If Singaporean fine dining food culture were manifested in chef form, it’d be the Brazilian-born Ivan Brehm of Nouri who cut his teeth at the likes of Per Se, The Fat Duck, Hibiscus and Mugaritz. He’s also developed tea in the UK and cooked in a castle in Italy.
Raised in São Paolo, on his father’s side, Brehm is Russian and German. On his mother's side, a blend of Italian, Spanish, Syrian and Lebanese.
His eyebrows have this manicured-seeming, perpetual arch that’s like an outward manifestation of his curiosity. And the brows—where are they from?
“I credit this to my Russian grandmother. She's Russian Ukrainian. There's a bit of Mongolian stuff going on there. So, that's where the eyes come from. At least, I like to say that,” he adds.
In Singapore, there’s the chance to be both fun yet precise. There are few other places in the world that have such a world-class combo (and concentration) of paradoxical forces—visceral and the intellectual, high and low—in its food.
Singaporean food is ridiculously multicultural. Flavors showcase historical roots, also powered by a well-traveled dining public of both locals and visitors. There’s a bustling business travel and dining contingent that’s willing to pay for good food. With the massive Marina Bay Sands opening, the scene “really started to mushroom over the course of the last five years,” says Brehm. The real estate market also saw a lull and so space was cheaper. Chefs are then empowered to experiment here because there’s a market for sophistication.
“You have the silk road and the Trans-Atlantic spice trade. These two things have been instrumental for the world that we know today as our world,” he says.
Dining options here showcase talents of the Malays, Indonesians, Indians and Chinese of several ethnic backgrounds. Indeed, in Singapore, ‘Chinese’ doesn’t mean much; instead, people are called by the different dialects they speak. And the definition is less for the sake of exclusion as it is for the embrace of delicious differences.
The mix is even more far-flung: “Obviously the Europeans who came over had an impact on the culture—for appropriating culture without thinking twice about it.” That’s why Brehm and the other Western born and bred chefs who’ve come here to open up shop fit right in.
While not without strife—hit the history books for “sad events, like wars and terrible bits, crappy rains”—crossroads are where to find good taste.
But fusion has become so uncool. How to do it right, I probed.
Confusion. Confusion! You can do fusion in a sloppy way, you can do fusion in a precise way that's both academic and, by the way, super soulful.
Even though Brehm’s cooking is this mix of cultures, it takes research and thinking to make fusion “not just hipster, but true. The only way we can talk about this properly, and not be perceived as a hippie joint, is through the academic rigor,” Brehm says. “It validates the work.”
“We like eating ideas as well; it's a good meal,” he says. “I think we use the gut brain and the head brain at the same time.”
“The type of food that we cook here requires that sort of rigor, but it isn’t about that rigor, it's really about what the rigor allows us to talk about—which is ultimately that we're kind of part of a big family.”
“Do you know your great grandparents name? I don't know mine,” Brehm says.
I'm stunned, grasping mentally at my own mother who rarely tells stories of her past in any kind of detail.
He says out loud what I’m thinking: “We never go that far back.”
“If we start to believe the lie that we're very, very different, and that we eat very different food, and my neighbor's food is smelly, we also kill our own food culture and traditions,” he explains.
Ultimately, Brehm’s gut brain and head brain lead to the heart.
For all the giggles about Singapore as a sterile, paternalistic, polite, rules-based society (the ban on chewing gum, for instance), this is a country that works, despite differences among its people—clean, organized, corruption-free.
“Identity here is a weird conversation. It's a new country. And which identity do you choose? Identity here is this transformative, ever evolving kind of thing,” says Brehm. “I don't know if you've seen the world out there, but it can get pretty scary. I think this town shows it's possible to live differently.”
And from what I could tell, this town was obsessed with food.
In order to make fast friends with a Singaporean, they advise that you cook food if you have the talent, bring over food as an offering to a local’s home—or simply talk about food. If you really want to go to the next level, have a chicken rice or chili crab recommendation handy and be prepared to defend it.
If asked to choose between the perennial local hawker favorites, Brehm says “I am a lot more a chicken rice person than a chili crab person. I love chili crab, don't get me wrong, but there's something about the humble comfort of chicken rice that you can't get away from. It is like the chicken noodle soup in solid form, right?
He insisted on keeping the peace and passed on my question about his favorite chicken rice spot for fears of tears or boycott. “There's way too many good ones and I don't want to upset anybody,” he says. "I mean it. I really mean it."
The chef-philosopher likens cooking to a tree
"We're all part of the same trunk and roots, and over time, because of circumstances, we branched out, and right at this moment, we are the flowers and leaves of that tree. It may seem we’re looking at each other from a very far distance, but when we go back a few steps, we are actually connected to that forking point there. That fork is crossroads. That's what that food's about,” he says.
“And boy, what a beautiful flower this place is,” I respond, somewhat delirious from the week of World’s 50 Best Awards festivities.
Indeed, this week, I caught up with top chefs visiting for this Oscars of global dining. It’s this braininess that gets chef-peers like Kyle Connaughton and Heston Blumenthal (also Brehm’s former mentor) going.
“I always had a soft spot for him. And his takes on life and the universe,” says Heston Blumenthal, when asked about Brehm. “Every plate, every plate...” he trails off, recalling a combination of nutmeg and olive oil he found especially thrilling. “If I talk about every amazing dish, I’m going to sound like a broken record.”
When asked about his best bite in Singapore, the ultra-nerdy Kyle Connaughton of Single Thread, the Japanese-ryokan-in-Napa landed on Nouri: “His combination of local and South American flavors is super inspiring.”
The name Nouri is rooted in the Latin root word for nourishment. In this particular form, it's from the Creole version of ‘nouri.’ If you add an ‘r’, then it's the French version. Also, in Persian and Arabic, it means ‘light’ or ‘fire,’ in the sense of ‘sparking something.’ In old Korean, it means ‘planet’ or ‘globe.’
But it’s not all nerdiness for its own sake. Brehm is having fun.
“It’s also is the root word for ‘nunnery’ and ‘nipple,’” he says. So, when feeling extra mischievous, the chef-philosopher is known to leave tables with this: "Nouri comes from the Latin for nourishment, also related to nipple.”
Want to hear more from Brehm? Discover his favorite restaurants, hawker stalls and hole-in-the-walls in Singapore, as well as his go-to cocktail and wine bars.
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