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Liling Ong: The Chic Restaurateur Behind The Cicheti Group On How Covid-19 Will Change How We Dine

For one, people are going to be a lot more aware of what goes on behind the scenes in a restaurant.

In some ways, Covid-19 has helped open the layman’s eyes to the various challenges facing restaurateurs on any given day, says Liling Ong, founder of the Cicheti group of Italian restaurants. These include the fixed capital costs to keep a business running month to month, the complicated relationship between landlords and restaurateurs, and the importance of governments in protecting the small businesses that crucially define the colour and character of a city.

Prior to the coronavirus, she says, many people took the F&B business for granted, thinking of it as little more beyond places to get fed. But many of these same people are now rallying behind their favourite establishments by ordering takeaways to help make up for lost revenue, and sending messages of encouragement to their staff.

The group’s latest outpost Caffe Cicheti is a modern-day osteria that opened in Nov last year and serves trusted Italian fare like vongole.

Ms Ong, 34, became a restaurateur in 2013 after working for some years in law, management consulting and venture capital funding. Her father Ong Yew Huat is the former executive chairman of Ernst & Young Singapore and an investor in Cicheti – though she insists it’s a professional arrangement and “not a handout”. Her late grandfather, Ong Swee Law, founded the Singapore Zoo in 1973.

Lately her teams in the Cicheti group of restaurants – which include Cicheti, Bar Cichetti and Caffe Cicheti – have been figuring out how best to keep their pizzas and pastas tasting fresh and authentic, as if they’d just popped out of the kitchen and onto the plate. And while business is a fraction of what it was pre-circuit breaker, the Cicheti group is still on track to open its fourth and fifth concepts in Singapore this year and the next.

Firstly, how do you pronounce “Cicheti”? There are a few versions out there. It’s “chi” – like “tai chi”; “ke” – like “care”; and “ti” – like the letter “t”. So it’s “chi-ke-ti”. I love what the word stands for and the way it rolls off the tongue. But I’m not too fussed about how people say it. I’ve heard it pronounced differently, but I let it slide.   What might the F&B scene – including your own restaurants – look like after 2020? I think people are going to be a lot more aware of what goes on behind the scenes in a restaurant, and they are going to want to support restaurants that have an honest and authentic point of view. People are going to rally behind a story, a chef… behind transparency and good ingredients. And I think it’s going to revolutionise the F&B industry. I think places that have central kitchens are going to suffer… As it is, Covid-19 has taken out a lot of the competition, which is a good and bad thing, depending on how you look at it. I do think it’s a situation where the strongest and most well-run companies will survive.
Prior to Covid-19, you had plans to open your fourth and fifth F&B concepts. Have those plans been derailed? Covid-19 has not derailed us. It’s definitely pushed our timeline back. But you can expect the fourth concept to debut at the end of the year. I can’t delve too much into it, but it’s a concept that’s dear to our hearts. We’ve wanted to do it since we opened the first Cicheti (the group’s latest venture is modern-day osteria Caffe Cicheti, pictured, which opened last Nov). And I would say that if that does happen, then be prepared for a very exciting concept number five, sometime later next year… Yes, it’s fast. But I think when you’ve finally got to a stage where you know you’ve found your groove and the right people are coming forward and saying that they want to build something with you, it would be wrong to hold things back when all the signs say “go”.   Speaking of “finding your groove”, why did it take a while for you to get into the restaurant business? If you look at my previous career history, you can tell that this is a girl who is being faced with deciding who she really wants to be. Does she want to be a corporate person? Or does she want to be a creative? That really was the internal struggle that I faced most of my life. Growing up, I painted, made my own clothes, and made gifts for friends. I love being in the kitchen because I love anything that involves physically making something. But going to school in Singapore, I had to perform well academically. And so I got dragged down this academic route and ended up in law, and then in consultancy, and then working in a VC – which all just gave me the confidence to take the leap and open a bricks-and-mortar restaurant.
Cicheti found its groove rather quickly, all things considered. What might account for its success? I think it was a combination of three things. The first thing is “right place, right concept, right time”. When Cicheti opened in 2013, the scene was very vanilla, and Singapore was just yearning for a hole in the wall. Something that was trendy and upmarket but not, you know, super expensive. I think the second point is that my cousin, Lim Yew Aun (above), is just an amazing chef. He’s proven himself to be someone who does not have an ego, is willing to constantly evolve, look at his product and think: How do I make it better? And the third point is we’ve really hired well. We hire based on personality and passion – and not from your resume. And that has really allowed us to grow a team that treats the business and teammates as if this is their family business. And if you look at the idea of a restaurant, it really is very people-centric. You’re doing something very basic, fulfilling a human need, feeding people. And there are people in the kitchen cooking and there are people that are serving you the food. If you don’t prioritise people as the root of your businesses, I really don’t think that one would stand a chance long-term in this industry.   As someone who’s lived, studied and worked in various cities, including London and Hong Kong, what do you wish the Singapore F&B scene had more of? I think Singapore has so much potential. We really identify our national culture with food. It’s our national pastime. Very rarely do we sit at a table with a bunch of Singaporeans having a meal and no one’s really talking about another restaurant they’re planning to go to. I would love to see more Singaporeans actually taking our local cuisine and really elevating it to the international platform. I truly believe we have the best food in the world. So hopefully, in the next decade, more young chefs will come up and start to explore this unexplored area.   Why don’t you take on that challenge? You know, it’s been at the back of my mind, but I do have to be quite realistic in terms of what my capabilities are. And the reality is, restaurateurs here get a lot of attention, but we are nothing without our chefs. As long as I have not found that talent that I feel comfortable backing and supporting, it’s not an area that I feel confident exploring on my own. So I don’t think I can do that without a young talent coming to me and saying: “Hey, shall we do this together?”