For our fourth edition of Makers & Shakers we chat with Ronald Kamiyama, managing partner and head sommelier at The Cicheti Group.
If you’ve ever visited any of The Cicheti Group outlets – Cicheti, Bar Cicheti, Wild Child Pizzette, and most recently, the pasta haven that is Forma – you may have spied Ronald Kamiyama on the service floor. Particularly at Bar Cicheti. Here the managing partner cuts a dashing figure as he effortlessly juggles between escorting guests to their tables and shuttling dishes from the restaurant pass, all this while pouring wines for customers as needed.
Kamiyama makes it look easy. But it belies the many years of experience under this seasoned veteran’s belt. He first developed a palate for wine and a passion for hospitality in 2009 when he moved to New York City where he worked at Daniel Boulud’s Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud. He later became part of the opening team of the five diverse restaurant and bar concepts at Lotte New York Palace, before moving to Singapore to be the beverage director of Osteria Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza.
After a short stint at two Michelin Star L’Effervescence in Tokyo, Kamiyama finally returned to Singapore in 2018 to join The Cicheti Group.
We grabbed Kamiyama for a short chat after lunch service at Bar Cicheti one day to talk about wine and Singapore’s F&B scene.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. What was your journey like on the way to becoming managing partner and head sommelier of The Cicheti Group?
My F&B journey started with part-time work at the age of 16, working as an assistant server for a local bistro. By the time I’d graduated college, I’d made the decision of following the beverage side in the hospitality industry. I was an assistant sommelier at a popular wine-focused restaurant called Bar Boulud in New York City. After spending about four years with The Dinex Group, I decided to experience new things and join another big outfit known for their Italian wine programme, the B&B Hospitality Group.
This became my gateway to work overseas, landing the position as Beverage Director for Osteria and Pizzeria Mozza in Marina Bay Sands, Singapore. After my two-year contract there, I decided to move to Japan, the mecca of hospitality.
While spending almost two years at a 3 Michelin-starred restaurant, one day I received a phone call from Liling Ong, Executive Director of The Cicheti Group. Within five minutes of our conversation, she convinced me to return to Singapore.
It took just two words. Pasta, and wine.
Share with us a day in the life of Ronald Kamiyama. What do you do as managing partner and head sommelier of the various outlets under The Cicheti Group?
Every day at around 7 am, I would check my calendar for any meetings planned. Depending on the day of the week or time of the month, I could be interviewing new staff, meeting our purveyors, doing a tasting in search of something new and exciting, ordering some needed items for an outlet, revisiting the outlet’s beverage list, staff training, delivering some requested items around outlets, finalising invoices, meeting with an outlet’s management, meeting with our Executive Director or Executive Chef, doing a new seasonal menu tasting, planning events with our marketing team, going over new ideas, etc, etc.
I would also check to see if a certain outlet may need me for operations. Depending on the number of reservations, or who’s coming, I would situate myself on the dining room floor. By 4 pm, every outlet’s manager would have sent me the day’s report and I would decide then on which outlet, I would go and help operations there for the evening. For me this time is crucial, as it is the perfect opportunity to check on my staff and check how things are running as well as how our customers are responding to our offerings. It is also the time to meet long-time regular guests as well as meet some new ones.
OK it’s a little bit like choosing a favourite child, but which Cicheti concept is your favourite, and why?
Bar Cicheti, of course!
Bar Cicheti is the one concept that brought me back to Singapore. It is still the place that as a guest, I would frequent more often. The food, the wine, and the vibe!
Let’s talk wine. How did you enter the world of wine?
As a young floor captain, I would always watch and be fascinated by the person who was able to describe in detail what they were tasting. Having worked with fascinating, well-trained sommeliers inspired me to become one. Following this passion brought me to winery visits across different countries and ensured my decision of following this path.
For me, tasting wines blind was always the best way to train my palate and learn. My colleagues and I would do this frequently on a weekly, if not daily basis.
What are your favourite wines, wine regions, or wine styles?
I realise as I get older, the answer to this question keeps evolving. It started with Burgundy, then Barolo. But now I’ve tasted enough wines to say, I like wines from all around the world.
Currently I am into vibrant, mouth-watering white wines. White wines from cool climates or high elevated vineyards. Some examples would be Coteaux Champenois from Champagne, Savagnin from Jura, Chenin (Blanc) from the Loire Valley, German Riesling, Spanish Godello, Sicilian Carricante, Friulian and Slovanian orange wines, and so on.
Singapore’s F&B landscape has changed in many ways, especially after the past two pandemic years. Some for the better, and some worse. What have you observed?
From the time I first landed in Singapore until now, I have definitely seen a transformation! I am happy to see that The Cicheti Group, among others, has played a big part in that change.
For example, I remember having orange wines during my Mozza days. Many of these would be rejected by customers as some thought they were flawed white wines. Nowadays, I see a much younger crowd walking through our doors asking for these types of wines.
In terms of the overall experience of Italian restaurants, I always felt like many were simply copied and pasted. Not just in Singapore but all around the globe one would find the same dishes, the same pizza, the same pasta bolognese, the same cheese, or the same wine options. I think it was partly because many restaurants lacked the courage to introduce something more native and traditional (that are) not commonly seen. From my past experiences, I know Italy has a lot more to offer. It takes courage to give a more unique product offering such as a native Italian grape like Pelaverga or Schiopettino or even an amphora aged orange wine poured by the glass from Georgia.
At Forma we serve Lorighittas (a braided pasta) which would be difficult to find anywhere, much less Singapore. Even in Italy, you would have some difficulty because you would need to travel to its place of origin in Sardinia! You can’t visit Tuscany and try to find this dish. Or go to Milan and look for Struncatura (a pasta from Calabria). No way.
In this sense, we’re currently pushing the boundaries. Even at Wild Child Pizzette, we’re adding Nihonshu by the glass to go with our pizzas because just like wines and food, not all sake is made the same way.
You would have to visit to know what I mean.
What do you think are the most difficult challenges in the F&B, hospitality and service industries now?
I think many would agree that the most difficult challenge in Singapore’s hospitality industry is finding staff who are committed and passionate. We are lucky to have maintained the right staff for so long and are also grateful to attract many. But with plans for expansion, it is definitely not enough.
We work hard to improve our team’s work and life balance. We’re always pushing for better hours, better benefits, better incentives, better pay, better team growth structure, etc. The lack of manpower makes that hard to achieve.
I do believe we’re on the right path, though. We will continue to improve and be better.
Any words of wisdom for those aspiring to becoming an F&B entrepreneur or becoming a wine professional?
For the F&B entrepreneur, I would say: Goals are achieved through discipline and consistency. For service industry personnel, I would say that I wouldn’t be where I am today without commitment and sacrifice.
And for wine professionals? I’d tell them: a day without learning something is a day wasted. Even with the highest level of qualifications, you will forever be a student. Stay humble.
Where are your favourite places to dine and drink in Singapore, and why?
I love eating at local hawkers. Southeast Asian flavours are so good and diverse. They keep me thinking about what wine I would pair certain dishes with! It could be challenging since wine drinking was never part of the culture. But I do enjoy trying different pairings.
When it comes to drinking, I would go to Wine RVLT in Carpenter Street. Those guys are family to me and they know exactly what I like. Over there no one asks about the vintage or what wine score was given in some app. We simply enjoy each other’s company and the wines.
[Image credits: Joel Lim Photography]
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