People 2 minutes 26 May 2020

“We’ve Come Back To The Core Of Cooking”: Ivan Brehm On Reinventing Amid Restaurant Shutdowns

How the chef of MICHELIN-starred Nouri in Singapore pivoted to stay afloat — and rediscovered his call to feed people and connect them to producers in the process.

Singapore COVID-19 Singapore chefs

One day they were waiters and sommeliers, attending to every whim of their well-heeled diners at one-MICHELIN-star restaurant Nouri, and the next, they found themselves in the back room as logistics managers and stock controllers preparing boxes of fresh vegetables to be sent to homes all over Singapore. Chef de parties put aside their toques to become delivery drivers, while the restaurant’s dedicated research team switched gears to develop and market a slew of new products for takeaway and delivery.

In early April as circuit breaker measures kicked in, restaurants in Singapore were forced to close their dining rooms, testing the resilience and creativity of chefs in unprecedented ways. Nouri quickly pivoted to an e-commerce shop under its sister brand and research arm, Appetite, selling a small selection of the restaurant’s rye sourdough loaf, its signature broth course and bottled sauces.

“My first priority was to preserve jobs and keep people employed. We’ve been lucky that our team has been super flexible and used to thinking outside of the box already, so when change hit, we were pretty fast to respond,” says chef-owner Ivan Brehm, who adds that his strategy has simply been to be open-minded and adaptive to “identify the cracks and go for it”.

Connecting people to producers

By chance, the chef came across an Instagram post from a friend that featured Nouri’s broth — with a twist. In the bowl also sat plump tortellini handmade by local private chef and pasta maker Lee Yum Hwa, better known as Ben Fatto.

“I realised there were a ton of local people, not just chefs, but people who were self-employed or small business owners, who were all directly impacted,” says Brehm, who then collaborated with Lee to create unique pasta dishes to be sold on the Appetite e-shop. “I figured we could use our restaurant’s database to help them, and at the same time, fulfill our need to keep active and creative in this time.”

From that collaboration, the chef was inspired to use the opportunity to put the spotlight on more local producers. This expanded to weekly collaborations with other small local artisans and businesses including The Mast’, which produces fresh house-made buffalo milk cheeses, as well as another local private chef, Annette Tan of FatFuku, which launches this week.

He also began partnering with the restaurant’s fresh fruit and vegetable supplier, Cameron Highlands-based farm collective Weeds & More, to offer a weekly selection of vegetables directly to Nouri’s customers, as well as fish from family-owned floating fish farm Tiberias Harvest just off the coast of Pulau Ubin.

Cooking for the people — wherever they are

Even though the Circuit Breaker is set to end on 2 June, the restrictions on dining in at restaurants will not be lifted for the foreseeable future. Brehm acknowledges that even with the restaurant’s relatively successful pivot to e-commerce, takings have been down significantly.

Yet, despite the sobering reality, he says that there are a few precious lessons that the coronavirus crisis has brought home for him.

Despite the hardships, Brehm says that the Covid-19 crisis has brought Nouri beyond its four walls. (Photo and banner image: Nouri / Robin Thang)
Despite the hardships, Brehm says that the Covid-19 crisis has brought Nouri beyond its four walls. (Photo and banner image: Nouri / Robin Thang)

“We have been consistently limited by our four walls in the past. We were always very snarky about the idea of delivering to people’s homes, that it was beneath us in a sense, that it was not ‘fine dining’ enough,” he reflects. “Now if you think about it, going digital means you are able to hit more people. Having a virtual space is important — it is the opportunity to cater to people wherever they are.”

With the glitz and glamour of fine dining put on hold, he was also reminded of his initial call to cooking. “For many in the industry in the last few years, cooking has become related to fame and glory and less about the beauty of cooking food for people. I think a crisis like this helps bring people back to those core values and remind them of what’s important. I don’t want Covid-19 to stay, but I want this idea to stay: that first and foremost, we cook to feed people and connect producers to people.”


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