SELETAR CUISINE: EMBRACING DIVERSITY

I am meeting with Elsa Asevatham from Singapore in her brand new restaurant Seletar which opened on the 3rd of January. Naturally we start talking about it, and the role Elsa plays in it. “Basically I’m doing this restaurant full time,” Elsa says. “I just finished my job at the District Council and I was working in procurement for about three years, at the council. Before that I was a stay at home mum for six years when we first arrived from Singapore into New Zealand in 2010. I missed the food.” She laughs. “I think we all do, you know. Food is something that we grow up with and it will always be something to come back to. Which is why I’ve always had this dream of having something like this.” She makes a gesture around her new restaurant.

There is more to the restaurant than just food. “In Singapore we have four main ethnicities,” Elsa explains. “We’ve got the Indians, Chinese, the Malays and the Eurasians. The Eurasians are actually a mixture of these three ethnicities and the European. Where Singapore is located there was a huge sea port. Through the years and through trade we had lots of foreigners and Westerners come through. Looking around the world at this moment, in terms of terrorism and racism and all those kinds of issues that we’re having, Singapore is actually quite a great example. Because we live really harmoniously together, even though we’re so different. We are made up of all sorts of races and religions. We are friends at the end of the day and we don’t actually see that as a barrier at all. I think the world needs a little bit more of that and that’s the reason why our menu and this whole concept is also embracing diversity. I think that we really need that. As immigrants I think we are more mindful and can see that. We see the person for who they are, not for their background or what colour they are or that kind of thing.”

I want to know if Elsa has always been ‘into food’. “I love food, but no, no never,” she says. “This is my first time. I’ve never been in the food business. I have worked in hospitality, more than twenty years ago at the first Ritz Carlton in Singapore. I was in sales and marketing and corporate events. I love people. I love meeting people, I love socialising. I like getting to know about people’s cultures, and sharing mine. And I think the main strand of Singapore is our food. It’s something that I’m quite proud of because we’re quite unique in that sense. I don’t think I have met anyone who said they didn’t like Singapore food when passing through Singapore. I think in New Plymouth, we’re always looking for something new and some variety, so why not. It’s a perfect place to start. So doing something like this is….. it is the first, actually.” She laughs.

“How do you see your role in the business?”
“I am going to focus on growing the business. Getting out there and just spreading the word about our cuisine. Singapore Cuisine is basically like street hawker food cuisine. That’s the basis of our food. But what we are going to be doing here is bringing that authenticity with finesse and in a pleasant, more refined atmosphere. Not fine dining – it will be attainable to everyone. Our price points are really reasonable. We want people to come through the door. That’s the main thing. And share our food. The cuisine here is family style sharing meals. And that’s just the basis of how I like it to run. Just getting groups here and people getting to know our cuisine and sharing a plate of food, just like we do back home in our homes. It’s the same concept.”

“What is Singapore food like?”
“I think you can broadly categorise it as your rotis, your noodles and your rice,” Elsa tells me. “But some of our signature dishes are Singapore Chicken Rice, Laksa, Chilli Crabs and Nasi Lemak – that’s what we are known for. There are a lot of Chinese, Indian and Malay influences in our food with the use of spices and ingredients. You have got to try it to know what it is. It’s actually the crossovers of those four main ethnicities.”

“But it’s taken on its own style?” I suggest.
“Yes. If you speak to a Malaysian they would have many similar things on their menu. But like with every cuisine, there are certain ingredients in there that make it unique to your own region. And that’s what Singapore food is like. You will never run out of varieties in Singapore. When you go out and eat, there is always something for everyone. Like spicy, non-spicy, vegetarian, vegan, you would have an option for everyone. So it’s quite a broad cuisine. And to top it off, we have some food courts and coffee shops that are even 24 hours!”

“I love the design of the menu, it’s so beautiful,” I say.
“I gave my designers the brief of what I wanted,” Elsa says. “Really particular colours and things like that. I just wanted to keep it simple, really. I am a great lover of nature and natural materials, like your bamboo, seagrass and plants and things like that.” It’s evident in the interior design of Seletar. “Over time, I will keep working on it,” she adds.
“Obviously you are a visual person.”
“Very much so.” She laughs. “I think most women are quite visual. I knew exactly what I wanted, it’s very tropical and it has come out better than I envisioned.”

“What about music or art – creativity?” I ask.
“I come from a musical family. Back home my dad was one of the Singapore legends, in terms of what he did. The same goes for a few of my uncles and aunties as well. They are quite well known. Music is in the blood. My father was a singer and a musician, a writer and composer. His name was Chris Vadham. He was very passionate about music and was incredibly amazing at it. His musical inspirations were The Beatles, John Lennon and Bee Gees. Some of my cousins in my generation have also gone with their own musical careers. They are very successful in Singapore as well. Some of them are in the UK, in America. Music runs in my family, definitely. Not through me, but my kids are actually quite musically inclined which is quite good.” She laughs: “Skipped a generation.”