After spending pretty much all of his adult life building a career in advertising, long-time Shanghai-based Singaporean Joey Cheong decided one day he had had enough. Without any prior experience in the food and beverage industry, he took the plunge and sold his property to pursue his dream of opening his own restaurant. We speak to him about how he came to set up UMAAMI, which he describes as a “global kitchen with a Singaporean heart”.
First tell us who you are, where you’re from and how you came to be in Shanghai.
My name is Joey Cheong. Like all ethnic Chinese Singaporeans, our roots trace back to China. Mine happen to be in Shanghai – I am a second-generation Shanghainese born in Singapore.
I started my career in advertising in 1990 right after military service. I was moving up the ladder pretty fast and when the opportunity to relocate to Shanghai in 1995, I took the first flight out. I was, you know, young, hungry, eager to learn and see the world.
You had a great career in advertising before taking the plunge into F&B, an industry you had no prior experience in. What the hell possesses one to do that?
That’s true. People say I am crazy. They also say I am mad when they learnt I’d actually sold my property in Shanghai to set up UMAAMI.
You see, it’s very simple. After 23 years in advertising and also having achieved quite a bit, the little dissatisfactions became great dissatisfactions. Whatever my role were in those successful brand stories, none actually belonged to me.
I couldn’t take any of them home, put them on a table and say it’s mine. I had hit the ceiling and lost my passion. I came to the realization that I needed a career change and do something new to regain self esteem.
I tried to make a comeback in advertising with the set up of my own shop. The landscape had morphed to unfamiliar territories by then. Eventually, I pulled the plug and bade farewell to the advertising world.
I bummed around for the next few years before eventually deciding to turn my passion into a livelihood. While I didn’t have the experience in F&B, I had always been keen to own a brand and product of my own that was food related. Something that’s me. Hence, I had to work much harder and think a lot more than most people do in the F&B industry.
I also did have the luxury of being commissioned by various restaurants for communications and menu consulting work. That helped to soften the entry into the business.
How did UMAAMI come about and what are you trying to do with it?
UMAAMI means “pleasantly savoury” and it’s the 5th dimension in taste – after sour, sweet, bitter and salty. This resonates with my ethos of creating food with natural ingredients as much as possible. It reduces reliance on processed food which we all know is not good long term.
I think a chef can only really imagine and play with tastes better after they have gone through the process of making something. For instance, you will probably get a better understanding of how sweet and savoury harmonise after you’ve actually cured and smoked your own bacon, then invite spiciness into this mix of flavors. Know what I mean?
Hence at UMAAMI, our mission is to create great food with natural ingredients. we rely little on processed food, bought seasonings and condiments, as much as possible. Our breads, cured salmon, bacon, pickles, sambal chilli, molasses, mustard, salsas, burger buns and patties, flavoured powders like onion powder, mushroom powder, desserts, jams, pizza base & dressing & pastas are all made in house. Now’s that’s a lot!
Your first venture was Bites & Bottle-O which is many times smaller than Umaami. Tell us about the challenges and obstacles you had to face.
Bites & Bottle-O, my foray into F&B was in fact pretty straight forward. I had full support from an understanding and kind landlord. The kitchen and space was small enough to be managed by myself and a small team. All I had to do was create outstanding food consistently and market it to the right people.
Those first couple of learning years was so much handwork and fun! I met all three objectives: not to lose money, be known to chefs and to create the impression that getting a table was near impossible. I achieved all that!
Bites & Bottle-O was the casual afterwork hangout for people like Jeremy Harris (ex Executive Chef of Peace Hotel), Koen and friends, the senior management folks and chefs of Langham, Sukothai, W Hotel, Banyan Tree; just to name a few. It was also recommended by Jeremy Leung (I still have the email to prove it) in the 2018 edition of Where Chefs Eat.
The real obstacles I faced was operating in an old residential space behind XTD. Initial months saw the neighbours being unhappy with everything i did in that space; there were lots of complaints.
The wall was broken down eventually after a couple of months when they realized we not only respected their living space and habits, we also maintained their integrity by making everything better than before.
As for the industry norms kind of challenges was obstacles a chef owner would face, I guess I was ready to handle them like a pro because these are what I had asked for.
For someone who’s never been to UMAAMI before, what would you recommend they try?
UMAAMI is a global kitchen with a Singapore heart. Some of our signature dishes include garlic shrimps with romesco sauce, sticky Vietnamese ribs, 6 hours braised Australian short ribs with smoke mash potatoes. You can also enjoy a nice range of Stone’s craft beer with our super beer food – SPAM FRIES!
And for homesick Singaporeans, you can come for curry fish head (you must give advance notice), BBQ fish, beef rendang on toasts. For lunch, we have a short but authentic selection – Hokkien mee, mee pok dry and more.
And if you REALLY miss Singaporean food, come for our SG Heartland Buffet every Sunday from 12pm to 3pm. It’s all-you-can-eat for just 138 yuan! Now that’s a steal.
You’ve got friends visiting Shanghai and they want to eat something quintessentially Shanghainese. Where do you take them?
My personal favourite Shanghainese restaurants are Xiaoshihui (小实惠) and Yongxing (永兴). They are all simple and honest family style restaurants that do artisan home cooking. The former is owned by 3 brothers and the latter is a mother & daughter team. The food is authentic, offers value for money and has real character.
Any words of advice for other would-be restaurateurs in Shanghai?
I only have questions, no advice:
- Are you absolutely sure this is what you really really want?
- Can you really cook 24 hours, 7 days a week, 365 days a year?
- And if you can defend your kitchen defence (like in a football game), can you also strike (be the front of house)
- Do you have the stamina to last?
- And most importantly, can you survive without a partner?
UMAAMI global kitchen
Daily, 11am to 11pm
WPP Campus, L105, 379 Hengfeng Road
Nearest metro station: Hanzhong Road