People 6 minutes 31 August 2022

Meet Nae:um's Louis Han, Winner of Singapore’s MICHELIN Guide Young Chef Award 2022

Apart from his restaurant being recognised with its first MICHELIN Star this year, the 32-year-old Korean chef also bagged the Young Chef Award in the recent MICHELIN Guide Singapore Star Revelation 2022.

Michelin Star Young Chef Award MICHELIN Guide Singapore 2022

It is a big year for Louis Han, chef-owner of one-MICHELIN-Starred Nae:um along Telok Ayer Street. Apart from his restaurant being recognised with its first MICHELIN Star this year, the 32-year-old also bagged the Young Chef Award in the recent MICHELIN Guide Singapore Star Revelation 2022.

Presented by Blancpain, the Young Chef Award is an accolade given to a chef under 36 years of age, who is working in a MICHELIN-Starred restaurant and displays exceptional talent and great potential.

L-R: Carrie Poon (Regional Manager of Blancpain), Gwendal Poullennec (MICHELIN Guide International Director), and Louis Han (Chef-owner of Nae:um) during the MICHELIN Guide Singapore 2022 Star Revelation and Gala Dinner (Photo: MICHELIN)
L-R: Carrie Poon (Regional Manager of Blancpain), Gwendal Poullennec (MICHELIN Guide International Director), and Louis Han (Chef-owner of Nae:um) during the MICHELIN Guide Singapore 2022 Star Revelation and Gala Dinner (Photo: MICHELIN)

On achieving his goals earlier than expected

“Actually, sometimes, I forget my age,” says Han with a laugh. “Most of my customers think I’m in my late thirties and talk to me as if I’m that age.” Ever since Han opened Nae:um in 2021, he says that the responsibility has made him feel older than his friends back home in Korea. “They have more free time to enjoy life, but I cannot be as playful,” he adds. “Even when the restaurant is closed, my brain is still working, so I’m very appreciative that the MICHELIN Guide reminded me that I am still young,” he says jovially.

“When I first started this career, I made it my goal to have a MICHELIN Star when I was 35 years old. It's a dream come true to achieve it at 32.”

The MICHELIN Guide Young Chef Award is proudly presented by Blancpain, the world's oldest watch brand that shares the same values with the world of haute cuisine. It has been nurturing relationships with haute cuisine as well as MICHELIN-Starred restaurant chefs for over 30 years. The MICHELIN Guide Young Chef Award is an accolade given to young chefs who dare to think outside the box, with a creativity that sparks positive change to haute cuisine. This award is not a “simple” piece that Blancpain hands out. It is an award that helps drive the Singapore food industry forward, as well as encourages young chefs to push their creative limits.

Louis Han, 32, the winner of this year’s MICHELIN Guide Young Chef Award, is the chef-owner of Nae:um, the newly awarded one-MICHELIN-starred restaurant that serves dishes inspired by Han's memories. (Photo: Nae:um)
Louis Han, 32, the winner of this year’s MICHELIN Guide Young Chef Award, is the chef-owner of Nae:um, the newly awarded one-MICHELIN-starred restaurant that serves dishes inspired by Han's memories. (Photo: Nae:um)

Upon stepping inside Nae:um, the ambiance is bright and is furnished in a cream and birch colour scheme, providing diners with a sense of calm and warmth. The Korean word “naeum” refers to a fragrance that evokes memories; and for Han, his restaurant’s menu tells the story of his favourite food memories around the world, but with Korean food culture at its core.

“I realised that a restaurant is not only about the food. It is also about the experience that goes beyond the food, and this makes a restaurant visit memorable. I want to deliver my own story to my guests, and I hope that the sincerity I put into my dishes will be felt,” he says. “The same goes with good restaurants in Korea; they don’t need to have the most beautiful interiors, but they carry a certain naeum with them — you just know the food is going to be good,” he shares.

On making his mother proud

Born in January 1990, Han is an only child. His mother is a lawyer by profession, while his grandmother and aunt took charge of their home’s kitchen. When asked about what Han’s favourite naeum is, he smiles and talks about how his grandmother’s galbi jjim (Korean beef stew) gives him joy.

“I believe that good food always starts with an aroma because it gives you the anticipation that something pleasant is about to happen.”

“My mother wanted me to be a doctor or a scientist, initially,” says Han. “But I was stubborn — I applied for culinary school and passed the application exam without telling her. When she found out what I did, she was very angry, and she was not as supportive at first. She thought I chose this path to escape studying,” he adds.

“Ever since I was a child, I enjoyed science — the process of creating and inventing things, such as robots, always fascinated me. One day, I watched a cooking show on television where the chef was creating a new dish, and I realised cooking is so similar to inventing. The culinary world is very risky, and I doubt a lot of families will be supportive at the start. So no one in particular influenced me into this path, really,” Han says.

Han wanted to prove his dedication and sincerity to his mother so badly. They lived an hour and a half away from his culinary school by bus, and Han would wake up at 5:30 every morning. “I was never late to a single class,” beams Han with pride. “After a couple of years, my mother realised how determined I was to pursue culinary arts and softened about my career decision."

“I just wanted to be a good son to my mum. I wanted to show her that the career choice I made was not an irresponsible one; that I can be successful someday.”
Han's mother loved preparing noodles for him, and the signature somyeon dish at Nae:um draws inspiration from those memories. (Photo: Nae:um)
Han's mother loved preparing noodles for him, and the signature somyeon dish at Nae:um draws inspiration from those memories. (Photo: Nae:um)

On pursuing his dream in the midst of the pandemic

Han’s hard work, sincerity, and dedication were definitely not in vain. “Sun Kim [of one-MICHELIN-Starred Meta] took me under his wing. He played a huge role in my development as a chef,” says Han. “Without him, I wouldn’t be where I am today.” After working in Singapore, Han flew back to Korea right before the pandemic struck. This was when his plans took a turn. “Honestly, I wanted to work in a few other countries before opening Nae:um,” confesses Han.

“Sometimes, when life puts you in moments where you have to make a bold and brave decision, you simply have to trust. If not now, then when? There simply is no perfect moment; you just have to go for it.”
219746009_173942704726354_2983731847582553024_n.jpeg

Nae:um opened in 2021, as restaurants were slowly re-opening in Singapore. At the time, Han explains the circumstances as “weird”. “There were so many restrictions, and we were short on staff. Travel was so limited, and I often questioned myself if opening a restaurant at this point in time was the right thing to do. When I first opened Nae:um, I wanted to learn and know more about myself before I took my next step. Nae:um was not actually supposed to be a fine dining restaurant; I just wanted it to be a more upper-casual space with a strong identity, coupled with a relaxed service that’s very much like my personality,” he explains.

On the first dish Han ever cooked — a strawberry omelette

Now with Nae:um holding one MICHELIN Star and the Young Chef Award for 2022 belonging to Han, he fondly recalls the first dish he ever cooked. “It was a Strawberry Omelette,” he says bashfully. “I remember the year — it was in April of 2006, more than 16 years ago. Strawberries were in season in Korea, and our assignment was to cook a dish for one of our parents and have them give us feedback. See, I just started culinary school, and the only thing I knew how to make was scrambled eggs, and my staple dish was scrambled eggs, rice, and ketchup,” says Han. “I don’t know why, maybe because strawberries were also sweet and tangy, but I made a Strawberry Omelette and gave it to my dad.”

When asked about what happened next, Han looks up and says with a mix of regret and laughter, “he hated it. He said it was good, then quietly left to throw up.”

It is obvious that a lot has definitely changed since that day. The food at Nae:um is described by MICHELIN Guide inspectors as innovative, and the courses are precisely executed in an ethereal and refreshing manner. “I want each episodic menu to not only showcase my memories, but also my character,” explains Han.

275115552_302521175201839_299398642176414809_n.jpeg

On Han's creative process and leaving his legacy

“Right now, we are planning the menu for Episode 4, so I am recalling what I like to do in autumn, bringing back those memories,” says Han. Pictured on the right is an illustration of Episode 3's menu called Seaside Dreams.

“I need to turn that story in my head into an illustration. If I just verbally explain, guests might not understand because they have not experienced that memory themselves. Our illustration [that accompanies the menu] provides a visual reference to the episode’s story. Also, when I describe the story to our illustrator, it helps me think about what dishes I want to create,” Han explains.

“And then, I will turn the story into a 6-8 course menu, do research and development, and then schedule a tasting session with my team. There is a lot of trial and error that goes with this — my first menu idea may not be the best flow of the story, and I have to rethink the dishes,” shares Han.

When it comes to core values, Han shares that he and his team keep a professional distance and use salutations. “I don’t put my personal feelings before work. I also prefer to solve problems on the spot instead of discussing what went wrong for hours. If I want my team to do something, I will be the first one to do it. If my team puts in their time and effort for me, I promise to return their effort doubly. With older colleagues, age does not matter. We respect each other and keep it professional,” he adds.

“I do my best everyday because I don’t want to regret anything in case something happens to me tomorrow. I am very restless in life. I always try to achieve my goal, and once I achieve it, I will immediately plan for the next one,” he shares. While Han admits that he is quite hard on himself, he relaxes by watching Korean dramas with his wife during his free time. “I really enjoyed 2521, and Extraordinary Attorney Woo is so good!” he exclaims.

And as Han continues to plan, dream, and do, he holds on steadfastly to his core values, ensuring that if has a legacy to leave behind, it is one that he will be proud of. “I hope people will remember me as a chef who is sincere, kind, and warm,” he says with a smile.

Header image by John Heng.

Nae:um is located at 161 Telok Ayer Street, 068615, Singapore. Make a restaurant booking here, or follow them on Facebook and on Instagram for updates.

People

Keep Exploring - Stories we think you will enjoy reading