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Opposites attract

Pauline Wong
Pauline Wong • 8 min read
Opposites attract
Chef Lim Yew Aun and Ronald Kamiyama of the Cicheti Group talks about how they collaborate to during the Circuit Breaker period
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Cicheti Group partner and sommelier Ronald Kamiyama and his culinary counterpart, chef and co-owner Lim Yew Aun, are total opposites. But together, their wealth of experience and passion for good food and great wine make them both a great team as they keep the Cicheti Group of restaurants up and running through the tough Covid-19 times.

At first glance, the two men could not be more different. Ronald Kamiyama, partner and sommelier of the Cicheti Group, and chef and co-owner Lim Yew Aun are (pardon the cliche) like night and day. Stocky, tattooed, with a broad, ear-to-ear grin, Lim is taciturn, but not dour — he is at ease to let Kamiyama do the talking while he nods and fidgets occasionally, as if he’s raring to get to the kitchen to get started with the day.

In contrast, Kamiyama is clearly comfortable with interviews, speaking freely and articulately. He is dapperly dressed, with a neatly-trimmed beard and large spectacles. Together with partner-owner Liling Ong, the two men make for a great team, keeping the fires of their restaurants lit in Singapore while Ong was stuck in Hong Kong due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Cicheti Group comprises of rustic chic trattoria Cicheti in Kampong Glam, which was established in 2013 and specialises in Italian regional specialities and authentic Neapolitan pizzas; contemporary pasta bar Bar Cicheti in Keong Saik, and modern-day osteria Caffe Cicheti in South Beach Avenue (formerly known as Fynn’s but the restaurant was rebranded in end 2019).

Cicheti was the first concept debuted by Ong and Lim, who are cousins and first-time operators. Its name, pronounced ‘chee-keh-ti’, draws inspiration from a Venetian tradition of having small plates of savoury dishes in a casual setting.

Lim, who is from Penang in Malaysia, discovered his affinity for Italian cookery while serving as the chef de cuisine for the L’Operetta Group in Singapore. Having fallen in love with Italian cuisine, especially the art of making and mastering individually hand-crafted, wood-oven baked Neapolitan pizza.

He then decided to earn his degree at the Singapore Hotel and Tourism Education Centre (Shatec), followed by a stint at Shangri-La Singapore where he expanded his knowledge base and kitchen skills cooking a global range of classic and modern dishes. He later was invited to serve as the sous chef for the Raffles Hotel, before striking out on his own with the Cicheti Group.

Kamiyama, however, joined the leadership team in early 2019, fresh from a stint at two Michelin Star L’Effervescence in Tokyo, Japan.

He studied at the International Wine Center and received the Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s (WSET) advance certificate, which helped him to transition to become a sommelier, learning from people like Michael Madrigale and Levi Dalton.

In 2013, Kamiyama became part of chef Michel Richard’s opening team at the iconic Lotte New York Palace, before he moved to work alongside Jeff Porter — one of the most influential American sommeliers — at Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group’s Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca, which is home to one of the most extensive and cohesive Italian wine collections throughout the country.

In 2015, he joined as beverage director at Osteria Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza, founded by the Italian-American chef Mario Batali, restaurateur Joe Bastianich and chef Nancy Silverton. Options had the opportunity to sit down with the both of them for an interview recently, and find out how they work together to pull themselves through one of the most difficult times in the F&B industry.

It has been really tough, with the Covid-19 pandemic. Good, artisanal pizza, I have found, tends not to travel too well with delivery. How did you guys pull through these tough times, what has it been like?

Kamiyama: Yeah, it’s been tough. Mainly because Cicheti never did do take-away pizza deliveries. We didn’t work with Grab or FoodPanda at that time. And it was because Napoletana style pizza, really, is best when it’s right off the oven. Especially when it’s made with a wood fire oven, brought in from Naples, Italy. Right.

So he’s [Lim] is very, very passionate about the flavours of Napoletana style; once the pizza starts cooling down, it’s a completely different flavour. And so, for that reason, we didn’t want to do delivery or take-away for many years. But now we have to. We do employ a lot of staff, but we made sure that none of them lost their job and we kept all of them, but we needed to regenerate some revenue. So what chef did was, he modified the dough so it could travel better; and we started working with all the delivery platforms. We quickly realised that pizza is the number one delivery item in the world!

Lim: Maybe also burgers!

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Kamiyama: Yeah, but pizza even more. Because it’s family-friendly! You order one pie, you can feed your whole family. And we honestly were so happy; we saw higher food sales volumes for pizza during this period, because our regular customers really wanted to have our pizzas. We were getting repeat orders twice, three times a week from regulars; and we made island-wide deliveries possible.

We also wanted to include the wine sales, because that was very difficult, so I created these wine bundle specials, and made it super affordable. I knew how much the wine suppliers were selling the wines for, and so I tried to compete with those prices.

So we dropped our wine prices, I curated a bundle that will please people’s palates. They just had to answer some questions for me. Do you like more fruit? Do you like the tannins? What is it that you like? And so I created a package just for them at a super affordable price, I think it was $225 for four bottles, which is really good; better than retail prices, really wellmade wines.

We even included playlists for music we play at our restaurants — sort of bring the experience of Cicheti at home.

Did you guys take the time during the “circuit breaker” to reinvent, get creative?

Lim: Yeah, we took the time to come up with family bundles and things. We created pasta kits for people to cook at home with their families and bond with the family. We also did a pizza kit — that was a hit with families and children.

Kamiyama: It was just making sure our food delivered well. During downtime, I would order the pizza from my home, taste it and see what happened to it after a half an hour, maybe one hour waiting period, if it needed reheating or not. If it did, we included instructions.

From there we tweaked the dishes, and if it just wasn’t good enough, we did not include it in the delivery menu. Tell me about the creative process between the two of you. Kamiyama: I definitely curate my wine list according to what the chef is cooking. I think that’s most important.

The flavours of wine are so vast; I don’t expect Chef to come up with something to match my wine. But because I have so much experience, I know what goes well with umami flavours, for example, and so the wine is based on his menu.

Lim: We also do trial runs of how each dish works with which wines.

Kamiyama: Yeah, we try to work with seasonal flavours as well, I taste the food and the flavours, then I select the wines. I think what really works [for the both of us] is that we both understand that this industry takes a lot of sacrifice and a lot of commitment. We know this very well. We’ve both experienced this. We don’t, you know, don’t get lazy. We don’t fall back. We continue. It’s tough, but we still do it. We push and we push because it’s important.

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Lim: Communication is also very important. We have rant sessions!

How do you see the industry recovering from this?

Kamiyama: We’ve been very fortunate, because of the number of our loyal customers that we have. Ever since Phase Two started, we’ve been fully booked every day. And that’s really helped us. We decided to open on Sundays as well, because there was so much demand. So that really is making up for the losses from Covid-19. It’s been busy. Our biggest concern was our customers not wanting to come out because they were afraid, which is one of the reasons why we have a plastic barrier shield (between tables), to make people feel a lot safer.

We follow all the protocols: sanitising, checking in, groups of no more than five. Any good that came out of these tough times? Kamiyama: Well, it sure seems we are really popular! (laughs) I mean, there are many options out there in Singapore, right? We are delighted that people are choosing us. A lot of anniversaries, a lot of birthday celebrations have come to our Cicheti outlets. We are very happy, to be honest.

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