There are few restaurants owned, run by, and named after a sommelier but Singapore’s iconic “Iggy’s” is just that. Ignatius ‘Iggy’ Chan is an immensely likable, warm and animated restaurateur who has given his name to one of the most celebrated destinations for food lovers across Asia and indeed the world. “When I’m in a gathering of chefs I feel a little embarrassed because many people call me ‘chef’ – but I’m a sommelier. I have so much respect for chefs that I don’t want to pretend to be one!” Iggy Chan says modestly.
It would be easy to assume that Iggy Chan had come from a family of caterers and that perhaps he had always had a passion for fine ingredients, but he drifted into the business by chance, and a happy one for us, the appreciative diner. He didn’t embark on his career because of some kind of culinary passion, it was hardship and the practical need to survive, he says, that forced him initially to take that path. “I had no clue that my future would lie in this business. I am in the Baby-boomer age group. Singapore was just industrialising, times were tough, kids like me who didn’t come from a privileged family didn’t have the luxury of being exposed to fine dining. We grew up eating well because we cooked hearty Chinese food, we drank a little beer and Chinese wine, but that’s it – we were not into this ‘lifestyle’ thing. Food was a necessity, something to nourish us, to bring people together.”
“I finished high school and had not done well – I had been naughty,” he says with a grin, “and failed most of my exams – so I went into the army to do my national service. I finished that and had to get a job quickly, but that was the time of Singapore’s recession, about 1984.” He tried every job, but entry-level hotel receptionist posts demanded A-levels and good English; he even went to a furniture design shop, but they could not offer him a scholarship to continue his education. “Then I walked into the Goodwood Park Hotel: they needed a commis waiter in the coffee shop. I saw all the equipment, the siphon gadget, I had never been to such a place, I was so excited and I said ‘Yes, I’ll take it!’ even though they were only paying $400.” Iggy learned how to make the different coffees, but looking through to the restaurant he could see the elegant diners and waiters, and was impressed.
Singapore was developing, and there were eight or ten new hotels opening. Desperate for staff, these hotels were offering scholarships for hotel schools, and Mandarin Oriental gave Iggy his opportunity. He says that’s why now when he travels he always tries to stay at a Mandarin Oriental hotel. “They sent me to a local hotel school which was a joint venture with Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne. That’s when I really started learning about the business. My work experience gave me a head start over the other students who had come straight from school, even though I wasn’t as smart as some of them.”
“Here in the UK students interested in food and wine can so easily hop over the Channel to the ‘land of wine’, and you are brought up in a culture that teaches appreciation of wine from a young age; but not in Singapore – it’s been more challenging for me there. But somehow, I don’t know why, I had an instinct to want to discover wine and food – it’s not from my parents, maybe it’s from the television.”
Is it more difficult to head a restaurant as a sommelier rather than as a chef? “I see it as an advantage. When a diner eats something that they are not totally happy with, or encounters flavours that they don’t like, they won’t mention that to the chef, especially when the chef comes out and asks, ‘How was the meal?’ They will say, ‘Oh, yes it was excellent, wonderful…’ But the advantage of my role is that they feel comfortable telling me the truth, because they know that although the restaurant bears my name, I’m not physically the one preparing the food. They are happier telling me because they know I will convey it to the kitchen. If I were the person preparing it, the comment would hit harder, more personally, but I’m a ‘proxy’. I’m in a better position as the sommelier/owner, especially if I have a good team of people that connects well – as opposed to a team around a celebrity. I try to play down my role as a personality.”
“We call the restaurant ‘Iggy’s’ – we are not the most creative people,” he jokes. “When we started we wanted to call it ‘Chardonnay’ or ‘Pinot Noir’ and then we moved on to vegetables: ‘Aubergine’, ‘Peppers’, and so on, but it was not representative of what we wanted to do. We said, ‘Actually, let’s just call it “Iggy’s”.’ A lot of guests who come don’t know me and just think it’s the fictitious name of the restaurant – which is good!”
Iggy Chan isn’t a chef, so how does the restaurant develop its menus? Which comes first, the wine list or the bill of fare? “It’s a chicken-and-the-egg situation,” he says. “I believe there are no absolutes in wine and food pairing. A lot of people play along with a restaurant, they dare not criticise because ‘the restaurant employs professionals’; even though you personally think a combination doesn’t work, you assume ‘maybe that’s how it’s supposed to taste’. I felt drawn to the marriage of food and wine, even though I was not exposed to it like kids in Europe.”
I asked Iggy Chan if he felt that that freedom offered him some advantage. “Because I don’t have that tradition that says ‘This is the right way, this is the wrong way’, when I travel and see something different I am not so set in my ways and I am confident enough to bring ideas together, adapt it and introduce it for our market. We have to find a concept that people from Europe can understand. We call ourselves a ‘Modern European restaurant’ but I don’t know what’s so European about our concept, apart from the kitchen layout! A lot of our food and techniques we adapt from the latest top progressive restaurants; flavours we adjust for the diners we have in Singapore; ingredients we take from wherever we think is the best source. So if you ask me what kind of restaurant we are running, I would have to say it isn’t a Chinese restaurant, we are not a Singaporean restaurant (apart from the fact that we are in Singapore), but definitely we are not traditional European; so we call ourselves ‘Modern European’.”
I asked Iggy Chan why he considers his restaurant European at all. “My explanation is that it is European because the kitchen is laid out on European lines. With regard to the menu, we offer lots of snacks to start, then something cold and refreshing and light – oysters, or sorbet, something to wake up the senses – and then we jump into something warm, building up to hot – fish, fried food, noodles. Sometimes we serve rice at the end, which is not European: we don’t have rules. We have learned that ultimately we can’t please everyone. Running a restaurant you constantly feel that you might fail tomorrow, even if you are successful today, so that keeps you on your toes! We fear that tomorrow people are not going to like us – my advice to others is ‘Don’t open a restaurant!’” he says with a wry smile.
Iggy Chan is a successful sommelier, so what advice would he give on wine pairing? “You need to find flavours of wines that don’t overpower or dominate; flavours of food that don’t overpower the wine. For example, tannic red wine with oysters – the wine has an ‘iodine’ taste and that’s not what you are looking for, it’s a disastrous match. But if you take a Chinon from the Loire, young, very light, or a Pinot Noir from the Loire, and serve it slightly chilled, that’s not so bad; not the ideal match, but if someone wants to drink only red wine and likes oysters, you can do it. I use that perspective: we have a wine list comprising wines that are complementary to food – nothing extreme, we focus on Champagne, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir, and a good selection of Bordeaux simply because we are in Asia and every Chinese customer wants to try it. So our wine list is predominantly Burgundy-driven because I find that Pinot Noir works very well with food: if you want to take a bottle of red wine that will go through our menu, which is predominantly seafood, and then finish with meat and cheese at the end, then a Pinot Noir will work with everything. It is light enough to go with certain seafood dishes, and has enough body to take on meats like pigeon, quail and even steak.”
Who does Iggy Chan consider to have had the most impact in the culinary forum? “I think Ferran Adrià has been the most amazingly influential person in the culinary world in the last fifty or a hundred years; it’s through people like him that food evolves. But you must understand how to interpret what he is trying to do, and not follow blindly – that’s the danger, because people think that they can follow Adrià by looking at his books, or on Youtube. But that is two-dimensional, you can make something that looks like his but when you eat it you are a thousand miles away. You have Bocuse, Alain Chapelle, great Japanese and Chinese chefs who have created a lot of interest, but not like he has done.”
“It’s almost like a virus spreading around the world, and a virus can be either good or bad – that’s the danger, people can be over-creative. There are two kinds of food today: food that nourishes and satisfies, and food for the intellect. Too many are trying to make intellectual food and forgetting how to make nourishing, tasty good food, and that is very sad. Nine out of ten young people that I interview only want to work for us for six months, to see as many things as possible and then to move on. Everything is about creation, breakthrough, innovation, progression; they forget that the foundation of food is the pleasure of flavours and taste, and food has become too academic. Too many want to be chefs, and nobody wants to cook!
‘We are treading a very dangerous path – I can’t pretend to be a chef, but in moving forward some are missing the long and difficult training that chefs used to go through. Michel Roux, Ferran, Robouchon, Yoshihiro Murata in Japan have all put in so many gruelling hours in the hot environment for 8, 10, 15 hours at a time to refine, to learn. It’s not happening today – they will do it for 3 months, take a break for 2 months, then move on somewhere else. It’s more like going through university, there is no longer the discipline, the quest is no longer to create a good dining experience, it’s to absorb as much knowledge as they can and eventually to ‘break through’, to do something as great as Adrià and become a star. There’s the big divide: there’s only the super-innovative, or the chains of restaurants that make good comfort food but are doing nothing with passion.”
Iggy Chan has infectious enthusiasm and imagination but he remains grounded. Iggy the restaurant is a product of vision and good taste, presenting great food with flair. Ignatius maintains a grip on old-fashioned ethics and it’s served him well. Iggy Chan has no hint of celebrity ego, it’s all about the food …or is it the wine?
Iggy’s by Iggy Chan
The Hilton Hotel
581 Orchard Road
Visit Iggy’s here
Interview and travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018