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What’s It Like to Open a Restaurant During a Pandemic?

By Bianca Husodo

 
Nadia Gunawan
 

To launch his first restaurant with a takeaway-only menu amid a ravaging pandemic was never how restaurateur Gibran Baydoun pictured it to be like. But that was what happened anyway. Early in June, Baydoun’s Lucali BYGB, an offshoot of the Brooklyn-based pizzeria Lucali, announced a taster menu ahead of its opening. The original founder Mark Iacono’s Lucali Pie — the 18-inch wood-fired pizza which shot it to snaking-queue fame — was deliberately not included in the teaser’s selections. 

“I refuse to let someone have my pizza the first time in their apartment when I have no clue what has happened from the time it left my oven to the time it went to them,” says Baydoun, 31, who partnered up with Iacono for its Singapore restaurant. “Or not yet.”

In the second phase of Singapore’s gradual reopening, dining out is now no longer prohibited. But after a brutal two-month period of confinement in which the world as we knew it was put on pause, restaurants across the island are still trying their best to survive and navigate around the newly imposed restrictions.

Despite the risks, however, brave new ones have emerged. Lucali BYGB is one of them.

Ethan LaiLucali BYGB is housed in an industrial building in Kallang. In the pizzeria, every detail and ornament — from the distance between tables to the height of its taper candles — is carefully considered.
Lucali BYGB is housed in an industrial building in Kallang. In the pizzeria, every detail and ornament — from the distance between tables to the height of its taper candles — is carefully considered.

Described by The New York Times as “a luxury restaurant disguised as a pizza joint” and propelled to international recognition by an episode of David Chang’s “Ugly Delicious” on Netflix, Lucali is known to be the gritty haunt of in-the-know locals. Celebrities the likes of Jay-Z and Beyoncé famously ate at the pizza joint instead of going to the Grammys some years ago. Lucali BYGB, only its second outpost, is located some 20,000 miles away, occupying a space in a warehouse in Kallang’s industrial neighbourhood.

When Baydoun relocated to Singapore four years ago to take up a general manager position at Marina Bay Sands, he arrived with a string of experiences in New York’s hospitality industry under his belt, including stints at restaurants like Chang’s Momofuku and Hillstone Restaurant. Through his observation, he realised that Singapore’s burgeoning dining scene along with its steady rise of interest in food culture and its new class of forward-thinking chefs was similar, in many ways, to New York’s. Bringing Iacono’s pizzas to the city-state, he thought, would only make sense.

“There was a chance we could have opened right before lockdown,” he says of Lucali BYGB’s opening, “and that would have been an utter disaster. We would have lost a lot of momentum. So now I feel like we’re opening with a little bit of grit under us.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Opening family: the ones that want to play in the deep end.

A post shared by Lucali BYGB (@lucalibygb) on

 

After several limited dine-ins, the restaurant finally announced that it was officially open for booking last Sunday. Here, Baydoun recounts his experience as a restaurateur during these unlikely times and shares his take on what lies ahead for Singapore’s food industry.

Let’s start at the very beginning. How did you first get to know Mark Iacono?

I moved to New York right out of college and lived there for the majority of my career. When I first met Mark, I was working at the time for Momofuku. I had a very good friend named Andrea who was always a server or maître d’ and she just kind of knew everyone. She took me out to get pizza one Sunday night in Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn, and she told me, “Make sure if you come to bring candy as a gift. We always bring a gift for Mark.” So I just went into a store and bought some candies. Mark was sitting down with us and we just didn’t stop talking. Even Andrea said it was like a match made in heaven. It was supposed to be a quick one-hour dinner, but we talked for hours. So I came back the next week, and then next week, and then the next week.

How did the idea to bring Lucali all the way to Singapore come about?

Even before I moved to Singapore [in 2016], Mark and I had conversations about doing something together in New York. When this opportunity came to come to Singapore, I thought I’d only stay here for a year, to be honest, and I’d just go back to the normal life I had in New York. When I got here though, I saw that Singapore reminded me a lot of what New York was a few years back when there was such optimism and hope and young chefs like Andrew [Walsh] from Cure or Ivan [Brehm] at Nouri or Rishi [Naleendra] with Cheek [Bistro] — like you’re seeing young chefs doing their own thing. It’s not having to be a certain theme. They just want to cook or enter the market. What I saw from that was super inspirational. This is actually a market that now is creating food. There are tons of restaurants outside of Marina Bay Sands, tons of things going on and so many genres of dining.

So I called Mark and said, “Mark, there’s stuff to be done here. People here love food so much they will queue for it, and it’s part of the culture. They will early-adopt and defend things relentlessly. These are all the signs of where we should be.” I’d been looking at restaurant sites in Singapore for probably three years, exploring them and talking to the landlords and finding the right fit. And eventually, it just kind of happened.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

tomorrow, the link on how to get this baby will go live. what time? as soon as @gibranbaydoun gets out of bed. 🤫

A post shared by Lucali BYGB (@lucalibygb) on

 

I agree. Singapore’s diners are increasingly open to foods that perhaps they weren’t open to in the past, which is an obvious positive outgrowth of the rising interest in food culture globally. If you were to compare New York and Singapore’s F&B industries, what would be the differences and similarities?

I built my career on this type of hospitality that is overtly intentional on purpose. I used to tell my team back in the US, “Let's relentlessly try to go out there and blow our guests away with hospitality.”

When you dine out in New York, you actually are just relinquishing control and giving it to your server, to your chef, to your maître d’ because you know they know best. And that’s the foundation of dining. That’s why you dine out. Whereas in Singapore, you’re dealing with a long history of the British colonial-like type of service in which the Queen decides when you eat, or the guests decide what time the next course comes out, when to have wine, when to serve the cheese. Here, raising a hand is just a marker of knowing when the guests actually want a waiter. The culture here has equated better service to allowing the guests to invite you into their space.

That’s the biggest difference: proactive versus reactive, servant versus server. I can’t help but be the way I am which is aggressively trying to make people happy, aggressively trying to find these really unique opportunities that people weren’t expecting to exceed and meet a hidden expectation. In Singapore, it’s still not glamorous to be a server or a chef just yet. But we’re getting there. This will take a generational shift. This was also not the case 15 years ago in New York. We’re getting to a place where there’s a culture of community in the service industry. That’s why I wanted to open a restaurant here, to be a part of that change and transition.

You mention this particular aggressiveness in hospitality. How will this manifest at your restaurant?

For us, it’s the littlest things we’ve thought about and obsessed over. For seven months, I didn’t go anywhere without a tape measure on me. I literally looked like a skinny Bob the Builder. I really wanted to measure to find out what the proper distance between tables should be, what is the perfect distance to be away from the guest that’s facing you where you feel close enough that it’s intimate but also far enough so you don’t feel like you’re on top of each other. If you put the pizza on the table, there’s a certain feel. Our taper candles start off at least 14 inches tall, because when they get to about nine to 10 inches tall, they perfectly light up your face. So you look really, really, really attractive. That’s really thoughtful because we want to make sure you look good and feel good as you’re looking at the person across the table from you. So it’s in the simple little things.

Ethan LaiThe co-founder of Lucali BYGB, Gibran Baydoun (left), and chef Ariana Flores (right), who helms the pizza joint’s kitchen.
The co-founder of Lucali BYGB, Gibran Baydoun (left), and chef Ariana Flores (right), who helms the pizza joint’s kitchen.

With all this attention to the smallest details, kicking off with just deliveries and takeaways was probably not what you had in mind. Despite it not being the first dine-in experience, how did you make sure that the food still connected to Lucali’s would-be patrons?

I just hate delivery. I love it as a consumer ordering food delivery, but I just hate the fact that I’m giving up so much of my guest experience to someone else. The fact that I can't control whether the driver is driving fast or slow, or how the food’s gonna look like, or if the driver dropped it off at level 12 instead of 21. It keeps me up at night. 

This is why we aren’t doing pizza for delivery. As a compromise, we’re doing teaser menus to make sure people have as much magic at home, which is why we include a candle, playlists and real fork and knife silverware in the dinner that we give out. We want people to experience as much magic as they would have in the restaurant. But I just refuse to let someone have my pizza the first time in their apartment when I have no clue what has happened from the time it left my oven to the time it went to them. Or not yet. We will obviously do delivery eventually. But it’s about the first moment Singapore experiences this, I’d like it to be the way that I experienced it: I closed my eyes while eating it. I selfishly need you to experience that under my watch, under our lighting and music at our table with our server topping up your glass of wine. 

So when did you initially plan for the restaurant to open, and how did you make that pivot when the pandemic hit hard in March?

I never was really committed to a date. I have been a part of a dozen restaurant openings in my career and they always tend to run behind schedule. So I just expect it. But I wasn’t predicting this. I think everything happens for a reason. When this big roadblock of COVID happened, I looked around and realised that our restaurant is really well-designed for social distancing, and pizza is also well-designed for delivery. These are what the world is going into. Every obstacle that came up somehow worked itself out, and so we got to a point where I couldn't help but do this. And I feel like we were made to be doing this restaurant, even in these circumstances — or even I would say, especially in the circumstances.

Then it became something where I felt like we needed to tell a more hopeful story. All the news has just been so depressing, that I felt like if we are courageous, focused, consistent and have vision enough to actually see this through and do it. That was really important. Like Neon Pigeon, [who’s owned by] a friend of mine, will be closing and then maybe reopening in 2021. That hits hard when you see that stuff happening. I knew it was important that we be something new, that we actually open, in our time and when it’s right.

Ethan LaiTwo of the dishes included in Lucali BYGB’s initial takeout-only menu: meatballs (left) and Norma’s pasta (right)...
Two of the dishes included in Lucali BYGB’s initial takeout-only menu: meatballs (left) and Norma’s pasta (right)...

Can you describe the state of things on your end right now? What are you and the team busy with at the moment?

Right now we are busy with making sure that the world’s greatest and ugliest pizza oven is just that. That’s the big focus of ours. Training is just so, so, so important. There’s no reason why our team shouldn’t know a majority of the 108 bottles that are in our wine coolers. They should be able to articulate and discuss really, really well. Our concept and our menu, we think that’s impressive. We think it shows pride. We’re not going to open until we think we can get flawless service. 

What do you reckon restaurants need to do next? 

What I appreciate about this time is the way that certain operators are getting creative, pivoting, and really becoming true to themselves and what they really need. We’ve been able to take a restaurant that’s been built around excess, and actually streamline and be really, really smart and thoughtful about every decision. People are taking a hard look at themselves with a strong mirror to make sure they’re being as thoughtful as they can across the board.

We’re going to have to do the same work with fewer people. Because, number one, it’s safer. And number two, we have to be sustainable. I think this is one of those moments that will affect us, our industry for a generation. 

People will always be thinking about food that’s able to travel well, and contingency plans and ways to not obsessively cram people to their space and still be profitable. I think we now have a reckoning moment. looking at ourselves and saying, “Do I really have something to say?”, “Must I say it now?” “How do I say it?” “Is that the most sustainable?” At its core, those principles will just go to another degree. I’ve been so impressed by restaurants like Noma that decided to do burgers, or Straits Clan that decided to just feed people who need to be fed. Both things are inspiring to me. 

Restaurants now are recognising that regulars are so important, a loyal crew is so important. I think that this philosophy of intentionality and thoughtfulness and making sure each guest has a real genuine interaction with you will pay off in the end.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Visit Lucali BYGB66 Kampong Bugis, Level M.