Cover From left: Lim Yew Aun wears Thom Browne sweater from Dover Street Market Singapore, Prada trousers, Bulgari Octo Roma Tourbillon watch in rose gold. Liling Ong wears Longchamp dress, Bulgari high jewellery necklace, bracelet in platinum with sapphires and diamonds

Dough has been an intrinsic part of The Cicheti Group’s success as it expands its business in Singapore’s dining scene. Cousins and business partners Liling Ong and Lim Yew Aun share their recipe for fostering sustainability—both in and outside the kitchen

Sustainability is more than a buzzword for restauranteur Liling Ong. It is manifested in an all-rounded manner across the four Italian restaurants by The Cicheti Group, which she founded with her cousin, chef and co-owner Lim Yew Aun.

Diners can dig into hearty pasta that’s rolled out from excess dough and drenched in a stock concocted from leftover meat or vegetable trimmings, or take a sip of wine made from indigenous grape varietals grown in small, multi-generational vineyards. They can also soak up in the restaurants’ convivial vibe that is accentuated by artworks and furnishings by a community of local artists and craftsmen. Ong says: “Being sustainable is more than just ticking a box, it has to be ingrained as part of a business philosophy.”

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It’s only in the past three years that sustainability has become a vital part of The Cicheti Group’s ethos. As the impact of global warming hit home, the 35-year-old was stirred up by a strong sense of wanting to do something about it in her restaurants. “I am not a tree hugger or green warrior,” she says. “But I couldn’t help but be moved by what was happening.”

Last year, the group collaborated with private dining outfit and pasta-maker Ben Fatto to organise four-hands wine-pairing dinners with a zero-waste theme. The sold-out dinners featured pasta dishes served with “ugly” ingredients, and a deconstructed bread and pudding with leftover potato skin.

The group is so committed to the cause that last year, it joined the F&B Sustainability Council, a local industry group for restaurants to share ideas on sustainability practices. The council has pledged to adopt green solutions such as reducing food waste and taking on carbon assessments.

“You can’t change the industry by yourself—there needs to be a movement that has key players in the scene commit to sustainability in a public and actionable way to keep each other in check,” she adds.

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That spark coincided with Japanese-Peruvian sommelier Ronald Kamiyama joining the group as a managing partner in October 2018. Having worked in acclaimed restaurants such as the three-Michelin-starred L’Effervescence in Tokyo, which is famed for its zero-waste practices, Kamiyama laid the groundwork to make The Cicheti Group’s operations more carbon-friendly. It started with curating a sustainable wine list and educating staff and diners stories behind the winemakers and provenance. The practice gradually seeped into the kitchens, where Lim started to look at reducing food waste. These initiatives complemented the group’s long-running practice of collaborating with local artists. “A restaurant can be a place where food, art, music and design congregate to build an identity,” Ong says.

Over the past eight years, the group has made an indelible mark in the competitive dining scene here. In 2013, Lim and Ong, both novice restaurant operators, started Cicheti, a rustic-chic trattoria in Kandahar Street. That was followed by the runaway success of Bar Cicheti, a contemporary pasta and wine bar that opened in 2018—shortly before Kamiyama, 40, came on board. After branching out to coastal Italian cuisine with osteria Caffe Cicheti in 2019, the group has unveiled its boldest concept yet, Wild Child Pizzette in August this year.

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The “free-spirited and experimental” pizzeria in Boat Quay serves 10-inch Neapolitan-style pizzas, or pizzette, alongside sake and natural, organic and biodynamic wines. Imagine Tuscan kale and pickled onion pizzette paired with Motoshibori sake from Osaka, and Spianata Calabrese pizzette that has spicy salami drizzled in tangy Sichuan chilli honey. 

She also commissioned Ves.studio to produce porcelain lamp sconces adorned with whimsical Keith Haring-inspired doodles designed by local art collective Ripple Root. The latter also designed an Italian- and Peranakan-inspired wall mural in Cicheti and a custom oil painting at Bar Cicheti. “Creative communities are interconnected,” Ong muses. “Without artists, restaurants have no personality—it would just be four walls and food.”

Opening Wild Child Pizzette was a long time coming for Lim. A serendipitous chance to work at a pizza station ignited a lifelong passion in him. In the 2000s, Lim worked at Japanese-Italian restaurant L’Operetta, where he was introduced to the world of pizza-making, from mastering the heat of wood-fired ovens and rolling out dough to baking Neapolitan-style pizzas. Deep down, a desire to open a pizzeria someday was formed.

Why did it take eight years to realise Lim’s dream of opening a pizzeria? Ong, who spearheads the group’s concepts and vision, says that instead of diving into opening a pizzeria back in 2013, she opted to start concepts that are more familiar to diners with a more diversified menu of pasta, starters and mains, alongside pizzas. She reflects: “Starting a brand with no track record and going straight to pizzas, which most local diners don’t grow up with, seemed fairly risky. While my cousin was absolutely obsessed with pizza and dough-making, I wanted to come up with concepts that could develop his skills as a pizzaiolo while safeguarding our business interests.”

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THE SUSTAINABILITY STEWARD

Despite working in an industry that promotes consumption, Ronald Kamiyama, sommelier partner of The Cicheti Group, embraces how F&B professionals can play a part in advocating for choices that have a sizeable impact on the planet. These areas include sustainable farming, reducing carbon footprint, food wastage and packaging, recycling, and more. He says, “We are in a position in the supply chain where we can not only give consumers a choice to contribute to these efforts, but our actions can also inform and inspire them to make better choices at home.”

Over the past three years, Kamiyama has been leading the group’s sustainability efforts, from educating staff to making operational changes such as using biodegradable takeaway packaging and reducing food wastage in the kitchens. The group will factor in sustainability features in the interiors of upcoming restaurants.

As the group’s sommelier, he curates the group’s beverage list—95 per cent of which are sustainably produced, including natural, biodynamic and organic wines. He has a soft spot for small-batch and multi-generational producers and those that use local grape varietals or ingredients. One of them is the Motoshibori sake from Osaka, which he pairs with the Cavolo Nero pizzette at Wild Child Pizzette. The pure rice sake (junmai) is made using organically grown Omachi rice and involves the traditional Yamahai method that involves a yeast starter. He shares, “The Cavolo Nero has an earthy sweetness and umami notes from the Tuscan kale, pickled onions and bagna cauda, which complements the sake that has citrusy, sweet and umami notes.”

Kamiyama’s interest in sustainability was piqued when he was the maître d’ and sommelier at the three-Michelin-starred French fine-dining restaurant L’Effervescence in Tokyo. He was there for 1.5 years, before joining The Cicheti Group in October 2018. He has also worked at Osteria Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza in Singapore and chef Daniel Boulud’s Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud in the US.

While under the tutelage of L’Effervescence’s chef-owner Shinobu Namae, Kamiyama’s knowledge of sustainable restaurant practices was broadened—sake lees were used in stocks and ice cream, edible stems of vegetables were kept on dining plates, and only natural wines were featured in wine-tasting menus. He says, “Restaurants waste a lot of food, more so at fine dining restaurants where everything has to be perfect, but Namae-san was big on not wasting anything.”

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SUSTAINING THE BUSINESS

Even as Ong and Lim are taking steps to reduce the carbon footprint of their restaurants, they have been steadily solidifying their presence in the local dining landscape. This is quite the feat considering that the cousins, who come from vastly different backgrounds, never imagined that their professional paths would cross one day.

Growing up, they didn’t see much of each other—except at occasional family gatherings. In 2013, Ong approached her Penang-born cousin, who had been a chef in hotels and restaurants for over a decade, to start Cicheti. Ong identified a gap in the F&B industry here for “hole-in-the-wall and off-the-beatenpath” concepts—something she enjoyed while living in London. Her father Ong Yew Huat, the former executive chairman of Ernst & Young Singapore, was an investor in Cicheti.

Being first-time collaborators in a cut-throat industry was challenging—Ong provided the creative vision and ideas gleaned from frequent travels, while Lim, who hadn’t visited Italy till 2019, struggled to catch up. He turned to Youtube and social media videos to increase his exposure to pasta- and pizza-making and brought the ideas to life by “trial and error” in the kitchen.

And as it turned out, being not close initially was a boon for the duo. Ong reflects, “We trod lightly around each other when we disagreed and organically fell into a very good working relationship, while knowing that we are family, and would not screw each other over. There was this unspoken trust.” Over the years, they have become attuned to each other’s tastes and preferences.

As the group grows, Ong’s ethos of running restaurants has evolved to providing a platform to nurture home-grown culinary talents. She is spurred by the success of the group’s concepts that are run by a largely local kitchen team. She recounts, “Back then, some diners couldn’t believe that the head chef and co-owner is a Chinese guy—but why not? His team could nail the local palate down and tweak Italian dishes.” Lim hands the daily operations to his staff after the set-up stage of the concepts. “I want to ensure that there is progression for my chefs and that they can achieve their goals while working with me,” he adds.

Despite the pandemic, the group will roll out its fifth concept by early next year. It will feature a “truly talented local chef joining the group”. While Ong declines to divulge details, she says, “The partnership is extra special, given the organic nature of our forged paths and a shared obsession with dough.”

In an ode to Lim’s passion for dough-making, Ong plans to delve into this culinary art in the group’s concepts for the next two to three years. “Dough breathes life into our menus—it is the starting point for our pasta and Neapolitan pizzas,” she says. “Each new concept will start with dough, showcasing the skill sets of our kitchen teams in manipulating dough and bringing out our best interpretation of Italian cuisine.”

Pressing on with business expansion amid the uncertainties, Ong, who is based in Singapore, believes that it’s time to “roll the dice and be ballsy”. This comes after a year of hunkering down. With a smile, she says, “I don’t want the pandemic to dictate our growth. I want to fight against it—this creates hope and shows that, despite the difficulties, we are still in a place driven by passion and creativity.”

  • PhotographyDarren Gabriel Leow
  • StylingJoey Tan
  • HairKenneth Ong using Goldwell Professional
  • Make-UpZhou Aiyi/Makeup Entourage using Charlotte Tilbury
  • Photographer's AssistantHalid
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