A chef notably familiar with the evolutionary nature of gastronomy, Ivan Brehm has in the few years he has spent in Singapore made a name for himself in this food-obsessed country. A cerebral architect of smartly delicious things, his food offers the discerning insight into the time he spent honing his craft in the progressive kitchens of Per Se in New York, Mugaritz in Spain’s Basque Country, Hibiscus in London and, not surprisingly, at The Fat Duck where he spent four years working his way up to development chef of Heston Blumenthal’s Experimental Kitchen. But fans of his inspired perspective will affirm that it also speaks to his passion for telling stories.
It was this enlightened ingenuity, perceptiveness and quiet confidence that shown most brightly during his tenure as head chef of The Kitchen at Bacchanalia, helping it earn its first Michelin star last year. But then he makes a seemingly sudden decision to pack up and leave for home in Brazil in December that left a nation of avid diners baffled.
Why wouldn’t they be? Granted, even the most industrious can appreciate the radical mandates a career in the kitchen demands. But the same people are also not blind to the advantages of riding the momentum. “Yes, it was an important phase in my life,” Brehm tells us. “It helped me better understand what motivates me as a chef and a person, and what direction I wanted to steer my life and food to.”
This epiphany of sorts, he explains, is central to the reason he chose to leave, a decision he made months before the idea of a possible Michelin star was on the horizon. “It was more a result of that understanding than the ambition to start something new, or the need for a break.”
The 33-year-old has returned only months later to open Nouri, in partnership with serial restauranteur Loh Lik Peng of the Unlisted Collection, and everyone is talking again. “The Michelin star felt like the crowning of those four years (at Bacchanalia), but the decision (to pave) a new path had already been taken,” he affirms, adding that it was never his aim to have another restaurant in Singapore.
This is not a flashy push for a trendy place, but rather a happy and mature way for myself and my staff to tell our guest stories about the many things we share in common ...
“The restaurant is by no means an attempt at re-branding or creating a new style, but rather the culmination of work that started almost two decades ago when I first thought of cooking professionally.”
This new direction did lead him back to our sunny shores but Brehm says it came down to fate and a bit of luck. “I was not expecting to be connected with Peng, but while I was in Brazil, we had a few chats and conversations, and I must say he is a great guy and an incredible operator.
“This is not a flashy push for a trendy place, but rather a happy and mature way for myself and my staff to tell our guest stories about the many things we share in common,” he defends, alluding to the style of cuisine he serves here, which he describes as “crossroads cooking”. To be sure, the food here does not try to be hip or revolutionary. Instead, it aims to reflect a personal celebration of the global ties that bind—a shared culinary heritage we as diners tend to either overlook or misconstrued.
Cooking at its heart
It is a refreshing shift away from the mainstream, though also an increasingly favoured approach of many of today’s contemporary culinary rebels—that seemingly defiant faction of chefs from across the continents who are leading a new era of chef-driven restaurants.
Of course, if we were being facetious, we might assert that it’s a cuisine that could work anywhere in the world. And, it very well could, Brehm concurs, but not before affirming that it best describes what he and his team believe to be cooking at its core.
“It is how our parents, and their parents’ parents cooked before we got hung up on terms like gastro emotional, molecular gastronomy, or, rather simplistically, French, Italian or Spanish, for that matter,” he expounds. “The deeper you delve into it, the more self-evident it becomes that food tradition does not belong to anyone, that cooking is, in itself, an act of incorporation and amalgamation and that culturally, we are always under the influence of everything and everyone around us.”
He says that the term crossroads is used to express that place where one person’s journey meets another and where similarities and connections are shared through food and cooking, regardless of one’s background. So why does he think this works best in a market like Singapore’s? “If there was ever a place ripe for cultural cross pollination, this is it; Singapore’s food tradition is derived from immigrants,” Brehm says, highlighting how the island nation has been a cultural hotbed for a very long time.
“Somewhere down the line, I must say things became a bit safe, but as the island matures so do the people in it,” he adds. Of course, this seemingly simple concept is far from being a simplistic assessment. The point is to talk about cooking and eating "without the limitation of cultural identification".
“It is precisely our lack of cultural identification that gave us the insight to take a fruit from an (allegedly) poisonous bush from the Americas, a herb from India and a flat bread from the middle east and call it pizza. Somewhere along the line, we forgot about that.”
Someone had suggested that if they were in Mexico, the restaurant would have felt the same. “But I would have probably called my curry a mole,” he posits, adding that while he believes that person to be right, as a chef, Singapore has shown him a lot.
Somewhere down the line, I must say things became a bit safe, but as the island matures so do the people in it ...
One might wonder if crossroads cooking could be a kind of social experiment. Brehm, however, prefers to see it as representing a “social space”. Nouri, he says, is about nourishing more meaningful connections, with food as a binder or a catalyst. This he feels is increasingly important in a time where we tend to feed our social media wants before we feed ourselves.
Might these even be foods that diners will crave? “I cook food I believe in, inspired by the people who came before me or who cook with me now,” he explains. “When customers have a craving, it’s usually for something comforting or a taste that they find inherently familiar. So, while the dishes we cook may at first feel new, they are deeply rooted in flavours that are universally appreciated and understood.”
But don’t confuse the act of experiencing something with having an experience, Brehm says. “We are paving our own way through the food we create, not delivering the next crave-worthy food trend.”
That being the case, he is not the first to present the idea of a cross cultural cuisine, whether it’s about elevating the humble kangkong or ikan bilis, or pairing Asian ingredients with more modern or European techniques and vice versa. But as Brehm has reiterated, Nouri is not about proffering the idea as a new trend. “If we were more aware of the food we ate, we would realise that idea to be there all along.”
It also doesn’t change the fact that many of today’s foods and cuisines are products of necessity. But, more importantly, he thinks consumers have stopped needing things a while ago. “Fads and food trends tend to come and go as a result of that.”
What then do we chasers of fine food experiences need? “I don’t know what the fine dining scene needs, but I can tell you what it doesn’t need, and that is another ‘fine dining’ restaurant,” he asserts.
“All I want is to make people happy and to help foster a world we can eat well in.”