Gibran Baydoun recounts his move from New York to Singapore at 27 – using his passport for the first time in the process – the thrills and spills of opening restaurants in a pandemic, and his fondest food memories in Singapore.
7 Apr 2022 / By SGN
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
Now, with each restaurant he creates, Gibran gets to express and execute his idea of a great dining experience – which he believes is centred on diners connecting with each other, enjoying a moment perhaps of respite or celebration. The food and drink should be stellar, but secondary.
He puts a lot of thought into lighting, music and decor to get the ambience just right. At Corduroy Palace, for example, the lush, eclectic interiors feature chairs by Fritz Hansen, pendant lamps by Jørn Utzon (the designer of the Sydney Opera House) and vintage 17th century corduroy from Pontoglio, Italy.
At the same time, the staff ensure that service is seamless – drinks served fast and chilled, guests never having to raise a hand for a water refill – such that they never “get in the way” of the diners’ enjoyment.
“What we want to offer is an experience that makes you go, not ‘This is the greatest restaurant in the world,’ but, ‘That was the greatest meal I’ve ever had,’” Gibran explains.
His upcoming fourth concept, Etta, is a tribute to his late grandmother, Ruth Etta Collins, who was a trailblazer and a “straight up badass”.
“She raised six kids on her own, she was one of the first black women to graduate from her university, she did some amazing work in special education – and she did it all with such style and grace,” he shares proudly.
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.