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In Singapore, a New Dining Experience Dishes Up Food for Thought

By Denise Kok

R&D chef Ashlee Malligan (left) and chef Ivan Brehm (right) at Appetite’s R&D Kitchen, a centre for culinary research by day and a 10-seater restaurant by night.
 
Courtesy of Appetite
R&D chef Ashlee Malligan (left) and chef Ivan Brehm (right) at Appetite’s R&D Kitchen, a centre for culinary research by day and a 10-seater restaurant by night.

The men sat around the record player in silence, letting the surging riffs of John Coltrane’s saxophone solo trail into the chorus before one of them exclaimed: “Woah! Did you hear that?”

Such is a scene from Ivan Brehm’s childhood, where weekends were spent in the company of his grandfather and friends, audiophiles who revered the discography of Miles Davis and Astor Piazzolla as much as they did the stately recordings of classical maestros. 

“I’ll never forget watching these grown-up dudes carry a drink in hand and not speak for an hour while listening to an entire album,” recalls Brehm, the 36-year-old chef and owner of one-Michelin starred restaurant Nouri.

Attuned at a young age to the aural pleasures of a sophisticated stereo system, Brehm moves with ease as he draws a vinyl record from its sleeve, sets it on the turntable, and nudges the stylus into place. 

Courtesy of AppetiteAppetite’s Living Room houses 3,000 vinyl records and a high-fidelity sound system.
Appetite’s Living Room houses 3,000 vinyl records and a high-fidelity sound system.

As the music of A-Wa — a trio of Israeli sisters who combine traditional Yemini music with modern hip-hop elements — begins to play, Brehm settles into a low-slung armchair, a prime acoustic perch that also offers a full view of an audio set-up his grandfather would approve of: Limited edition ATC speakers flank a futuristic Wilson Benesch turntable, a handmade analogue Condesa rotary mixer, and vacuum tube-operated Jadis preamplifiers that hark back to the electronic stylings of World War II. 3,000 records illuminated by cove lights form a shrine of sorts to musical genres spanning Motown to world music.

This well-calibrated listening room is but one limb of Appetite, a 2,000 square-feet multi-concept space that is also part art gallery and part restaurant. Nouri, the fine dining concept owned by Brehm, sits on the ground floor of the same heritage shophouse.

A year ago, the space looked completely different. Formerly a lawyer’s office, the attic space turned living room prized function over form, featuring flimsy partitions, glass panels, and vinyl flooring. “We gutted the whole thing, smashed all the glass, ripped out the walls and discovered what the original space looked like,” says Brehm, laying bare the foundations for Appetite. 

Courtesy of AppetiteLeft: Designed by Colombian-Japanese architect Akira Kita, the spatial design of Appetite was conceptualised to allow for guests to mingle freely, even in such transitional spaces as this stairwell connecting the dining area to the attic. Right: Ivan Brehm’s fine dining restaurant Nouri sits in the same heritage shophouse as Appetite.
Left: Designed by Colombian-Japanese architect Akira Kita, the spatial design of Appetite was conceptualised to allow for guests to mingle freely, even in such transitional spaces as this stairwell connecting the dining area to the attic. Right: Ivan Brehm’s fine dining restaurant Nouri sits in the same heritage shophouse as Appetite.

Yet, the concept of Appetite precedes its physical space. In its earlier iteration, it existed as a culinary research programme helmed by the general manager and head of research Kaushik Swaminathan who worked off his laptop, often alongside Brehm as he cooked in the kitchen. “Part of the research was about the interaction between the practitioner and the academic, and the ability to synthesise that information into something that worked was really important to us,” says Brehm. With the support of Nouri’s sous chef Ashlee Malligan, the culinary team has developed such creations as a wild rice stem dish that incorporates the shared flavour profiles of south Indian buttermilk and a Norman sauce dieppoise. 

This attempt at culinary cartography, mapping flavour origins, and unearthing interconnected nodes between cultures is archetypal of Brehm’s signature crossroads cuisine at Nouri, an ethos which carries over to the dining menu at Appetite. Here, what is an R&D kitchen by day transforms into an intimate dining experience that seats 10 diners in the evening. Brehm — who identifies as Brazilian, but whose heritage includes Italian, Lebanese, Syrian, German, and Russian influences — and Malligan plan to roll out a S$350 12-course menu built upon the on-going research excavated by the team.  

Courtesy of AppetiteBrehm (left) and Malligan (right) are preparing a 12-course menu built upon the on-going research excavated by the team.
Brehm (left) and Malligan (right) are preparing a 12-course menu built upon the on-going research excavated by the team.

Today, Appetite’s research mandate extends beyond the plate. “Our initial preoccupations were to observe and study food and material culture…but we realised we couldn’t have a conversation about food culture without having a conversation about integrated systems and culture in general. So a conversation on food immediately would beg the questions: 'Could an architect shine a light on this?’, ‘Why is it that people were cooking things in this particular way?’, ‘Does archaeology have something to say?’. We had to ask as many questions as we could about the context that gave emergence to that product. When you have that information, it is so much cooler to cook. We use meaning as an ingredient and that idea can only be understood when you understand the meaning behind these things you're putting together.” 

Appetite is about crossroads thinking. It’s a place where we apply the idea of these interconnected pathways on a much more conceptual front. The moment two different things get in contact with one another, they're both altered forever.

Like the roots of a tree that continues to sprawl with its growth, it follows that this focus on investigating cultural crossroads plays out organically in other aspects of the space. “If Nouri was about crossroads cooking, Appetite is about crossroads thinking. It’s a place where we apply the idea of these interconnected pathways on a much more conceptual front. The beverage program, music selection, and curatorial program for the artworks are preoccupied with the idea of crossroads. The moment two different things get in contact with one another, they're both altered forever.”

Appetite’s inaugural art exhibition “She/Her,” put together by art lead Jean Hui Ng and Swaminathan, sees over 20 artworks from four regional artists strewn across the space, each bringing to the fore their own interpretations of the female form. Here, Thai contemporary artist Pinaree Sanpitak’s breast-shaped stupa sits alongside Singaporean artist Yanyun Chen’s charcoal drawings of the female body and its implied cultural inheritance. 

Courtesy of AppetiteAppetite’s inaugural art exhibition “She/Her” features over 20 artworks showcasing interpretations of the female form.
Appetite’s inaugural art exhibition “She/Her” features over 20 artworks showcasing interpretations of the female form.

On the beverage front, the focus isn’t on compiling an extensive list of producers, but rather curating a tight list of wines that plumb the depths of each producer’s oeuvre. “We try to approach wines that talk about the growth of non-native grapes or a traditional method of vinification that has been rediscovered. It’s essentially telling the story of how winemaking has adapted itself to tradition, or the movement of people and ingredients,” shares Brehm. 

Beyond stirring up an appetite for food, music, and art, Appetite has ambitions to spark conversations between diners by way of masterclasses — where plans are already underway to feature artisan producers — and salons that allow guests to have “intimate conversations” with luminaries from diverse fields.

The idea, according to Brehm, is to spark conversations independent of the echo chambers wrought by the digital age: “In this moment where an algorithm controls what you see [online] every single time, you receive more of the same feedback loop. We forget the ability to speak to people, listen to a different point of view, and negotiate a way forward that might not have started as what you liked but ends in a way that is better for everybody.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

For almost two decades, Emi Eu, Executive Director of Singapore Tyler Print Institute, has worked with some of the most influential living artists to promote artistic experimentation in the mediums of print and paper. Artists who have participated in STPI’s residencies include Do Ho Suh, Pinaree Sanpitak, Anri Sala, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Eko Nugroho. Eu is also on the Selection Committee of Art Basel Hong Kong. ⁣ ⁣ We spoke to Eu earlier this year. She missed lunch with her staff to keep our conversation going. ⁣ ⁣ MOUTHFUL is a series of in-depth conversations with leading creative practitioners who reflect the values of crossroads thinking. Full interview in bio.

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This is not a new concept as private members clubs and co-working spaces in Singapore have long worked salons into their programming. However, it is rare for a dining-led establishment to dedicate the time and space to such pursuits which often lie beyond bread-and-butter concerns. Rarer still is its open-door policy. Unlike private members clubs, all are welcome. 

Even the space, designed by Colombian-Japanese architect Akira Kita, was conceptualised to allow for mingling. Narrow ledges sit beneath windows that open up into the air well while the narrow stairwell connecting the dining area to the listening room features a cabinet where guests can conveniently park their beverages. Unfortunately, spontaneous mingling in the midst of Covid-stricken times will have to wait. 

Courtesy of AppetitePlush sofas and mood lighting feature in one of two lounge areas in the 2,000 square feet space.
Plush sofas and mood lighting feature in one of two lounge areas in the 2,000 square feet space.

Behind the scenes, Brehm’s preoccupation with intersectionality has also lead him to eschew the top-down French brigade de cuisine adopted by fine dining restaurants in favour of a flat hierarchical structure where team members are appointed as leads based on their areas of specialisation. 

“The job of the lead is to essentially pursue a certain direction while incorporating everyone’s views into the conversation,” says Brehm. When asked if this “dramatically collaborative” approach comes at the cost of speed and progress — as illustrated by a three-week conversation the team had over the placement of a carpet — Brehm explains: “Systems improve and evolve without a ceiling. In a strictly vertical hierarchy, the ceiling is the person. But when you're talking about collaborative systems, the ceiling is the ability of the group to interact. And if that's possible, you just don't stop growing. Everybody is just consistently improving and approaching things from a different angle and synthesising it into a model that works. The perceived inefficiency pays dividends incredibly fast.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Against the backdrop of a pandemic, where food and beverage outlets are fighting to stay afloat, naysayers might consider the concept of Appetite to be a luxury of sorts. But for Brehm, the project’s mission is clear: “I wouldn't call it a luxury in the sense that I think it's needed. We need these places. When everything else has been stripped back into the digital world, we need places to put people together and have them interact and contend with things they haven’t thought about. That's an important part of just being social, being alive. And now more than ever, when everybody's asking you to protect yourself from the other, this process of figuring out how to normalise relationships again, to do that in a way that is safe, is key. It's very simple activism, I guess. The world needs that sort of connection.”