“Get me a wood-fired pizza oven from Naples, and I’m in,” was the response Chef Lim Yew Aun gave to cousin-restaurateur Ong Liling when the latter first proposed a joint venture into the F&B industry five years ago. The Hershey-shaped Acunto Mario oven took three months to arrive, and now stands as the centrepiece of restaurant Cicheti at Kandahar Street.
Call it good foresight or simply a leap of good faith, the investment paid off big time for the entrepreneurial duo, both of whom were first-time business owners. Despite a slow start, Cicheti grew into a sleeper hit, often drawing hungry crowds from around the hipster neighbourhood. Fast forward to today, Chef Aun and his cousin now own three buzzy Italian concepts across Singapore: Cicheti, a trattoria-style dining spot showcasing authentic Neapolitan pizza and tapas-style sharing plates; Caffe Cicheti (formerly Fynn’s), which focuses on Italian coastal cuisine; and Bar Cicheti, a trendy fine-dining establishment dedicated to handmade artisanal pastas and natural wines.
Although distinctly different in concept, all three restaurants carry Chef Aun’s signature approach to cooking. “With Italian cuisine, the focus is really on the quality and the freshness of the ingredients,” he opines. “Italian cooking is very clean with simple ingredients, but you can make wonders in a dish. I don’t create dishes with the intention to compete or follow fads; I create dishes for the concept, tailored to suit the palate of the clientele that the concept was created for.”
In other words, there is a method to his madness, and Chef Aun isn’t shy about reinventing a dish or redefining flavour profiles when called for. “Some of my dishes are strictly authentic; others I vary. I don’t intentionally veer towards breaking tradition,” laughs the chef, who did a brief stint in 2012 as a tattoo artist. “When I do [break tradition], it’s usually because I feel there are certain flavours or textures in a traditional Italian recipe that locals might not appreciate, or might appreciate better if there were greater depth of flavour.”
Much has been said about Chef Aun’s “innovative” cooking, despite him having never stepped foot in Italy. The truth is, he finally made time last year to visit the country from which he draws culinary inspiration. It was just a brief one-week trip around Naples, Rome and Venice, but the chef relished every minute, even stopping by three pizzerias along the way. When asked how he used to envision the tastes of Italy, he explains, “YouTube tutorials, and cookbooks. There wasn’t much to lose during the early days, so I had the freedom to interpret what I learnt from the Internet and experiment with my cooking. Additionally, Liling and [sommelier-partner] Ronald Kamiyama are two of the most well-travelled people I know. I live vicariously through their travels and so do our dishes when it comes to planning and research.”
Still, as with everything, being a great chef requires having a good foundation. Chef Aun attributes his to growing up around a family who loved to cook, and did so very well. And it was by seeing the similarities between the Chinese cuisine he grew up with and the Italian cuisine he was defining that led him to develop his own unique spin on the latter. For example: the QQ texture we look for in our mee pok and mee kia is the same as the al dente texture that Italian chefs emphasize, he points out.
So what exactly defines Chef Aun’s cooking style? Flavour, flavour, and more flavour. “The two ingredients I enjoy working with the most are garlic and chilli. They’re not the most favoured ingredients when it comes to Italian cuisine, but that is also what gives us an edge,” he surmises.
"I hope we can pave the way for other local chefs who want to bring their own spin to another cuisine, whether it’s Italian or Mexican or French, and show that there is a viable way to do it with an all-local team." - Chef Lim Yew Aun. Cicheti Group