Be like water, said the late Bruce Lee. In Jeremmy Chiam’s case, this might just work. The former chef-owner of Le Binchotan once parlayed high-end, French-Japanese gastronomy into a Hokkien mee takeaway mid-pandemic.
He now heads Iko, a contemporary Japanese izakaya that officially opened on April 22 – just three weeks before dine-in restrictions came into effect. “We’d been through worse during the circuit breaker.”
No stranger to turbulence, the 35-year-old spent four years as a Singapore Airlines steward and travelled the world while working for free at the Michelin-starred Parisian restaurant Sola owned by his mentor Hiroki Yoshitake.
Before that, he was, as he tells us with candour, “a typical lost teen who didn’t know what to do in life”. He’d elected to study engineering, but that wasn’t his thing. Chiam quit school and went through a string of odd jobs before landing a part-time service role at the now-defunct Ponderosa.
“One day, the kitchen needed help and roped me in. I started by chopping onions and went home wearing three plasters. But while chopping, I saw how fast-paced the kitchen was. I fell in love with it.”
He stayed at Ponderosa until national service and went to culinary school before cutting his teeth in mod-European establishments like Iggy’s, Caffe B and The Jewel Box. It was at the lattermost joint that he met Yoshitake, then a consultant for Mount Faber Leisure Group.
“The thing about Japanese chefs is that when you first join the kitchen, they don’t talk to you,” he says. “It’s only once they’ve invited you for a drink that you know you’re in the team.” That friendship continued even after Yoshitake returned to his restaurant in France. Chiam’s stint as a flight attendant meant he could stage “two days three times a month” at the Parisian place. “I would land, nap for two hours and be down for two full lunch and dinner services. There’s no jet lag. Once the smells in the kitchen hit you, you’re awake.”
With his strong Franco-Japanese influences, it made sense that his first venture Le Binchotan was an exercise in overt eclecticism. First head chef, then owner of the restaurant, Chiam delivered consummate French-Japanese fare with smoky overtones from the white charcoal that the place was named after.
The restaurant eventually shut its doors in December last year after weathering the pandemic and a good four years on Amoy Street. “To last through the entire lease as a standalone restaurant without big financial backing is already a beautiful story.”
Eventually, Chiam’s pandemic-driven pivot from fancy French-Japanese dining to elevated, supremely comforting Hokkien mee is a bookend and pivot that saved the restaurant and everyone’s jobs. “I’d already written my resume but I told myself that I had to make things work.” It wasn’t their first time cooking the dish – Chiam offers local dishes every National Day – but it was the first time the entire kitchen dedicated itself to Singaporean grub.
“We survived and gained new clients,” he says. “People look to familiar food in troubling times.” It’s a lesson he’s applied to Iko’s menu. Yes, there are bar bites and robatayaki galore, but there’s also zosui and donabe – Japanese dishes he likens to pao fan (poached rice) and claypot rice, respectively. “Be like water. If you’re put in a bottle, become the bottle. If you won’t even dare to try, you’ve already failed.”