In Korean, the word "Nae:um" refers to a fragrance that evokes memories. And at newly recognised one-MICHELIN-Starred Nae:um along Telok Ayer Street, Korean chef Louis Han champions his local food culture and recollections of his home country through the form of his episodic menus that change with the seasons. According to our MICHELIN Guide inspectors, innovative courses are precisely executed and presented in an ethereal, refreshing manner, but have inklings of their Korean roots.
How would you describe the cuisine at Nae:um?
Nae:um’s catchphrase is "Contemporary Seoul Cuisine". I cook dishes inspired by my memories and experiences of different countries, while keeping the essence of Korean food at the core. At the same time, our guests are also exposed to international cooking techniques and flavours, similar to how the food in Seoul has a lot of Western influences.
What is the link between aroma and taste that you find so fascinating that you decided to name your restaurant as such?
For me, remembering memories is so important. If that moment is accompanied with good food, you will always recall it pleasantly and remember the people you shared this experience with. Good food makes you remember that precious moment, and an appetising aroma always comes before a delicious taste.
What made you decide to open your own restaurant, especially in the midst of the pandemic?
I always wanted to have a space where I can freely show myself and my style of cooking. I already had a 5-year plan of opening my own restaurant before the pandemic hit. After worrying for a while, I decided to just go with it. I told myself, "Hey Louis, in life, if you make excuses to escape, you will forever be escaping. If not now, then when? The timing is never going to be 'perfect'."
Tell us about your first encounter with the MICHELIN Guide and what influence has it had over your career?
I first heard about the MICHELIN Guide during my middle school days, when my interest in cooking started. As a young Asian boy, I could only dream about working in France. It feels very far away, but back then, I made it a lifetime goal for my future restaurant to receive a MICHELIN Star. So, actually, the MICHELIN Guide has pushed me to grow in my career from the very start.
What did you feel when you found out that Nae:um got its first MICHELIN Star?
Honestly, I didn’t expect any recognition. Nae:um opened just a year ago, and half of the time we were struggling with the lockdown and dine-in restrictions. I didn’t expect that we were going to get a MICHELIN Star, especially since it must have been challenging for the MICHELIN inspectors to visit restaurants during the pandemic. However, I feel grateful to MICHELIN Guide, and I also feel very, very surprised. Until now, it still feels like a dream.
Who was the first person you called when you found out?
My family and close friends in Korea were watching the MICHELIN Guide Asia YouTube Channel's livestream [of the gala dinner event], so my loved ones found out the same time as I did. After that, my memory became blurry from surprise. I messaged my team to arrange a celebratory supper, and then I called my mum afterwards.
How did you celebrate?
We had supper, and I opened a 1990 vintage Dom Perignon that my best friend in France sent me when I opened Nae:um last year. My team has not had time to take a break, so I plan on bringing them on a quick vacation.
Is there anyone you would like to dedicate this recognition to?
My wife. She has given me the greatest support. She redirects me whenever I think too much, or when I am too hard on myself.
What is your message to other young chefs who want to achieve a similar goal as you?
Since dreaming is free, dream high. If you always remind yourself of what you want to achieve, it will come one day. Work hard, but make it fun.
What does Nae:um’s MICHELIN Star mean to you?
It’s very meaningful as it is an achievement of my lifetime dream. There is also pressure to make sure we stay worthy of the recognition.
Who has influenced your life the most in terms of your career?
It has to be chef Sun Kim of Meta. He brought me to Singapore. If he hadn’t done that, none of what I’ve achieved in Singapore — in both my career and my personal life — would have been possible.
Why is the somyeon at Nae:um so important to you? What memories does this dish evoke?
I’m a noodle person since young. My mum knows this, so she used to cook a lot of noodles for me like guksu and somyeon. Sundays used to be our family noodle day, and following this memory ever since I opened the restaurant, I wanted to make my own noodle dish that I can cook for everyone.
How has living in Singapore been like so far?
I didn’t plan on settling down here at first. When I left Singapore after five years to do more learning in Korea, the people I connected with in Singapore continued to encourage me. They were looking forward to my return and my next project. I felt very supported, and I want to prove my worth to them. Singapore gave me a lot of opportunities to grow personally and for my career, so it just slowly and naturally became a second home.
What are your favourite Korean comfort foods?
I go for naengmyeon, tonkatseu, and tteokbokki. There are many great Korean restaurants all over Singapore that serve these dishes.
Must-have Korean items in your pantry?
They're also my comfort foods, actually. I must eat kimchi. I also like to buy banana milk, the fish-shaped waffle ice cream (bung eo ppang), pre-made mandu to go with army stew, and Korean strawberries when in season.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned in the course of your career so far?
Whenever I treat someone sincerely, I find the sincerity somehow comes back to me.
What’s next for Louis Han?
Nae:um is only a year old. I want to make sure this restaurant is sustained for the long-term. I also want to collect more life experiences to grow our episodic menus.
Nae:um is located at 161 Telok Ayer Street, 068615, Singapore. Book a table here.