In a time when the pandemic is taking a huge toll on the industry, a pair of sisters in Singapore have decided to go against the odds. They opened a new omakase restaurant, Fukui, in March 2021. The restaurant is headed by veteran chef Nick Pa’an of now-defunct Santaro Japanese Restaurant.
Co-founders of Fukui, Eugenia and Emilia Tan, are no strangers to the business. They previously managed casual Japanese concept Kyuubei Izakaya at Village Hotel Changi but were badly affected when the hotel began accepting Stay-Home Notice guests in May 2020. They were not allowed to resume operations for more than six months, which meant the pair had to start thinking outside of the box on how to stay afloat.
“It was a pragmatic move for us. Not knowing what to expect with the situation as it is, and not knowing when things will go back to normal (or whatever is considered normal), we had to adapt and change,” says Eugenia. They roped in Pa’an, who has had ample experience in fine dining Japanese restaurants, found a shophouse space at Mohamed Sultan Road and took the plunge. The dishes served here are intriguing, marrying traditional techniques with Pa’an’s modern interpretation.
The interior of Fukui is inspired by Japanese minimalism and aims to resemble a tranquil ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). It provides a cosy atmosphere with just a 12-seater sushi counter that offers diners a full view of chef Pa’an and his team at work, as well as two private rooms.
Even in the best of times, the restaurant industry is known for being brutally competitive. In many parts of the world Covid-19 has weakened it even further, sending many newbies – and even beloved stalwarts – packing.
Between January and July 2020 for example, 1,242 F&B outlets in Singapore were permanently shuttered, according to data from the Department of Statistics. In the United States, more than 110,000 eating and drinking establishments closed in 2020, either temporarily or for good, and 2.5 million restaurant industry jobs disappeared, says the country’s National Restaurant Association.
We chat more with the Tan sisters on how they navigated through a new normal as well as their thoughts on the evolution of diners and the future of the food industry.
How did Covid-19 affect your business?
Eugenia: Things were going well for Kyuubei Izakaya – our brand was building up with a healthy stream of regulars and customers. Covid-19 basically put a huge stop sign in our progress at that time. We had to think about what’s next, because we had no idea when the pandemic would end and when things would go back to normal.
What were some of the changes and adaptations you had to undergo because of Covid-19?
Eugenia: It would be evolving Kyuubei Izakaya, a casual concept, into Fukui, which offers a more luxurious dining experience. We took a chance with Fukui as we were confident with Nick as our chef. There was a natural trust between the three of us. I trust Nick to handle the kitchen staff, prep and guest experience, while he trusts us to handle the service and backend logistics.
Emilia: We understand that at this point people in Singapore are starved for experiences. We, ourselves, are. We had originally planned to go to Fukui Prefecture, but those plans were obviously stopped. So, we wanted to create an experience at [the restaurant] that can transport patrons to this exclusive corner of Japan – our vision of Fukui, if you may – and experience Japan in Singapore.
How have Singapore consumers evolved in terms of their F&B tastes?
Eugenia: Emilia and I have been working in the F&B industry since we were 16, so we’ve noticed some trends. For one, a decade ago, the food offered was more simple, more classic. We saw a rise in fashionable foods, such as rainbow cakes, and it is more about chasing the hype nowadays. The quality may not be there, but people are intrigued and attracted by the buzz and the attractiveness. That’s not to say all trendy food is for the sake of hype. We do realise that those who manage to ride onto the wave at the right time, and provide a product with good quality, can last even when the trend fizzles off.
Emilia: Palates are definitely more refined now or, at least, more exposed. Singapore is quite spoiled when it comes to options, with new restaurants and concepts opening up every month.
What are your thoughts on the future of F&B in Singapore, especially in this climate?
Emilia: Being in Singapore, and being unable to travel has been the most challenging. We’re a small country, and we’ve this innate desire to travel. But we’ve been lucky as Singapore has an abundance of different cuisines available, and you can still experience another country through its food. Perhaps, this period would encourage Singaporeans to support local entrepreneurs and businesses aimed at bringing in different cuisines from across the globe.
Eugenia: Consumers want to be excited, and want novel experiences and/or flavours. Which is why opening Fukui also made sense to us. With an omakase concept, we’re able to bring in seafood seasonally (it comes in twice a week from Toyosu Market, responding to the four seasons as well as the microseasons), and allow patrons to escape into this exclusive corner of Japan without travelling there. And, our style of service, with the added bonus of no language barrier, allows for more to enjoy.
What do you think would be the next big thing in Singapore in the industry?
Emilia: If you can predict that, I would love to know so we can tap into the market! (laughs)
Eugenia: No one can predict the future. The key is actually to be the trendsetter, create a new trending concept and see whether it picks up. It’s all by chance, in my opinion.
Do you have any expectations for Fukui?
Eugenia: Fukui wasn’t exactly planned – we would like to see how it runs and how far we can push the potential of Fukui.
Emilia: We’re honestly just taking things as it comes right now. We’re riding the wave, and finding the right path as we go along.
Please check Fukui’s website for opening hours before visiting, and remember to adhere to safe-distancing measures while out and about.