Hot on the heels of the opening of Etta, Gibran Baydoun gets candid about food, family and how he turned a personal crisis into his life’s purpose

Gibran Baydoun grew up in Las Vegas as the only child of a single mother who worked multiple jobs. “Food, for us, was more of a process,” he says, recalling his mother making meat loaf on a Sunday and iterating the leftovers differently until Thursday. “We’d have it in a sandwich, as a main with salad or potatoes … that’s how we got through the week. We were eating to eat.”

But then he had a revelation. “I’d visit my extended family or friends’ houses, and I realised that some of the greatest moments of our lives happen over a table of food,” says the 33‑year‑old entrepreneur, “that there’s a huge difference between eating, and having or sharing a meal.”

That revelation became Baydoun’s resolution, and he has since dedicated his life and career to recreating that sense of togetherness over food. First in New York City, where he spent the early years of his adult life working at American restaurant group Hillstone and then as director of restaurant operations for David Chang’s Momofuku, and then in Singapore, where he has lived for the past six years.

Baydoun took a leap of faith in 2016 when he moved here for a role at Marina Bay Sands. At 27, it was the first time he had ever left the US and used his passport. “When I got to Singapore, I fell in love with the idea of being in an entirely new community, being able to travel and experiencing multiple new cultures,” he recalls. “That was really exciting.”

It was here that he founded BYGB Hospitality Consulting, where he played a key role in the growth of private members’ club 1880. Consulting was lucrative, but it didn’t feel fulfilling. “Around the end of 2019, I had a bit of a personal crisis. I thought, ‘How do I want to spend my time? What life do I want to live?’” he muses. “I knew I had to do something that had more meaning, that could fully articulate the ideas I had in my head. When you’re consulting or working for someone else, especially in hospitality, you’re fulfilling someone else’s dream. I had something to get off my chest, something I needed to say, in the way we as humans appreciate one another over a proper meal.”

The only way to get this across? “I had to open a restaurant,” he says.

On A Roll

In July 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Baydoun opened his first restaurant, Lucali—the Singapore outpost of the popular eatery in Brooklyn, New York, that model Chrissy Teigen recently praised for having “the best pizza and best people and actually, newly discovered, the best tomatoes bruschetta has ever been lucky enough to see”.

Baydoun says: “From the outside, the timing of it probably seemed like a disaster. But it was a blessing because people really craved something real, human and genuine. I [took] the same approach that you would to a wedding or a birthday, to a Tuesday or Thursday night. That’s how I look at it; it should be a celebration, a way to connect with people in a meaningful way.”

Just over a year later in September 2021, he opened Corduroy Palace. Described as “an unorthodox and visionary wine hall in the bosom of a mid‑century midtown Manhattan dining room”, it’s a love letter to Baydoun’s previous life in New York City. At that time, he lived in NoHo in Lower Manhattan, a neighbourhood that was once the stomping grounds of artists such as Jean‑Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. The NoHo influence is apparent at Corduroy Palace, which dances on the fence of glamour and grime, art and anarchy.

On the menu are New York relics such as steak tartare made tableside on a trolley, Waldorf salad and chicken cordon bleu, among dishes that flutter between humble and haute, from caviar served by the bump to xiao long bao made by two ladies from a local favourite, You Peng Noodle Dumpling House at Beauty World Food Centre. Oysters are served by the “Downings Dozen”, a tribute to Thomas Downing, who was the first Black restaurateur in the US and the one who made oysters a fancy item instead of a poor man’s meal.

A Labour of Love

Now, Baydoun has completed what might be his most personal venture yet: Etta, lovingly named after his grandmother Ruth Etta Collins. “We had a very special relationship and I had always wanted to do something in homage to her,” he shares, adding that she had a close group of friends from church who called themselves “the peculiar ones”.

“I almost wanted to name the restaurant that,” he says. But in the process of conceptualising the new restaurant, he decided to look up what “Etta” actually means: keeper of the hearth; ruler of the home. It’s a fitting name for a woman who was clearly a force to be reckoned with. The first Black woman to graduate from her university, she earned a master’s degree while raising six children on her own and was famous for dancing the jitterbug. “She was vivacious and energetic, and wore Chanel No. 5 perfume since 1948—and she’d tell you that over and over. She was fearless, graceful and elegant, humble and subtle all at the same time,” Baydoun remembers fondly.

The menu at Etta is considerably more casual than those at Corduroy Palace and Lucali. Anchored by a raw bar, the dining room serves crudos, sushi and other raw bites to share. For private events, the restaurant offers customisable menu options from Lucali, which is just a few floors down.

Think of your most creative friend and then imagine what their penthouse or loft would look like. That’s Etta.
Gibran Baydoun

“The space is really made to feel simple and clean, and open,” says Baydoun. Sci-fi and whimsical, and furnished with original furniture pieces by the likes of British designer Faye Toogood, Etta is an ode to great taste, understated elegance and, of course, peculiarity. More importantly, it’s designed to feel like home—but cooler.

“Think of your most creative friend and then imagine what their penthouse or loft would look like. That’s Etta. It’s somewhere to have a drink, a bite, a private dinner, enjoy live music and dance. It’s funky, weird and creative, but at its core, it’s about creating what I think is a really dope home,” says the young restaurateur, who opened Etta with his friend and investor, Richard Poulton, whom he met “at meditation”. He further shares that they “even travelled to see the Dalai Lama together. We make a great team not just in business but spiritually, because there’s an understanding between us of what brings out the best of both of us.”

When I speak with Baydoun for this interview via video call, he’s back where it all started—in New York City. With travel open again, he has been traipsing the world in search of inspiration, ideas and investment opportunities. “It’s important for any of us in this industry to feed ourselves in terms of design, food, drink and hospitality. Our success comes from these enriching experiences, soaking up the energy and spirit of our peers,” he says, adding that he has also been getting his bodega fix. “I’ve had so many bagels this trip. It’s out of control.”

On the other hand, Baydoun says his recent trips have shined a light on Singapore’s place on the global hospitality stage. “We always think of places like London or Paris, but having travelled to all of those places, I realised that there are a lot of things that Singapore is doing better or [in a] more progressive and interesting way,” he says. “It has been cool to see that Singapore is truly a unique destination for restaurants and bars on its own.”

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