“A breath of fresh air” may sound clichéd but it’s exactly how Nouri’s Chef-Owner Ivan Brehm comes across. In a world where Gordon Ramsay-esque fiery tempers rival kitchen temperatures in the quest to present the most exquisite of dishes, Ivan is creating a kitchen where the creative process can be fully exercised without the need for aggression – however well-intentioned – and harsh words.
One cannot help but think that the one-Michelin-starred chef’s desire to perform at the highest level without compromising on respect for any of his team members stems from his multi-cultural heritage. He is a second-generation Brazilian with relatives from Russia, Germany, Syria, Lebanon, Italy and Spain – a reflection of cosmopolitan Brazil. From a young age, tolerance, acceptance and a generous helping of open-mindedness was always dished out at the dinner table, where his family “celebrated all sorts of holidays and ate everyone’s food”.
And if a gentle kitchen is not enough of a surprise coming from a chef, the next goal on Ivan’s list is not just to open a third restaurant, it is to author a book about people – more specifically, one that expounds on his crossroads thinking approach and how humanity is more similar than different.
1. Describe your culinary journey so far.
- I decided at 17 or 18 years old that I wanted to cook for a living and although everyone had expected me to follow in my mother and grandfather’s footsteps to become a lawyer, I eventually left Brazil to pursue culinary studies in the United States. From the age of 19, I worked and learned in 1, 2 and 3-Michelin-starred restaurants around the world before opening my own restaurants – first Bacchanalia, and then Nouri in Singapore.
2. What was the defining moment when you felt you had to do what you are doing?
- I realized in my late teens that all my happiest moments revolved around food and the kitchen. But it wasn’t until I opened a magazine one day and found an ad picturing a female chef recruiting for French culinary training that I realized cooking for a living was a thing!
3. What is the earliest memory of you cooking?
Coming from a somewhat conservative family where men grilled and women cooked, I grew up very connected to fire but never saw cooking as a job. But I did cook something for my mother when she was sick. I made a dish with only potatoes and cinnamon, which later turned out to be a signature dish at Bacchanalia – a glamourised version with seaweed emulsion!
1. How would you describe your cooking style, and how has it evolved over time?
- My multi-cultural background has tremendously influenced how I cook. My style of food tends to highlight similarities in food to connect people across cultures. I call it “crossroads cooking”.
2. What does food mean to you?
- It is the way through which we communicate with the world around us. When you think about the act of eating philosophically, it is the way we understand the world – we consume what is sent our way, process and digest them into things that we store in our body. If it’s food, they are nutrients but they could well be thoughts, impressions, emotions. So food is really the way we exist in the world, not just in our bellies but our entire beings.
3. Who or what has inspired you the most in your cooking journey?
A lot of people have but my grandfather is the first that comes to mind. As a very wise man, he once reminded me that food is about flavour. I understood it to mean that you cannot perceive the beauty of food without concentrating on its flavour and taste – it should not be a primarily visual experience.
About your choice of ingredients
1. Do you enjoy using Japanese ingredients in your cooking? Why?
- Absolutely. I grew up in a neighbourhood that sits right at the edge of the Japanese neighbourhood in São Paulo, which has the largest concentration of Japanese in the world outside of Japan. Through my culinary education, I also witnessed the sheer commitment to craft that the Japanese possessed, and this translated to superior flavour, texture and quality in their food and ingredients.
2. What is the one Japanese ingredient you found indispensable in your creations?
- Kombu. We have replaced our vegetable stocks by using different concentrations of kombu stocks. Other than that, a perfectly ripe Japanese peach is something I love to eat and serve to people.
3. Are there any ingredients that you’d like to experiment with but have yet to have a chance to?
- I enjoy eating unagi and would love to understand more about its preparation process. I’d also like to get more specific with my rice which, while the bedrock of Japanese cuisine, is not something I thoroughly understand.