Ivan Brehm, chef-owner, Nouri in Singapore

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 27th June 2018

Born in Brazil, Ivan Brehm is the chef-owner of Nouri in Singapore which opened in 2017.

His heritage embodies Nouri’s ethos: possessing Italian, German, Russian, Spanish, Lebanese and Syrian ancestry, he is attuned to the culinary ties that bind an array of nations.

And he has coined the term ‘crossroads cooking’ to describe the blurring of food borders that Nouri is known for. 

Prior to launching Nouri, Ivan worked at Heston Blumenthal’s three Michelin-starred The Fat Duck where he was development chef at the restaurant’s experimental kitchen for four years. He then became executive head chef at Singapore’s Bacchanalia and earning it a Michelin star in 2016. 

The Staff Canteen spoke to Ivan to find out how he unites seemingly very different cuisines with his dishes, what he thinks is the key to success and why he believes it’s crucial for a chef to travel.

Kanzuri risotto, carabinero, 25 year old balsamic and nasturtium leaf

Kanzuri risotto, carabinero, 25 year old

balsamic and nasturtium leaf

Your cuisine has influences from around the world so how would you describe the food you serve? 

We cook food which highlights similarities that exist between cuisines. We call food that speaks to multiple cultures at the same time “crossroads” and use the term not only to describe shared use of ingredients, similar profile tastes or traditions, but also techniques and universal appreciations (crunchy texture, umami, sweet and sour…).

Understanding the context that gave rise to an ingredient or preparation or its culturally specific use (say a tomato in Italian cooking, chilli in Thai cooking, bread, cheese) allows us to manipulate it in a way that resonates with people of multiple backgrounds.

Our food looks 'out there' at first but people are captivated by how familiar our dishes feel. That is really a testament to our shared ancestry and Nouri’s understanding of that.

How easy is ‘crossroads cooking’ and have you ever created a dish which didn’t work even though on paper you thought it would? 

Its labour intensive but anyone with a curious mind would derive a great amount of enjoyment from finding out the origin of a dish or ingredient usage. Some of the work we do never hits the menu not because the dish itself doesn’t taste good, but because the cultural bridges are too thin to work. The challenges happen when one tries to introduce variations to dishes that are emblematic of a different cuisine. To take something like pizza, for example, and present it in the context of what we do, we quickly found out, is an exercise in futility.

You were  born in Brazil and you have Italian, German, Russian, Spanish, Lebanese and Syrian ancestry – but if you had to pick one of those which country’s traditional cuisine would you cook/eat and why?

I don’t have that. I love food, its almost a compulsion. I live life through ruminating, tasting, eating things, ideas. Flavour and taste are how I experience and express most of life so naturally any food goes.

Chicken Debal - butter poached chicken breast, debal curry, achar pickles, rice cracker

Chicken Debal - butter poached chicken

breast, debal curry, achar

pickles, rice cracker

 Who has been the biggest influence on your career to date and why?  

My grandfather. While I have some serious mentors, people that have completely opened my eyes to the world of cooking, my grandfather at a very early stage etched in my head the idea that food has to be delicious. He used to bang on about the importance of “sauce”.

At the time it was so annoying, El Bulli was on the rise of food as design took the world by storm. I now look at it and he was so right. Sauce is the spirit of food, its how we breathe life into dishes.

 What dish on your menu now best describes your cooking style? 

Our Silken Cheese is a good example of crossroads. Guests start their dinner with a dish inspired by a shared appreciation for texture, technique and flavor. On appearance, the cheese resembles an Italian panna cotta but can easily be interpreted as an Asian silken tofu or a chawanmushi, depending on a diner’s cultural reference point.

The appreciation for warm, soft set, high in protein custards, the flavours of something nutty and milky, whey… all are quick communicators to our guests of what crossroads is about.

Other than your own restaurant, what's your favourite local restaurant and why? 

Several great places here in SG, too many good friends cooking stellar food to pick one.

Briefly take us through your career up till now, starting with why you wanted to be a chef? 

I was raised by great cooks and spent most of my childhood in a kitchen watching, eating and participating in the act of cooking food to serve and please people. It took a while for me to realise how obvious the career choice was, but also why my focus in food is so intensely related to hospitality, nurturing and joining people through food.

Acarajé and Vatapá- Afro-Brazilian fritter, turmeric and coconut sauce, bread and salted prawn vatapá

Acarajé and Vatapá- Afro-Brazilian

fritter, turmeric

and coconut sauce, bread

and salted prawn vatapá low res

At home, despite diverging opinions, views, despite the many origins of our family and our friends, food was always a unifier, something that allowed for differences to shine without being polarizing, celebrating shared things in the process. Stints in Per Se, Applewood, Mugaritz, La Broche, Hibiscus and The Fat Duck marked most of my formative years.

Have you always strived to achieve accolades and what’s your key to success?

Its not on the top of my priorities to be honest. I would be lying if I said an award doesn’t feel good… but I’ve experienced first hand how dangerous the limelight can be to people and how quickly the focus of one’s work change.

Cooking is direct action, direct transformation. Its effect is felt by the unbroken link between producer of food, and the receiver of food.

One can talk about food till the cows come running, but it is through the experience of it that any direct opinion and impression can be formed.

One can talk about in detail about a painting, describe the technical prowess of its painter, and sell many guide books describing its relevance to the layman, but it is first hand, direct experience that a painting transforms things. Lunch and Dinner is where our priorities lie.

Info bar

Top five restaurant meals 

Etxebarri

11 Madison Park

Mugaritz

El Kanu

Ta Vie 

Five most influential chefs in career 

Andoni, Heston, Bras, Ducasse, Passard, Chapel

Top 5 comfort foods 

Pizza, tartare, toasties, sour dough+butter, Ice cream

Top three Instagram accounts you follow

Nitch

Mugaritz

Rene Redzepi

How did it feel to be awarded your first star at Bacchanalia? 

Leading the team at Bacchanalia towards its first star and its confirmation in the subsequent year was obviously a great feeling. We had the best team, Mark Ebbels is a great collaborator and we attained it without compromising vision or cooking for punters.

Having worked under a number of top chefs how easy has it been to find your own style and niche?

All of these restaurants I have worked at have been formative and have provided me with the skill to move forward in their own way, Mugaritz with its aesthetic, Per Se with its rigour, The Fat Duck with its insight and creativity. But all of them have given me the same appreciation for process. Every one of these restaurants and chefs were sticklers for form, for doing the right thing no matter what, for believing in the seemingly impossible. They were also all restless.

 What is your favourite ingredient native to Singapore and how do you use it in your food?

Native to this part… Buah Keluak and atap seed.

You worked at The Fat Duck for four years, how does an English kitchen compare to kitchens around the world? 

The Fat Duck is a bad example. It is not at all the standard for English kitchens, normally tough, ruthless and intensely competitive. The Duck was a place of collective action, responsibility, appreciation for process, for cleanliness and organisation, precision and manners. People said please and thank you and appreciated the human factor behind the work. Chefs were expected to grow, to learn more, to be curious. It was an incredibly positive environment to work in.

Nouri
Nouri

Do you have a chef shortage in Singapore – if no why not and if yes how are you tackling it?

I think the shortage is global and is felt here as well. One can question the reasons and they might differ from country to country but for me the basic problem is the mismatch between work and life, energy spend and pay. Industry has been talking about it for ever… one can’t expect sustainability in the current format restaurants operate under.

In terms of Singapore itself, what are your ‘must see’ places for a chef visiting?

Lunch local, dine international always works for me. Many hawkers and coffee shops worth checking out.

I love south Indian food so New Woodlands is a place I always recommend. Carrot cake (actually a savoury turnip cake), Hokkien Mee, Chicken Rice, Prata, Rendang, Byriiani, Bak Chor Mee (mince meat noodles), char quey tiao… and many many more dishes can keep anyone busy for days. For dinner, White Grass, Cheek by Jowl, Burnt Ends, Cure, Bacchanalia, Odette are but a few of a growing list of top notch restaurants here. Botanic Gardens, National Gallery, Gardens by the Bay, China Town, are great things to do between meals.

 What do you like and dislike most about being a chef in Singapore?

Too many likes. I love this little nation. The people, the food, the diversity. The one thing I dislike, and that is changing, is a reluctance to explore or consider the different. Singaporeans are prudent, conservative people, and part of their success as a nation is owed to that, at times to the cost of creative thinking and tolerance to change. But as I said…. That is changing a lot and quite fast.

Portrait  Chef Owner Ivan Brehm 2  low res
Ivan Brehm 

 How important is it for a chef to travel in terms of dish inspiration and life experience?

For me, it is crucial. Travelling opens the mind, broadens it. The tourist is not the traveller. To go somewhere and consume an experience does little to an individual. It might give me a nice statue to hang in my living room, but does little to my understanding of people and the world I live in. Travelling does that.

Tell us a bit more about Nouri, what can people can expect when they dine there?

A fun, creative, casual and delicious evening. Its almost like a dinner party at a home. The goal is greater than good food and service.

In 5 years what do you hope to achieve with Nouri?

More and more opportunities to bond with people, but also express a more global, connected view of the world. One that welcomes differences, one that talks of inclusive, not exclusive experiences.

 

 

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 27th June 2018

Ivan Brehm, chef-owner, Nouri in Singapore