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Meeting the accidental restaurateur behind Alkaff Mansion Ristorante

As executive chairman & group managing director of LHN Group, Kelvin Lim’s specialisation might be in facilities management, but his passion lies in food.

Carving into a deliciously brittle-skinned dish of slow-cooked Sardinian-style suckling pig, Kelvin Lim says: “The diversification to F&B came out of our property management business. We had bid for a number of old SLA buildings, and thought F&B would be a high-revenue business that could work. Coincidentally, two friends of mine were looking for a space to set up a restaurant.”

Thus came about Alkaff Mansion Ristorante. It opened in December 2011, after more than a year of restoration and conservation work. Though Lim has since passed the reins to others, now that the business has stabilised, the executive chairman and group managing director of LHN Group still seeks inspiration for F&B businesses on travels. “F&B is a business that we are definitely developing further. Singapore’s restaurant scene is set to be even more exciting in the years to come, and it is an area of interest to us,” he enthuses.

How often do you have to travel for work and which cities does it usually take you to?

I travel almost every week – mostly short trips that last about two to three days, to places such as Indonesia, Yangon and Thailand. I also travel to Xiamen in China sometimes, and twice a year to Shanghai, where my wife is from. And once or twice a year, I would go to Europe.

Which cities are you most familiar with?

I used to frequent Jakarta a while back, and have been revisiting the city very frequently for the last three years. Back in 2005, my first impressions of the city were not very good. All around the CBD were foundations for viaducts that were meant to ease traffic, and they remained uncompleted even up  until 2012. But by 2013, the viaducts were completed and the city was cleaned up – the city has improved dramatically. There are also more and more F&B concepts in Jakarta, which is good news, as I eat out every day when I’m there. One place that I frequent is Sanur, an old-school Chinese restaurant in old Chinatown. The food leans towards Hokkien-style and is very nice and home-style. A few dishes that I always order include a super tender and juicy squid in black sauce, a claypot tofu with salted fish, and kangkong leaves stir-fried with fresh green chilli padi and bean paste. The ingredients are very fresh which make the simple dishes very nice. I took many friends there and they all agreed that it is the best. Though the food is simple, it is also a popular place for business entertainment – I see many Japanese and Chinese businessmen going there. You can also bring your own wine – together with your own glasses!

How do you pick where to eat when you are on the road?

I am very particular about what I eat. I dislike overly oily or spicy food, or over-seasoned dishes. I prefer clean, natural flavours and can quickly detect if a dish uses a lot of MSG, or an ingredient is not fresh. So, while I like exploring new places, and would seek them out via recommendations from trusted sources or reviews, I am quite cautious about what I pick to eat. And because I might not be able to find a suitable place for lunch, I tend to have a bigger breakfast when I am travelling. So apart from proximity to work, I choose to stay in places that serve a proper breakfast: yogurt, fruit, or eggs at the very least. Some noodle soup would be good too but eggs are the most important and they must be cooked a la minute – that makes a good start to the day. The place must come with a proper gym too.

What are some of your favourite restaurants in Singapore?

For important clients, I would take them to Yoshiyuki for a kaiseki meal. Once, chef Yoshi made an assortment of puffer fish dishes for us: as sashimi, as a dish of fins soaked in sake, the gelatinous skin served separately, the bones used for shabu shabu, and the liver barbecued such that it was like a crusty ball of gooey cheese. For Chinese food, we would go to Lei Gardens at Chijmes. For a casual get-together with good friends, we bring along wines – and wine glasses – to Wee Nam Kee at Novena. It is not crowded at dinner time, so we can enjoy ourselves leisurely. I also enjoy steamboats, and go to Tian Chu at King’s Hotel; it has served charcoal steamboat for more than 20 years. The ingredients are cooked in the steamboat – as well as peeled – for you, so you don’t have to dirty your hands.

Do you cook?

I can cook bird’s nest, slow-cooker soup, rice and instant noodles… which means I don’t know how to cook! My wife cooks very well though, and her signatures are Shanghainese dishes such as Shanghai niangao (rice cakes) and Dongpo rou (layered braised pork). She also knows how to prepare hairy crabs – it’s not a simple matter of steaming them. She puts in tea leaves, beer or soda water, and the timing is also very important. She would also prepare the special vinegar dip with ginger and the ginger tea to be had after. More importantly, she knows how to select the right crabs. I have no idea what the trick is. We order the crabs from a local supplier every year and invite friends over to feast.

What is your favourite gourmet destination?

Italy intrigues me. Within the old city walls are where the old historical restaurants serving very authentic cuisine are; and in the outskirts outside of the walls are the restaurants in big villas. Then within the cities are trendy restaurants. What I enjoy about Italian cuisine is the use of fresh ingredients and the simple, rustic cooking style. One place I always return to is the seatown of Forte dei Marmi, where on the beach there is a row of restaurants serving fresh seafood cooked in myriad ways. I usually go with my wife and two sons (aged three and six years) in April, when the weather is just nice.

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