By SGN | 7 Apr 2022
On a recent trip to America, Gibran was struck by a terrible craving for char siew rice.
“That simple combination of sweet char siew, with the crispy barbecue bits, on rice. It’s very comforting, and I just kind of missed it,” he recalls, adding that there’s a box of leftover char siew rice sitting in his kitchen as he speaks.
After six years of living in Singapore, Gibran has fallen in love with the mind-blowing array of food cultures found on the tiny island – from char kway teow in Chinatown to blue swimmer crab curry at Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant Candlenut.
Delicious heritage cuisines aside, he notes the presence of modern establishments that would hold up anywhere else in the world. “No Sleep Club would be a great bar in New York, London or Tokyo,” he says. “And I love what Ivan Brehm is doing at Nouri. His crossroads cuisine is really thoughtful and intentional – it doesn’t get much better than that.”
Three restaurants and a pandemic
While most would hesitate to start a restaurant business during a pandemic, Gibran opened three.
His first, Lucali BYGB – an offshoot of the famed pizzeria in Brooklyn – opened soon after the Circuit Breaker, during a dark time when many restaurants globally were shuttered. But it helped that Lucali offered a warm dining experience and patrons were craving human interaction post-lockdown.
Gibran also believes the business survived thanks to Singapore’s excellent response to COVID-19. This confidence in the country’s ability to overcome the pandemic led him, a year later, to conceptualise and launch two adjoining establishments – Corduroy Palace, a contemporary wine hall, and Proper Slice BYGB, a back-alley slice pizza joint.
Between construction woes (lack of manpower, bricks stuck across the Causeway) and dining restrictions (fluctuating maximum group size, no drinking past 10.30pm), Gibran has had a challenging start as a restaurant owner, to say the least.
“It’s been rough,” he observes. “But if we can make it through these first two years, I think we can make it through just about anything.”
From New York to Singapore
Before he was a restaurateur, Gibran spent many years in food service and hospitality in New York, first as a restaurant manager with the Hillstone group, and later on with David Chang’s Momofuku group, where he served as chief of staff and director of operations.
In 2016, he took a leap of faith and accepted an offer to join Adrift by David Myers at Marina Bay Sands. Gibran was 27 at the time, and he had never in his life used his passport, let alone travel to Asia or a mysterious island city called Singapore.
As he became acquainted with and intrigued by the local and regional dining scene, Gibran transitioned to hospitality consulting, working with restaurants in Singapore, Dubai and Tokyo. Deep down, however, he hungered to have full creative rein and establish something of his own.
Designing a great dining experience
George’s journey to becoming a space scientist began in the tiny village of Humulești (population less than 4,000) in northeastern Romania. He fell in love with the infinite wonder of space from a young age, thanks to his father’s love of astronomy, as well as clear skies free of light pollution and filled with “all the stars you can imagine”.
He will never forget witnessing in 1997, at the age of five, the passage of the Hale–Bopp comet – an incredible astronomical event that left him completely awestruck.
In high school, George began to dive deeper into the subject and went on to compete in the national Olympiad on astronomy and astrophysics. Though he studied aerospace engineering at university, his final year brought him to Italy as a research intern in space electric propulsion, which has remained his field of specialisation ever since.
After a double Master’s in Sweden and Germany and work stints in France and Japan, George wanted to pursue his PhD but couldn’t find a suitable opportunity in Europe. This led him to join the Space Propulsion Centre at NTU in Singapore, or what he saw as a new team with a well-financed lab housed in a reputable university.
Not long after starting his PhD, George was approached by Mark – a labmate who had completed his dissertation in plasma physics – with the idea to start Aliena and translate their expertise into a commercial venture. With support from NTU, the duo launched the company in 2018.
Three and a half years on, George is thrilled with the progress that the team has made. Having completed his PhD at the end of last year, he is now devoting all of his energies to Aliena and he is excited to see the endeavour grow.
Inspired by her Mies van der Rohe house in Detroit, the chic and progressive concept is less restaurant and more lounge, with brick flooring, custom rugs, mismatched fabrics, and beautiful mid-century furniture.
Putting down roots in his forever home
Gibran hopes to take some of his concepts global, but his home base will always be in Singapore.
“I don’t know of a better country to do business,” he says, citing Singapore’s transparent processes and abundant resources for business owners. “And I think Singapore is not just a gateway to Asia. It’s a gateway to the world.”
He recalls the time when, flying into Singapore and stepping off the plane, to his own surprise, he found himself saying, “Ah, feels so good to be home.”
“In one way, I’ve adopted Singapore as my home. But in another way, Singapore has adopted me,” he muses. “I’ve never been more welcomed as I have been in this country. And it’s just a great place to put down some roots and be in for the long haul.”
Gibran is the founder of the restaurants Lucali BYGB, Proper Slice BYGB and Corduroy Palace in Singapore. He was previously based in New York, where he was chief of staff and director of operations at Momofuku.
Connect with him here.