Growing up, Ong Liling spent a lot of time at the Singapore Zoo. “It was like a day care centre for my brother and I because our parents had to work,” says the 33-year-old. Their time was spent with granddad Ong Swee Law, who founded and built the zoo in 1973, and turned it into a world-class animal attraction.
When his grandchildren wanted to stay on after closing hours, the elder Ong realised that other visitors also wanted to visit the attraction after sunset. It had never been done anywhere in the world, but he conceived the idea for the Night Safari, which opened to global acclaim in 1994, before he died of cancer a year later.
Granddad’s intrepid spirit lived on deep within Ong. She recalls: “I thought a lot about him because he used to take me to board meetings and appointments with VVIPs. His ability to see potential winners, where others did not, rubbed off on me.”
The knack of detecting potential is Ong’s secret ingredient as a restaurateur. “When I returned to Singapore about six years ago, I missed the vibrancy of the F&B scene in London, where it was so colourful, with many options at different levels of the market,” says Ong, who graduated from University College London with a degree in clinical psychology. “In Singapore, I did not have the little go-to Italian restaurant that I had in London, where you could pop in on a Monday night and also make an event out of it on Saturday.”
So she established her own. Noting that Italian restaurants here were either top end or for the masses, she saw the opportunity to open an outlet that occupied the middle ground.
In 2013, with cousin and chef Lim Yew Aun, Ong started the trattoria-style Cicheti. Cicheti, Venetian-speak for little plates, serves pastas and pizzas in a refurbished shophouse along Kandahar Street.
Following the success of the restaurant, the savvy restaurateur went on to open Australian-themed Fynn’s in 2016 and, most recently, Bar Cicheti, an Italian pasta and wine bar on Jiak Chuan Road.
In opening new restaurants, Ong makes sure they are not duplicates, but retain the Cicheti brand culture. “Since I opened Fynn’s, I wanted different versions of Cichetis because I do not want to cannibalise the parent restaurant. I’ve seen many restaurants opening copy and paste versions of the original, and a customer can’t help but compare which is better.
“Our pastas and pizzas drive the Cicheti business, and it made sense to split them up to show people we are taking our product to the next level and are specific about it. So Bar Cicheti is built around a pasta and wine bar concept. And I like that wines are essentially telling stories about history and culture.”
The plan is to roll out at least two more restaurants in Singapore before venturing overseas. “We are not going anywhere until all our restaurants are doing very well and very profitable. Then, India is a potential stop.”
What Ong Liling does off-duty:
I just finished Becoming, Michelle Obama’s biography. She is incredibly eloquent and I love how she looks at the world and life. I am about to start on Billion Dollar Whale, a book about the 1MDB scandal.
INTO THE WILD
I have two great passions: hiking and skiing. When I am in Hong Kong, I hike several trails – it’s therapeutic for me. I ski about three times a year in the United States and Japan.
My idea of a perfect night is one spent with a stack of interior design magazines and a glass of wine. I also love art and display works of local and regional artists in my restaurants.