Singaporean ex-Kopitiam executive Ellen Chew attracts culinary attention in London

Lobos' partners (above from left) Ruben Maza, Ruben Cortes, Ellen Chew and Roberto Castro; and its signature dish, the Iberico pork selection (£26 or S$56, left).
Lobos' partners (from left) Ruben Maza, Ruben Cortes, Ellen Chew and Roberto Castro.PHOTO: TAN DAWN WEI
Lobos' partners (above from left) Ruben Maza, Ruben Cortes, Ellen Chew and Roberto Castro; and its signature dish, the Iberico pork selection (£26 or S$56, left).
Its signature dish, the Iberico pork selection (£26 or S$56).PHOTO: TAN DAWN WEI

Restaurateur Ellen Chew has opened her fifth eatery in the British city, this one serving Spanish tapas

LONDON • In 2006, Ms Ellen Chew left a cushy job doing marketing and leasing for food court giant Kopitiam and relocated to London, with nothing but £8,000 in her pocket.

Nearly a decade later, she is getting out of her comfort zone again, splashing £450,000 (S$967,600) - most of it her own - on a new Spanish tapas restaurant called Lobos, at the iconic Borough Market.

Barely seven weeks since it opened, the cosy eatery, tucked under the rumbling railway arches of London Bridge station, has attracted attention quickly, thanks in large part to the team she sweet-talked into partnering her.

There is Roberto Castro, who runs the kitchen, and operations honchos Ruben Maza, Joel Placeres and Ruben Cortes.

All four worked together at one of London's most well-known Spanish tapas names, Brindisa. Castro was head chef there for five years and Maza started out as a runner and rose through the ranks to become an operations manager. Placeres and Cortes assisted him in running the restaurant and bar.

Calamares (deep-fried squid), aceitunas (olives) and tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelette) may not run in Ms Chew's Singaporean blood. She still loves cuttlefish kangkong, achar and oyster omelette.

My friends tell me they want to move to London, but are not sure if they can make it here... But if you have that mindset, you'll achieve nothing.

MS ELLEN CHEW

However, the 47-year-old has a nose for the food business, a keen sense finely tuned through trial and error in the nine years since she packed her bags for London.

Lobos is her fifth restaurant. She also runs the famous Rasa Sayang in London's Chinatown; noodle bar Noodle Oodle in Bayswater; hand- pulled noodle kiosk Lotus Leaf in Stratford; and Japanese teppanyaki eatery Chikara in Shepherd's Bush.

"I cried so many nights when I first came to London. I asked myself, did I make the right choice to come here?" said the affable restaurateur, in between nibbles of her favourite tapas, a simple dish of prawns, squid and mussels cooked with garlic and chilli.

She wanted to see the world and London seemed like a sensible choice, being English-speaking and well connected to all parts of the world. Her ex-boss and mentor, Kopitiam founder Lim Bee Huat, hooked her up with someone who wanted to open an Asian food court in London. For nearly a year, she was a consultant on the project. But the food court never materialised, hampered by planning issues.

Undeterred, she negotiated a deal in London's main shopping drag Oxford Street to open a noodle bar, but did not have the capital to get it going. So she went to the bank and returned to Singapore to raise funds.

Getting the money to start the business was one thing. But understanding what her customers wanted was another. "I thought it would be easy to transplant the Asian experience here, but I was totally wrong. I forgot about the four seasons."

Noodle Oodle opened for business in the middle of summer, at the start of football season. "I didn't understand why they didn't eat much. They just wanted to be out under the sun and to drink."

Business suffered for a while, but when the students returned in September for the new school term, winter came and appetites grew, she found herself getting on track.

Her summer menus now feature cocktails, salads and other cold dishes that will not send people into a food coma.

In 2008, she took another place on Oxford Street and was going to open a Thai takeaway. But it was the year-end holiday season and contractors did not want to work on the renovations until January.

She left the space vacant and did not think much of it, until she found that a squatter had moved in. "The first thing that came to my mind was to call the police," she said, explaining that it was a typically Singaporean response to a problem.

She spoke to a friend who told her not to do it. Squatters have rights in this country, he said. His advice: Get 10 big, burly guys in and ask the squatter to leave.

The squatter was selling luggage and had changed the locks on the shop. "I was frightened. Coming from Singapore, I thought this would never happen to me," she said.

She rounded up a few chefs and suppliers - "anyone I could get" - and sent them in. The squatter did not put up a fight. "This isn't the kind of thing you will learn from books or in Singapore."

Lucky for her, London's culinary scene has seen a sea change in the last few years, thanks to booming migrant communities. Ten years ago, for instance, if you wanted East Asian food, your best bet would be Thai, Chinese or Vietnamese. Singaporean and Malaysian food hardly registered on the chow radar.

Ms Chew remembers that in the early days of running Rasa Sayang, she had difficulty sourcing ingredients such as good ikan bilis and dried cuttlefish.

Spanish tapas eateries, with their communal, small-plates style, have become as hot; the no-reservations Barrafina's Michelin-star conferment last year also gave this snack culture a boost.

Itching to branch out to other culinary concepts, the long-time customer of Brindisa wooed her four partners for three years.

When they were ready to strike out on their own, she wasted no time looking for a sweet spot for her Spanish stake. She found it on Borough High Street, a few doors down from Brindisa. It was an Indian tandoori takeout which the landlord, Network Rail, had taken back. It was looking for a suitable F&B retailer with an Asian concept to rent to.

She was among 20 restaurateurs eyeing the coveted 1,300 sq ft space. "My credentials weren't in Spanish food. I had to work to convince them, so I came up with a visual plan with a designer and showed them what we could do."

Network Rail decided to give her a chance.

Lobos specialises in meats. Its pride lies in its Iberico pork, which comes on a sharing platter with different prime cuts of the free- range, acorn-fed, prized pig.

But the business got off to a bumpy start nearly two months ago.

First, Britain experienced its hottest July day on record when the mercury hit 36.7 deg C on July 1 and no one was in the mood for tapas that day. A week after that, the eatery lost 30 diners when they cancelled their reservations on the day a massive Tube strike took place.

That is the nature of the business, as Ms Chew would say.

The team plans to open another three outlets. And, if all goes well, she will take Lobos back to Singapore after that.

Her advice to aspiring F&B entrepreneurs: Study and understand your crowd and work in the industry if you have to. And, above all else, do not be afraid to try.

"My friends tell me they want to move to London, but are not sure if they can make it here. They have a lot of baggage and concerns," she said. "But if you have that mindset, you'll achieve nothing."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 09, 2015, with the headline 'Singaporean's Brit appetite'. Print Edition | Subscribe