Aun wears a few hats. He is currently the Chief Executive of Coriander Leaf, a restaurant and bar group in Singapore. He is also the founder and chairman of The Ate Group, an integrated communications agency and chairman of the Board of Pangdemonium, a not-for-profit theatre company. Aun is also an occasional blogger who writes about his food adventures on Chubby Hubby. We ask Aun to tell us more about his travels in the search for good food around the world.
What kind of traveler are you?
I am an over-obsessive planner. I tend to do a lot of research before any trip, especially on restaurants, cafes and boutiques. If we are bringing the kids, we'll also put in places that would keep them amused and happy for hours. I tend to create excel sheets with all the research and then schedule our entire holiday based on it. This includes keeping to one neighbourhood at a time and catering to both the kids and our interests. To me, the best way to enjoy a trip is to know that every hour has been well-planned out in advance - what we'll be doing and is the best possible thing for us to do that day.
What is your favourite destination to date and why? If you have more than one, do share!
I have a few. My wife and I go to Kyoto with our son annually. Now that we have a new daughter, we’ll also start to bring her along too. We love how easy Kyoto is to navigate, the seasons (we love visiting in the Spring and the Fall), the food, and the little traditional shops filled with artisanal products. Kyoto is also super-kid friendly, as is Osaka. In between these two cities, there’s a great amusement park called Hirakata Park - it has a ton of rides suitable for toddlers. We always go there and our son loves it.
My other favourite city is Venice. Yes, I know that sounds cheesily romantic, but I simply love the city, its architecture, and its history. I love walking in cities, and I love that Venice is car-free. I’ve also visited often enough (I used to go a few times a year for work) that I can walk around quite a bit of the city without a map and not get lost. Also, thanks to many local recommendations, I’ve discovered some amazing places to eat (Venice is not particularly well-known or loved for its food). But if you know where to look, it can be amazing.
Since you've spent a few vacations in Kyoto, tell us where to eat, drink, and shop there!
If I were to recommend one place to eat it would be Gyu Ho, a tiny counter-only beef and vegetable restaurant that has cult status among foodies-in-the-know.
For a good drink, I would go straight to source and visit the Matsui Sake Brewing Company, a 300 year old, (still) family run producer of artisanal sakes. You must try their KAGURA Kamikura sakes!
For shopping, I’d recommend visiting Shinzaburo Hanpu, a producer of beautiful cloth bags. This shop is so well-known that there's always a line in front of the shop every day before it opens. Oh, and one more shop I adore in Kyoto is Roku Roku Dou, which is in the Higashi-yama area and stocks the most beautiful Japanese ceramics.
Pictured above: Shinzaburo Hanpu (credit: theimaginaryzebra)
You obviously love and know food. What is your favourite cuisine? And where are the places around the world that you get your best fixes of this cuisine?
My favourite, I guess, is Modern Japanese, or as one Kyoto chef expressed to me, “Nouvelle Japonaise”. This is the introduction of Western and modern culinary techniques into Japanese cuisine to create something exciting and distinctly modern but still deeply-rooted in their culinary traditions, flavours and history. Places like Takazawa, RyuGin, Yonemura and Den are great proponents of these kinds of food.
What are some amazing, unforgettable restaurants you've been to on your travels, that you can recommend to folks who travel for food?
Sadly, one of my most unforgettable meals is one that no one will be able to have access to. Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to visit Ell Bulli (thanks to Ignatius Chan (owner of Iggy's) and his wife's invitation). Together, the 8 of us had such an amazing and memorable meal - comprising of 32 different dishes, exquisite wine and great company. In fact, for many of the more memorable meals which I've had, the most significant thing that stood out of me was the company of the people I'm with.
The first time I took my wife to the Corner Bistro, a greasy burger bar which I frequented really often during my college days in NYC, was also unforgettable! I still think that hole in the wall makes some of the best burgers on Earth.
But if you're asking about high-end places, Per Se in New York City, Harry’s Bar in Venice, Le Cinq in Paris, RyuGin in Tokyo, Den in Tokyo, Gyu Ho in Kyoto, Steirereck in Vienna and El Celler de Can Roca are all amazing and unforgettable places.
One place which I have tried out recently, based on the recommendation of one of my foodie friends, is the restaurant at the Knee Deep Vineyard in Margaret River. It was unforgettable because of the chef's (Ben Day) talent and raw potential - I think he's going to be a superstar one day.
How do you strategise and maximise your tummy space when you travel and have to try everything?
I don’t try to try everything anymore. My mistake when I was younger was booking for far too many large or high-end meals in a row. These days, my wife and I will only commit to at most one high-end gastronomic experience a day, and often only once every 2 days when we travel. In fact, as we’ve gotten older, we prefer to go to the flashy expensive restaurants for lunch and then look for smaller local places for dinner.
Is there a dish that you consistently order, no matter where you go? What is it?
Not anymore. It used to be foie gras. Then pork belly. These days, I don’t have a must order dish.
What are some of your must do's when you travel?
Plan ahead. Book restaurants in advance. Study maps and have directions handy so that you know where you are going. Make sure your hotel has WiFi. And a good bar. Either pack your bag so it’s just half-full or bring an extra suitcase – you will always shop while you're on a holiday so you better have space for your purchases. Always, always, plan part of your holiday around what your spouse would love to do, not what you want to do.
What are your 5 travel essentials?
- Really comfy wireless headphones.
- A tablet with TV shows, movies and a host of books so you’ll always have entertainment during the down-times.
- Medication – you know what you may need so why not prepare in advance for any situation.
- My research. I hate carrying big and heavy guidebooks which is why I’ll have distilled everything I want to know about a place into a few A4 sheets.
- My travel outfit. Okay, I’m old and a little quirky, so I have a favourite travel outfit – a super comfortable, black long-sleeved T-shirt and equally comfy charcoal grey cotton pants. It’s my ninja travel PJs that actually look perfectly fine when I’m walking around in an airport and are comfy enough to sleep in.
Have you ever stayed in a non-hotel accommodation on any of your trips?
We always rent a house when we are in Kyoto. When we're travelling as a family, it’s just a lot more convenient. Since we like to cook our own breakfast (and sometimes dinner), it’s nice to have a functioning kitchen. We also rented an apartment in Paris a few years back - it was great!
Stylish places to stay in Kyoto and Paris
This contemporary yet quintessentially Japanese apartment is able to accommodate up to 12 people - a perfect place to stay when you travel to Kyoto with your friends and family.
This elegant studio apartment is located in Le Marais (4th Arrondissement), one of the oldest and most charming neighbourhoods in Paris.