“I'm very interested in tattoos. As you can see I am covered in them. I tattooed the turtle and the bird on my own leg.”
Halfway through my conversation with Lim Yew Aun, co-owner and chef of Cicheti, we find ourselves drifting away from the topic of food to talking tattoos. It’s an unusual conversation to have with a chef, but with Aun, it feels completely natural.
Then again, it’s not every day you find a Malaysian chef covered in tattoos running a classy Italian restaurant.
For Aun, it all started at a small bakery in his hometown of Penang, Malaysia when he was 16. To further his experience, he came down to Singapore to work in banquet dining for a large hotel.
But he also had a curiosity for tattooing, and he wasn’t going to give up on it, so he tried to take on a tattoo apprenticeship at the same time as being a chef. “My boss at the time said I couldn't do both, so I quit being a chef and worked full-time as a tattoo artist for a year.”
“The first times I practised tattooing, I would do it on pigskin. Every morning, I would go down to the butcher, get skin, wash it, freeze it, then bring it to the studio to tattoo it,” Aun tells me as I munch on a perfect Margherita pizza.
It really is perfect, is all I am thinking during this conversation.
My nonna says that the best way to tell if an Italian restaurant is good, is by ordering the simplest dish on the menu. Chef Aun’s Margherita Di Bufala at Cicheti proved this theory right. Each ingredient was fresh, the flavours were balanced, and the crust was aromatic.
I tune back into our conversation to Aun telling me about his return to the culinary world because he preferred the immediacy of cooking and having people enjoy his food.
“Tattooing is all about how you sell your art. Food is an art that needs to be sold too. You have to explain it to your customer. It's about how you communicate.”
“So I found a job at L'Operetta restaurant, which was one of the first to bring in wood oven pizza, Neapolitan style. That's where my passion for Italian food comes from. Specifically, learning to make pizza in a wood-fired oven.”
Pizza took over Aun’s life. “All I wanted to do was make pizza. Every night on YouTube I was looking at the best pizzas in Italy,” he said.
He was adamant about making the best pizza and even got a Neapolitan wood oven shipped over from Italy. In a hilarious twist, it was too big to fit through Cicheti’s doorway, so they bulldozed the walls down to let it through.
But it’s not just pizza that Aun has under his belt. His Fresh Sea Prawns and Panzanella (a salad bowl with heirloom tomatoes, basil and croutons) are light yet flavourful, while the accompanying home-made bread is soft and slightly salty.
You can tell Aun was trained in the traditional Italian way, but he has adapted his menu to Singaporean tastes.
“Local taste buds prefer sweet, and they take more garlic. In Italy, they just put a hint. But Italians love olive oil, yet here, they like that less.”
He also experiments within the realm of Italian cuisine. A personal favourite was Aun’s Tiramisu. Aun takes the classic recipe from Veneto in the north of Italy, and tops it with coffee granita, a sorbet-like dessert from Sicily in the south.
While the north and south of Italy are actually in constant competition with each other, only someone from across the globe could bring the two together.
But Chef Aun says it’s not all about experimentation — he still wants the focus of the food to remain on the ingredients: “Seasonality is in the virtue of Italian cooking. Ingredients need to be fresh. I experiment using my palette. If I taste it and like it then I’m confident my customers will too.”
The proof of his success is in Cicheti’s returning customers, both Italian and Singaporean alike. The soft-spoken chef discloses one of his biggest secrets to setting himself apart while keeping everyone satisfied: “It’s also about knowing what kind of customer someone is when they step in the door. That is so important.”
“I don't serve my burratina with cherry tomatoes and basil. I feel like every Italian restaurant here does that. So I put in the effort and add onion marmalade and home-made pesto.”
“But of course, if an Italian nonna walks in, I'll know to serve her the traditional version with just basil and olive oil.”
This article was written in partnership with Cicheti.