Perfect Pairings

By Nida Seah

What’s it like to work in the restaurant business as a couple? Two Singaporean husband-and-wife teams share how they keep the flame alive in and out of the kitchen.

Chi Pin Han & Janice Chi (Ishinomaki Grill & Sake, Table 33 and Ki Teppan & Rogama)

It all began in 2013 in Ishinomaki, Miyagi, when Chi Pin Han and Janice Chi witnessed the lasting damage the tsunami had on the Japanese city. The survivors’ remarkable resilience and a love for the region gave the couple the courage to set up their own business. At age 50, Chi left his group general manager position at a multi-brand food company and started Ishinomaki Grill & Sake a year later, offering authentic robatayaki and izakaya dishes. Fast forward to today, and the business has expanded to include sake bar Table 33; and their latest “baby” Ki Teppan & Rogama serving teppanyaki and rogama cuisine. Chi heads the kitchen and sources for the most unique ingredients each season, particularly from suppliers in Japan. Janice herself is a certified sake sommelier and oversees the sake programme and training at Ishinomaki Grill & Sake. Married for nearly 28 years, they share what it is like when their working and personal lives are so deeply intertwined, and how it affects their business.

What were your professions before setting up your own business?

Chi: I’ve been at the helm of the restaurant business for over two decades, and my connection to the F&B sector and Japanese cuisine goes back even further, to my early years of training as a head chef in various Japanese restaurants such as Meguro Gajoen Tokyo, Pan Pacific Singapore’s Keyaki Restaurant and InterContinental Singapore.

Janice: I was a homemaker before joining on board with Chi to set up our first restaurant, Ishinomaki Grill & Sake.

What are your roles at the restaurants?

Chi: I am the chef-owner. I oversee the operation of both restaurants, with a focus on the management of the kitchen team. I also do the sourcing and ordering of new seasonal items for all the outlets. I work closely with my culinary team to develop menus for all pairing events.

Janice: I run the business in roles spanning “operations director, sommelier and marketing strategist”. I am on the floor most of the time, interacting with patrons to offer customised sake/ wine and food pairings and oversee the day-to-day business. I manage our cellar inventory and procure a well-rounded variety of seasonal, hard-to-find and artisanal bottles. Besides the food and drink aspect, I am actively involved in the marketing department organising and planning various events and campaigns. As business owners, it is natural that both Chi and I always keep an eye on what needs to be done to ensure that everything is running well.

What are your working styles like?

Janice: We are two polar opposites! I was always the sociable one who does most of the talking with our customers. I do not like to micromanage my team.

Chi: I am meticulous and less extroverted. We are both passionately hands-on and always strive to do our very best in our area of responsibility.

What inspired you to expand your business with Ki Teppan & Rogama?

Chi: Frankly speaking, there was not any real inspiration. We were honoured to have served a full house every day during the Covid lockdown phase, to which our landlord suggested the possibility of an expansion. This got me thinking about bringing something new to our valued customers, making their dining experience a holistic one. The concept of teppanyaki came to mind. It is what I felt was lacking in our current Japanese cuisine scene.

What are some of the challenges you've faced while working with your husband/wife? How do you resolve them?

Chi: The journey is definitely not smooth sailing; we are bound to face challenges, especially from a business and husband’s point of view. I always let the wife win!

Janice: We’ve had a number of disagreements in our years of running the business together, and from having two very different roles. It takes open and honest communication and a lot of patience for each other to sustain the business partnership without putting a strain on our marriage.

What are some of the most fun or memorable times you’ve shared working together?

Janice: We have lots, but I think they are moments when we’ve had particularly wonderful meals and conversations with our customers. There’s this tremendous feeling of bonding with people that I enjoy very much. After all these years, that’s still what I get the biggest buzz from.

Chi: The best memorable moments can also happen outside of Singapore, for example, when we spend time together in Japan visiting new sake breweries and sampling local delicacies.

Is it difficult to balance your work and personal lives together?

Chi: It is not difficult. We live and breathe our business. We go through our usual morning routine together before work: feeding and walking our dogs, exercising and sometimes getting groceries at the market.

What’s your advice to other couples thinking about working together?

Chi: Work together with an open heart, and always try to understand the other person’s perspective.

Janice: The stakes are high. You would know whether you are able to work together and maintain a healthy working relationship with your other half.

Yeo Kai Siang & Ang Zi Yi (Chez Kai)

Yeo Kai Siang describes himself as systematic, detail-oriented and strict, while his wife Ang Zi Yi is said to be the more passionate, thoughtful one who connects well with people. Despite the different working styles and personalities, the young couple has forged a good personal and professional relationship, navigating through the difficult Covid period to turn Chez Kai, their private dining outfit Chez Kai into a degustation-only restaurant. Its new home in a Geylang heritage shophouse is a labour of love – they did many things from scratch, even to the detail of painting the walls and creating the artworks for the restaurant themselves. Kai has an impressive resume, having trained in Le Cordon Bleu Paris before working in Michelin-starred establishments such as Les Climats in France and L’Enclume in the United Kingdom, as well as Chinese ethnic restaurants in Paris. While he is busy serving Franco-Chinese cuisine, Zi Yi takes on the front-of-house and management of the restaurant. They reveal why working together has been both challenging and rewarding, and how it has made their relationship even stronger.

How did both of you meet?

Kai: We met at a Chinese New Year gathering as our fathers knew each other and introduced us.

What made you decide to open your own restaurant space?

Zi Yi: When Covid hit, I left my job, and Kai could no longer do home dining due to the restrictions. We decided to start selling bread and cheesecake as a side hustle, and it gained popularity. When things started opening up, I decided to invest my time with Kai to build Chez Kai up together.

How is your menu created?

Zi Yi: Kai will come up with the menu ideas, and I will contribute to the brainstorming process and try out the new menu together.

What are some of the challenges you've faced while working with your husband/wife? How do you resolve them?

Kai: Some challenges are interpersonal issues such as communication breakdown. Others are external stressors such as family, finances and difficult customers.

Zi Yi: We resolve them by talking it out, understanding that work is work and not to bring it home. Sometimes when things get too heated, we will walk away to cool off and deal with them only after working hours when we are more level-headed. This gives us the opportunity to be able to have a more logical discussion.

What are some of the most fun or memorable times you’ve shared working together?

Zi Yi: It’s the simple things that make our days, such as friendly guests, regulars that stay back and have a drink with us. We also treasure the time we spend with our colleagues drinking, sharing laughter and stories. We also enjoy getting to Mythic on Mobile Legends together (top rank in the online mobile game).

Is it difficult to balance your work and personal lives together?

Kai: It was very challenging at first – juggling the restaurant, our wedding, moving houses and the many changes in a short span of two months. However, thanks to our amazing staff at Chez Kai, we managed to pull through. Our relationship at home is great, we barely argue and still have a lot of things in common to talk about. We have better communication now as we have overcome many adversities and challenges together.

What are your favourite ways to spend time together outside of work?

Zi Yi: We would go grocery shopping to cook dinner together, have some wine and cheese pairing while bingeing our favourite shows.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from working together? Any advice to other couples thinking about doing the same?

Kai: The biggest lesson we have learnt is that the most challenging times are the best opportunities to grow. Take it easy, remember to have a few laughs along the way. It may be a bad time but it’s not a bad life.

Zi Yi: It can be fun and rewarding to watch your business and relationship grow. Problems that arise from work might cause tension but fight the issue, not each other. Don’t bring work home and always remember to be grateful for each other.

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