Restaurant Born in Singapore Reflects The Philosophy of Its Chef
Restaurant Born, one of the starriest recent additions to Singapore’s already dazzling fine-dining firmament, is the first solo outing for chef Zor Tan, a young master of contemporary fusion cuisine that marries Chinese traditions to classic French techniques. Adding to Born’s allure is its historic location, the Jinrikisha Station, built in 1903 for the licensing and inspection of the city’s rickshaws, which numbered more than 20,000 at the time. After the iconic vehicles were banned for humanitarian reasons in 1947, the handsome, two-story brick edifice served other municipal functions until 1989 when, its envelope protected by conservation ordinances, it was sold to developers and has since housed a variety of businesses.
Zor, who grew up in a fishing village in Malaysia, chose the venue for its architecture, location, and history. “Rickshaw operators worked hard,” he says. “For someone who also started from humble beginnings, I saw the building as a platform for hard work and dreams.” Since entering the restaurant business at 17, he has made his way up to become one of the most accomplished culinary talents in the region. Having spent more than a decade working for Taiwanese super chef André Chiang, Zor is known for plates that are as appealing to the eye as to the palate. To set an appropriate stage for his venture, he hired New York-born designer Alan Barr whose firm, Greymatters, specializes in hospitality, including a string of Michelin-starred eateries throughout Asia.
Graymatters Creates a Simple Yet Complex Design for Restaurant Born
After college, Barr worked in residential and corporate projects in his hometown until, in 1999, he had the opportunity to tackle his first restaurant, the Red Cat, a come-as-you-are Manhattan boîte popular with the city’s creative class. It whet his appetite for the F&B sector and drew the attention of a recruiter for an Asian firm that was starting a hospitality division. “I wasn’t looking for a job,” Barr says, “but I flew to Singapore and a month later was living there.” Today, Greymatters has offices there and in Bangkok.
What Zor asked of the firm was simple and complex at the same time: a warm, sophisticated space that felt like home. “He sought a neutral color palette and natural materials, as well as accents of lush green” and subtle references to China, Barr recalls. The complexity lay in capturing the chef’s nature-based circle-of-life philosophy, which informs his cooking as well as his conduct and, as Zor point out, is reflected in the name of his restaurant: “‘Born’ encapsulates feelings of happiness, excitement, and great anticipation—the emotions of waiting for the arrival of a baby,” the father of two young children explains. “You can say it represents the birth of a brand-new me, the decision to leave my mentor chef, and the momentous step to start my own venture.”
No less complicated were the physical challenges presented by the site, a 4,300-square-foot triangle located at the prow of the wedge-shape building. By the time Barr began working on the project, the station’s interior details had long since disappeared, but the structural bones remained, including a double-height, glass-roofed atrium with galleries of handsome arches running along two sides. “We wanted to embrace the vaulted architecture but also create the cozy intimacy chef Zor requested,” says Barr, who covered “ugly” upper internal windows with more decorative arches. The glazed ceiling let in too much direct sunlight, so he installed another layer of frosted glass below it, which also helps mute the often-overwhelming sound of heavy tropical rain.
Art Meets Art Deco Influences at Restaurant Born
Light-filled and airy, the peaceful space, which has the ambiance of an open, arcaded courtyard, serves as the 27-seat main dining room, with banquettes and tables tucked into its arched niches. A couple of theatrical touches enliven the pervasive calm, however. The first, floating overhead, is an enormous paper sculpture by the Dutch artist Peter Gentenaar. Inspired by a dragon—the traditional Chinese symbol of strength, good luck, and hope—the roiling form also evokes clouds, swirling leaves, or sea creatures. “For me, it suggests that all things in nature connect to one another,” Zor says of the installation’s showstopping effect, which is amplified by a smoked gray mirror hanging above it. Theatrics of another kind are offered by the open kitchen, which occupies the room’s third wall, its lower ceramic tile–clad portion acting as a giant backsplash for the chefs’ hot line. The upper wall is covered with white-lacquered panels embossed with a large-scale bas-relief inspired by Chinese art deco design. Along with its decorative function, the paneling hides exhaust ducting.
The art deco motif is echoed in reception’s fluted cast-stone desk and the custom artwork in the 10-seat private dining room. Other intimate areas include a small bar cocooned by a sculptural canopy, a six-seat lounge, and a pair of side-by-side cigar rooms that cleverly split a two-door archway between them, one half for each. All the restaurant’s quietly sumptuous furniture and fittings are Greymatter’s custom designs fabricated locally. Comfortable yet elegant, the chairs, sofas, tables, and cabinetry no less than the architecture, cuisine, and service embody chef Zor’s hope that, for his customers, Born is an acronym for “the best of right now.”
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