Asia's Most Influential: The Tastemakers
Tatler Singapore|May 2021
From top-notch chefs, successful restaurateurs and creative mixologists to dedicated educators and innovative food tech experts, these personalities have made a notable difference in Singapore’s capricious dining scene. Meet the tastemakers who have contributed their vision, creativity and talent to shape Asia’s culinary landscape
Naomi Tzi

CYNTHIA CHUA

Founder and chairman of Spa Esprit Group

Cynthia Chua has the Midas touch. The relentless entrepreneur is a tastemaker in the truest sense of the word. Since 1996, the savvy founder of the Spa Esprit Group has built an entire lifestyle empire encompassing some of the city’s most noteworthy F&B venues as well as beauty and wellness brands. The 16 brands (and counting) span over 100 outlets in 10 cities including Bangkok, Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Chua has an uncanny ability to give consumers what they don’t know they want yet. She has dynamically introduced new concepts— to much fanfare—into the Singaporean market such as natural wine bar Drunken Farmer, farm-to-table dining experiences Noka, and Open Farm Community, and gut-friendly and gluten-free venue The Butcher’s Wife. The group, one of the brunch and coffee culture pioneers in Singapore, opens the seventh Tiong Bahru Bakery at the foothills of the historic Fort Canning Hill in April, and a new Common Man Coffee Roasters in Joo Chiat this month.

RISHI NALEENDRA

Chef-owner of one Michelin-starred Cheek Bistro, fine dining restaurant Cloudstreet, and Kotuwa, Singapore’s first full-service Sri Lankan restaurant

What’s new for you this year?

Cloudstreet just opened in July 2019, and we still have a long way to go. We may extend and have a cold kitchen upstairs for pastry. We opened Kotuwa in December 2020 and it’s doing very well. You can’t get Sri Lankan food anywhere else here. After we settle in Singapore, we may take Kotuwa somewhere else like Australia— it’d be nice for us to have something there.

Your restaurants have received various accolades. What’s your winning formula?

We have sacrificed our personal time so much. You just get better the more you work on something. In the last seven years in Singapore, we’ve just worked a lot and it’s paid off. All the awards—that’s amazing to have, but they don’t last forever. You have to be one step ahead. I’m not trying to compete with anyone else. You have to compete with yourself.

Also, investing in people—that’s the key. A lot of our staff have been with us since the start. It’s that kind of opportunity that you need to give to people and make sure they know the value of stepping up, being responsible, and having a sense of ownership. I’ve given them a lot of creative freedom with the menus, and I guess that gives them a lot of joy to stay on.

What else do you hope to achieve?

I’m just turning 36 and still have a long way to go. It’s a marathon, and I’m pacing myself. When I work for a place, there was always a purpose and it was never about money. I knew when the time is right, money will follow. It’s not just about passion and creativity that keeps you alive—it’s also being financially sustainable. I have to be savvy with the business side of things.

How did you face last year’s lockdown challenges?

I genuinely think 2020 was one of the best years that I’ve ever had in my career. It was so tough, but I think I’ve learnt the most last year. When there’s a problem, there’s opportunity. We got Kotuwa up and running, and I learnt how important branding practices are, and how to build up a business.

We had four days’ notice before the circuit breaker, and we were still thinking how to do Cloudstreet’s delivery. I can’t remember what triggered it, but I decided to do Sri Lankan food delivery. After our last service, Cloudstreet’s kitchen was a very different set-up. We had to get new kitchen equipment and we started doing Sri Lankan food. You should always have a plan, but you have to be able to change and adapt.

DAMIAN D’SILVA

Chef of Restaurant Kin

At a time when Singapore couldn’t possibly enjoy a more cosmopolitan dining scene, heritage cuisine stalwarts such as Damian D’Silva certainly feel like a breath of fresh air. Affectionately dubbed the “grandfather of heritage cuisine”, D’Silva is by now a familiar face to many with his role as a judge on MasterChef Singapore, and not least his championing of the preservation of Singapore’s heritage dishes. He painstakingly documents the country’s complex culinary history through the time- honoured dishes he serves at Restaurant Kin. Diners tucking into D’Silva’s piquant dishes are treated to a tapestry of flavours woven together by personal stories of yesteryears, a combination that takes Singaporean diners down the journey of remembering their own wonderfully unique and multicultural identities.

BEPPE DE VITO

Chef-restaurateur and founder of il Lido Group

The name behind some of Singapore’s buzziest dining concepts wears many hats. Beppe De Vito, the founder and owner of il Lido Group juggles a whole variety of restaurants ranging from luxe dining destinations Art, Gemma and the Michelin-starred Braci, to breezy rooftop bars Levant and Southbridge, to casual restaurant Amò. The dynamic Italian chef certainly seems to have a knack for ideating and executing crowd-pleasing concepts—his latest venture is Carne, a joint partnership with chef Mauro Colagreco of three Michelin- starred restaurant Mirazur in France. It ticks all the right boxes in sustainability, a game changer for a restaurant specialising in the icon of the fast-food industry: burgers. De Vito’s hands-on approach, entrepreneurial spirit and soul-satisfying food have enabled him to stay afloat in the erratic F&B industry, and even thrive in it.

KEN LOON

Restaurateur of Naked Finn, Magic Square and BurgerLabo

Restaurateur Ken Loon and his team are known for conceptualising some of the finest seafood creations at Naked Finn since 2012. He is also the brainchild behind Magic Square, which started as a year-long pop-up in 2018 to provide opportunities for young local chefs. “Magic Square is the first step in our pursuit for an evolution of modern Singaporean cuisine; it’s a continuous project to provide the platform for our talents to explore and experiment,” says Loon. Recruitment of self-motivated chefs is critical to the success for Magic Square, which provides the space, tools, access to quality and diverse ingredients, and mentors including top chefs from around the world. “Collectively as a like-minded team, they will push each other forward. My role is very much behind the scenes … setting up the platform for them to explore and experiment,” says Loon. He will be reopening Magic Square in a permanent location in mid-2021, as well as an affordable, standalone burger restaurant around the same time.

SAMIA AHAD

Chef and founder of Coriander Leaf

Twenty years on and still going strong. Suffice to say, Samia Ahad is one of the luminaries in the local F&B industry. Her restaurant, Coriander Leaf, started serving imaginative, pan-Asian cuisine in Robertson Quay back in 2001. Now, Coriander Leaf can now be found at Chjimes and most recently, the Singapore Polo Club. The restaurant breathes fresh air into the club, drawing in members and new visitors with Ahad’s colourful cuisine, which inclusively caters to all dietary restrictions, in a most timely fashion.

In recent years, Ahad has also pivoted her business towards catering services, corporate team-building activities and culinary classes—the latter now done virtually, taking participants around the world with Ahad’s signature eclectic cuisine that draws on multifaceted culinary cultures.

BJORN LOW

Co-founder and executive director of Edible Garden City

Bjorn Low sees the world through green-coloured lenses. The co-founder of Edible Garden City innovatively champions urban farming in Singapore. In its nine years, Low has transformed the social enterprise with a 360-degree approach that impacts every individual involved in the urban food cycle: chefs and consumers have access to a steady supply of local produce from its farm in Queenstown (the latter through weekly subscription boxes). He also lends his expertise to designing and building herb gardens for restaurants, hotels, schools, offices and residential homes, while empowering the next generation to rediscover their connection to the land through classes and workshops. Local food artisans like chocolate makers and brewers frequently collaborate with Low to incorporate local produce into their products. With each new strategic and well-rounded initiative, Low moves even closer to helping urban agriculture take root in Singapore, and the Singaporean identity.

IVAN BREHM

Chef-owner of Nouri and Appetite

It’s no understatement to say that Ivan Brehm is a man with food on his mind. The chef behind the Michelin-starred Nouri restaurant approaches food with the intellect of an anthropologist, investigating the moments of cultural intersection across cuisines. The result is “crossroads cuisine”, which sees his creations drawing on global culinary traditions and flavours. Extending the idea of crossroads cuisine to cultural experiences, in 2020 Brehm launched Appetite, a space that brings art, music and food together. While Appetite started as Nouri’s research and development arm, the new space (which sits just above Nouri) showcases daring R&D dishes that draw on collaborative research with historians, artists, journalists and designers. A 3,000-strong vinyl collection and art gallery also guarantee plenty of stimulating conversations in the homey space.

JAMIE KOH

Founder and managing director of Brass Lion Distillery, Singapore’s first standalone micro-distillery specialising in small-batch craft spirits

What are some of the innovative sustainable solutions you have come up with?

We have created a sustainability product line which uses upcycled ingredients from our distillation processes. For example, we used fresh pineapples for the Batik Gin made in collaboration with Singapore Airlines and the Singapore Tourism Board, and those same pineapples were made into pineapple tarts for the recent Lunar New Year. During circuit breaker, we made hand sanitisers using by-products of distillation. As part of our commitment to quality, we hand-peel all of our citrus fruits and use the peels for distillation. The fruits without peels are then cut and dehydrated for use in our tasting room and bar as garnishes. Other interesting products that we’ve made as part of our sustainability product line include gin marmalade, hot sauce, ice cream, cooking salts and more.

Besides e-commerce, what are some of the creative concepts introduced?

Aside from DIY cocktail kits, bottled cocktail series and virtual cocktail classes which we created during the circuit breaker period when we were forced to pivot quickly, we like to collaborate with like-minded local businesses. Examples would be chocolate bonbons in collaboration with local chocolatier Mr Bucket, the Osmanthus Oolong Gin with Gryphon Tea Company, and the Flourishing Fortune Gin with local homeware and furniture design brand, Scene Shang. We’ve also collaborated with OUE Oakwood to launch a special “Oops, I’ve Ginned! Staycation Package” and three specially concocted cocktails at the property’s bar.

What were the biggest lessons you’ve learnt in 2020?

What happened last year highlighted the importance of being flexible and adapting to continually changing conditions. The uncertainty of the situation could have been demoralising as things changed so rapidly that we had no idea whether what we were currently working on would be relevant the following week. But it was important to me that we retain the entire team and not let anyone go, and also to keep morale up through new and exciting projects. Moving forward into the future, I believe that it is important to keep the same optimism and spirit of creativity and adaptability as there will always be challenges faced, and it is the attitude in which we face them that will play a huge part in the eventual outcome.

WILL LEONARD

Group general manager of The Loco Group. The group embarked on the “LoC02” Green Steps initiative, and led the founding of Singapore’s first F&B Sustainability Council

What have you achieved so far with the “LoC02” Green Steps initiative, and how are you taking sustainability to the next level?

I think if you compare what we’ve achieved in a practical sense of sustainability, we are by no means the “highest achiever”, nor do we claim to be. What I am proud about is the number of businesses and individuals we have influenced to either do more, stay motivated, or start from scratch. This was what we envisioned as our goal when we started out. Therefore, in the next few years, we would love to see the F&B Sustainability Council transform into an association that can have a wider membership base and scale its impact even further beyond just those businesses in our immediate sphere of influence.

What are some of the F&B Sustainability Council’s plans?

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