It’s not every day that a locally owned restaurant serving Japanese cuisine can claim bragging rights to being so authentic that they have among their regulars Japanese customers from the Japan Embassy, Japanese chefs and some other well-known culinary names.
“In the past, it was near impossible for a non-native to run a Japanese restaurant. This is a milestone for us and we have come a long way. We work very hard to ensure we get the best seasonal ingredients direct from the source. In fact, we have suppliers from Japan who are surprised by the ingredients we ask for, as they are not aware of them sometimes,” says Singaporean co-founder and culinary head of Ishinomaki Grill & Sake Bar, Chi Pin Han, affectionately known as Chi-san.
“The recognition from our customers is an award in itself!” adds wife Janice Chi, who together with Chi-san, is celebrating the restaurant’s eighth anniversary, with the launch of more dining concepts at Palais Renaissance this year.
To coincide with the rejuvenation of the mall, the couple expanded their square footage at the basement with the opening of Ki Teppan & Rogama this January, serving premium teppanyaki. In May, they opened Table 33, a sake-focused bar led by Janice, who is a certified sake sommelier. Later this year, they will be opening a Degustation Room — a reservations-only space for a small group, offering food and wine, sake or spirits pairing, and a customised menu.
In an exclusive interview with Options, the low-key couple open up about their love for Japanese cuisine and motivation to start their own mini Japanese culinary empire.
Tell us a little about your journey with Japanese cuisine?
Chi-san: In 1983, I packed my bags to work in kitchens in Japan, and five years later, I returned to Singapore to join Keyaki at Pan Pacific Singapore in 1988. I was there for 14 years. After that, I went on to be general manager for Minor Food Group (which owns concepts such as Poulet) for several years. Subsequently, we managed various casual dining concepts in neighbourhood malls. Through these ventures, I discovered that I wasn’t as passionate about Thai and French food as I am about Japanese cuisine, so I had to follow my heart.
Janice: Chi-San was working non-stop in his corporate job, and had a sudden awakening after seeing so much devastation during a visit to Ishinomaki prefecture after the tsunami. We went there as part of a relief programme to see how we could help the locals. We felt a strong bond to that place, and honestly, setting up Ishinomaki Grill & Sake felt more like a calling, where we would import the ingredients and sake to support their livelihood.
Ishinomaki is one of the few restaurants in Singapore to have been presented the Pride Fish plaque — an honorary award given by the Japan Fisheries Association to restaurants that uphold high standards of freshness in their seafood.
Our newer brands just evolved along the way, due in part to feedback and suggestions from our customers and landlord. We started Ki Teppan & Rogama, even though the F&B industry was still suffering from the effects of Covid-19 because we saw the need for a value-for-money teppanyaki concept in Singapore that serves premium ingredients from Japan.
Table 33, which started recently, is very personal to us as sake is something I am passionate about and is a platform for sharing and education.
Tell us more about Table 33.
Janice: My love for sake started when my manager left the restaurant suddenly and I had to learn about sake overnight. As I learnt more about sake, I realised it’s a fascinating world as there is so much care and respect behind the crafting of each sake. We have a lot of reverence for the brewers behind the sakes, which is also why we have never put our label on the sake. We want to respect each brewer and their work.
For more lifestyle, arts and fashion trends, click here for Options Section
Our sake cellar is well-stocked with up to 180 sake from all 47 prefectures in Japan. One thing I can tell you is that a lot of sake tastes better when warmed. The challenge is to know what temperature to serve the sake at, as each sake has a different character. For example, most sake can be warmed up to 50°C, but some sake can be enjoyed at a higher temperature of 55°C.
What would you like to see more of in terms of sake appreciation?
Janice: I think sake pairing will be just as big as wine pairing as it goes well with both Western and Asian cuisine. For those keen to know more, we will be running more programmes at Table 33 for further education, with themes such as hot sake, aged sake and more.
I would also love to see more sake sommeliers emerging from this. We are proud of the team here, especially those who went on to become certified sake sommeliers during the pandemic. We proudly display their certificates at the entrance of our office!
What are some of the secrets to your success?
Chi-san: What we’ve learnt is that you need to first take care of your staff and your customers. If you see a spark of interest from the staff, just encourage. If your focus is to take care of yourself, you will only reap short-term benefits.
Operational costs in Singapore are high, but we believe you must be honest with your product. Never short-change your customer. Not all items we bring in are profitable. Sometimes we bring them in because we want our customers to try so they can experience and be educated. We have many instances where we tell the customers it’s on us — yet they insist on paying as they want us to do well. Many times, customers will even leave a big tip for the staff to boost their morale.
Along the way, customers share with us their personal advice, as they are successful businessmen too. These types of relationships are priceless and not to be taken for granted.
You must be really happy to see native Japanese frequent your restaurant.
Chi-san: During my younger days, I always wondered: Why can’t a Chinese do Japanese cuisine? In Japan, you can see a Japanese chef run a Chinese restaurant or a French restaurant. It makes me proud to see I’m not the only one — there are other successful Singaporean chefs helming their own Japanese restaurants. It’s really a milestone for the industry. People ask why we don’t have a Japanese chef on our team. We are happy to say that we believe we are good enough. Just ask our regular customers!
What have been the biggest challenges for you?
Janice: When Covid-19 happened, our first concern was whether we could pay our staff. The next was finding the right people for the new dining concepts, due to a huge manpower shortage. For the latter, we’ve been very fortunate to find skilful chefs to manage the teppanyaki and binchotan grills. To solve the former, we started Jun.com.sg as a platform for our customers to order food. We will also be launching tableware, sake glasses and other lifestyle items for online retail — so do look out for them!
Where do you think the Singapore F&B industry is headed?
Chi-san: I’m happy to see that our local F&B industry is world-recognised. We have so many international sommeliers and award-winning chefs. Our standing is much higher now. We have grown so much. Thirty years ago, if you told people about wine, their eyes would just glaze over, but now people know more about vintages, varietals and terroirs. Singapore's food culture is also well-esteemed. No matter how many Michelin stars we have, people also want to try chicken rice and chilli crab.
What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
Janice: Our hope and dream is to be in the industry as long as we can! We hope to see more people interested to know more about sake and learning the art of pairing it with Japanese food. We also hope to see young people take pride in service. It should not be an afterthought.
Having gone through the difficult 2½ years of the pandemic, we are thankful to be Singaporean and to receive the help of the government. The country has taken care of SMEs during these difficult times. We will be celebrating National Day by working harder and doing our jobs well!