I wish this was a bowl of mee pok instead, quipped Lim Yew Aun, holding a plate of spaghetti as he posed for our photographer atop his Vespa.
Considering that he’s the chef and co-owner of buzzy Italian joints Cicheti and Bar Cicheti, there’s obviously a bit of a personality schism there – but in a toss-up, it’d be no contest when it comes to where his noodle-loving heart lies.
Lim, 35, is a heartland boy who eats mee pok three times in a week, and has been to Italy zero times in his life.
You could have fooled his Italian customers, though. “They ask the servers, ‘Is your chef Italian?’ They answer, ‘No. He’s a Chinese guy,’” Lim said with a grin.
ITALIAN CUISINE, BUT ALSO NOT
In fact, the Pahang-born chef, who has lived in Singapore for the past 15 years, graduated from Shatec and worked in hotels including Shangri-La, Resorts World Sentosa and Raffles Hotel. He then did a stint as a tattoo artist before returning to cooking.
Being a chef isn’t all that different from being a tattoo artist. In both cases, he said, “You have to be a car salesman. You have to talk to customers and tell them how good the product is."
"And you have to build your own clientele. If a customer comes to dine and comes back two weeks later, you’ve already built a customer base. The same goes for tattoos – once you get one tiny tattoo, you’re going to get a second one. There’s a saying that goes, ‘Tattoos last longer than romance.’”
Well, there’s another saying that goes, “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.”
Pizza love struck when Lim began a job at L’Operetta under Seita Nakahara, now chef-owner of Japanese-influenced Italian restaurant Terra, and learnt to make pizza Napoletana.
The pizza that Lim serves up at Cicheti, with his wood-fire oven brought in from Naples, is absolutely traditional, he said. All you have to do is “get the technique right, use good ingredients, and don’t take any shortcuts”.
But when it comes to other dishes such as the pasta and antipasti that he serves up at Bar Cicheti, he breaks from tradition.
On the new menu are pastas such as anolini with taleggio, ricotta and parmigiana; and pici cacio e pepe with Sarawak black pepper and fresh marjoram.
“In Italy, anolini are normally just filled with ricotta cheese and butter sauce. But I put some onion marmalade on top, and chopped hazelnuts,” he said.
Similarly, “traditional cacio e pepe uses pecorino, which is much saltier. I didn’t think the locals would accept it so I changed it to parmigiana and added a touch of garlic, marjoram and lemon juice, which helps to cut the jelak-ness.”
He explained, “My cooking has a bit of an Asian and Japanese touch, with more umami (flavours) and using more herbs and local spices.” He also incorporates a lot of chilli padi, onion and garlic in his food. “Italians like to use fresh garlic. I like to use garlic chips. It’s a huge difference. I think a nonna would look at me and say, ‘What the hell are you doing? That’s not Italian cooking’,” he chuckled.
YOUTUBE AND INSTAGRAM ARE ALL YOU NEED
But it’s a style of cooking that resonates with his Singaporean clientele, cosmopolitan travellers and, yes, even Italian nonnas who come to dine.
It’s really not that difficult, he said: “I learnt all the basics from Seita-san. I read a lot of cookbooks. And YouTube. That’s the secret. You can learn everything from YouTube.”
He continued, “When I started learning pizza Napoletana, I was so obsessed, I watched YouTube for two hours every night, even though I didn’t understand a single word because they were speaking Italian – I just looked at their technique. My wife almost killed me.”
So, anyone can cook? we asked him teasingly.
“Yes,” he asserted. “I think the main thing would be passion. You must have the passion. You must love what you do. That’s it. That’s the secret.”
Lim’s passion extends even to the most mundane chores in the kitchen, such as washing the dishes. “To be a chef, washing the dishes is the most important thing,” he said. “That’s when you can see whether plates come in empty or with food left over. Does the customer like the food? Is it too salty? Was the customer too full? Did they not like this dish? I tell the service staff, ‘Please ask the customer. It’s very important.’ You can’t just send food out. You must have pride and passion in whatever you do.”
And whether you’re dining at the bar or in full view of the open kitchen, you can be sure that Lim is quietly watching you.
“I love to watch people eating,” he said. “You can tell whether they enjoy the food or not. If they nod their heads, that’s a good thing.”
Where does he get his inspiration for new dishes? “Instagram. Social media,” he said. “I follow restaurants like Padella in London and Misi in New York, as well as some in Melbourne and Sydney.”
Outside of Italy, where the burden of tradition isn’t so heavy, there’s freedom to innovate when it comes to Italian cuisine, he feels. “The ingredients they use, and the combinations, are more exciting.”
He enjoys being able to play with flavours in new and exciting ways, too. For instance, “In most Italian restaurants in Singapore, when they serve burrata, it’s basically with parma ham, rocket or cherry tomatoes. Everyone is serving the same thing. I think cherry tomatoes are so boring. It’s traditional, but we can go beyond that. My Italian customers go, ‘Oh, you’re serving it with pesto and onion marmalade – how interesting.’ It’s something new for them.
“I think they liked it – but maybe some of them curse and swear at me when they go home!”
Bar Cicheti is at 10 Jiak Chuan Road. Cicheti is at 52 Kandahar Street.