to what you’re doing. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience that both on stage and in the kitchen. That touches you in a way few things can, so you tend to want that again. It’s a high that you keep getting in.”
Performing on stage? Utchenik is a man of many talents, it seems.
He used to stay in Malaysia, where he got to know a dear friend who performed at the same pub that he did. When Utchenik moved to Singapore (he was in the oil industry then), his friend, who had also moved here, called him up on stage. “Oh my gumbo babies, come up here and sing a song with me!” his friend, who has passed on, would say. That’s how he started singing in Singapore.
Utchenik’s venture into the food business started with a group of close friends he had made in the oil industry.
“I thought, at that time, I was getting on in years. But I actually in my 40s,” he chuckled. “And we were always talking about what we would do if we weren’t working in the oil field. One of the things was, we would like to bring the real food that we grew up with here, where people haven’t really experienced it.”
In 1996, that seed germinated into a place called Bernie’s, which was located opposite Changi Prison. Utchenik soon grew it to three outlets, and eventually ran the business full-time.
After trying out another venture at Boat Quay in 1999, he finally came up with his brainchild — Botak Jones.
“I don’t know why I came up with the name, outside of the fact that I’m a botak,” smiled Utchenik as he pointed at his bald pate. “But I thought that Jones is such a Western name. And it has other meanings, like if you have a ‘jones’ for something, you’ve got a need for it.”
As a result, Botak Jones has both local and Western influences in the name. “Plus you want people to jones for the food, good food.”
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