Survival. That defined most of his initial years. A second generation Singaporean Malay by descent, Chef Akmal Anuar has seen the long hard road of struggle from a very young age. Did that make him a cautious, careful person? Far from him it.
Instead, it gave him the courage to take risks, to push boundaries and build a dream that sounds like a movie script. In fact there’s an almost Anthony Bourdain-esque quality to some of the experiences he was exposed to in his journey through the dark culinary underbelly.
Growing up in Singapore in the early 1990s, his parents who worked in factories “hated their jobs”. So, his father quit and started a fried chicken shop. It failed.
“My dad struggled very bad… we were four siblings, I saw my parents …they went through really tough times,” Anuar said. Then a friend who was doing well told his father about a new location for a hawker’s stall or street café in Teckwhye.
Dubai has helped me a lot … as this city grew; I managed to be in that progression with Dubai.
Despite being broke, his father took a loan and Harumanis, serving traditional Malay food, was born. It was a roaring success but that meant all the kids had to pitch in. Everyone lived on the mezzanine floor above the restaurant. For 11-year-old Anuar that involved peeling potatoes, onions, fetching dirty plates and playing truant occasionally, school was not a priority. “Focus was survival… the shop, education was so-so.”
At 18 years, he dropped out of his technical school, doing odd jobs such as driving trucks, delivering goods when he met “the cooler people”. These were “the people who listened to trance music” and went dancing.
He decided to go work for China Jam in Boatquai for “the club people… the techno people. I went for an interview, they asked, ‘What can you do?’ … I said I could fry stuff. I went to the kitchen, fried onions rings, fries, that kind of job.” One day as he drove around town with his high school friend on a bike, they arrived at Orchard Road, the upscale dining and shopping area of Singapore.
”Right opposite was a restaurant… I didn’t understand the calibre of the restaurant. Right at the glass door entrance of the restaurant was an image of a chef in a white toque, white jacket, white pants, and white shoes… looked very posh. My friend said you, you are a chef… look at that, that’s a chef. It felt quite depressing.” Next day, he was looking through the Classifieds when he saw an ad for a position of a cook in a restaurant.
“Same name as the restaurant as I had seen last night [on Orchard Road]. The restaurant was Les Amis. A French restaurant. I called the restaurant. Nobody picked up. I tried again. Might as well go, I thought. With my red jacket shirt, blue jeans, army sling bag with no CV, I went.” The chef refused to take him on as a cook; instead, he was hired as a dishwasher for Singaporean $700 (AED1900) per month. It was tough, the kitchen was hierarchical, regimented, and hard, with 16-hour workdays, but he stuck with it for two years.
Then in 2001, he was called in for national military service. He joined the fire service department, where he also worked as a cook at the station.
In 2003, after discharge, he was once again on the lookout for a break and wanted to get out of Singapore. His then girlfriend and now wife, Inez’s father was working in the Solomon Islands. He helped Anuar find a job in a hotel kitchen.
“I took a plane to the Solomon Islands… it was so crazy.” For Anuar in his early twenties, who hadn’t seen the world, it was a bit of a culture shock. He travelled, expecting to see high-rises and modern development. Instead, he arrived in a nation with large swathes of forest cover in the midst of a civil conflict. The island tribes were fighting, crime was rampant and the hotel he had found a job in was a casino that belonged to three “gangster” brothers. Suddenly Anuar found himself working for the mob. “I was so scared… I was just 20.”
The kitchen was fine but he couldn’t go anywhere without an armed bodyguard. “There were kitchen staff who had gambled and lost so much… they would have to work for my boss for free till they die.”
One year later, he saved up and left, after literally working every single day, and found his way back to Singapore with Inez. Three months later, as the money started running out, a friend directed him to the ‘Chef in Black’.
This was the famed Belgian-born chef and restaurant owner Emmanuel Stroobant, who now owns two- Michelin stars assigned restaurants Saint Pierre and Shoukouwa and hosted the cooking show Chef in Black.
Fine dining and Dubai
This was 2004. Anuar got a job at Saint Pierre. “It was very good learning.” In 2006, he learnt that his former boss at Les Amis had opened a new restaurant, called Igyy’s, a modern European restaurant.
He joined as sous chef and worked his way up. It was repeatedly ranked among the 50 best restaurants in the world. Nine years passed.
In 2013, Chef Richard Sandoval walked into the restaurant in “…Bermudas and flip flops” saying he was a chef. Unaware of who he was, Anuar asked him to leave, as the dress code was not in line with the restaurant’s dining etiquette. Finally, Anuar checked up on his profile and realised he was, indeed, a top chef - Sandoval was given a table with his guests after all the other guests had left. Anuar was 31 years old.
“He told me, ‘Send out anything.’” The meal ended, the group left, but then he got a call – for a dinner invitation with Sandoval followed by a job offer in Dubai, to head a new restaurant.
Anuar decided to come and check it out. “Dubai was very hospitable… very grand, very inviting. I was just a regular dude …. at the hotel, I opened the room, it was facing SkyDive Dubai. People were skydiving, down the beach was white sand, blue crystal water … oh wow!”
He arrived in January 2013, with his young daughter Sophia and wife to open Zengo at Le Royal Meridien. It was a big restaurant with massive staffing. Anuar ran it for a while.
Dubai was very hospitable… very grand, very inviting. I was just a regular dude …. at the hotel, I opened the room, it was facing SkyDive Dubai. People were skydiving, down the beach was white sand, blue crystal water … oh wow!
The 3Fils story
In 2015, Anuar went back to Singapore. His wife was pregnant with their third child. While there, he met two Emiratis, who invited him back to Dubai. “This is where the 3Fils story begins… this was early 2016.”
He didn’t have enough money for the restaurant partnership, his wife advised him to sell their house in Singapore to invest. Therefore, they did that.
“First time in my life being in Dubai … I had to pay for everything. My funds were low. The restaurant was stuck, wasn’t opening … eventually it opened, at the beginning stage of 3Fils, there were days nobody walked into the restaurant. It picked up… slowly… but it was one of the hardest time in my life with less than 10,000 [AED] in savings.” Worried for his wife Inez and three daughters, Sophia, Athea and Mahiya, he called up his Dad and told him that if the business doesn’t take off to please support his family. His parents flew down. They took care of the home, while Inez and he worked on the restaurant.
“We were on visa run for two consecutive years. My daughter fell very ill, ICU for two weeks, bill came up to AED30,000. I couldn’t pay… it was just crazy. We didn’t know what to do … But I was very optimistic. The thing that made 3Fils a success was I kept being optimistic. I kept being focused. I didn’t listen to people too much. In 2017, it took off.
“I started it as a chef not as a businessman, so was not equipped with legal aspects. Right before Covid-19, in early February of 2020, I left as a partner.”
Life takes an interesting turn
What made me who I am today is that although I make very risky decisions, often I don’t know what to expect, I will work towards the result. I won’t just wait for the fruit to drop. In business when people say show us your feasibility studies, show your revenue projection, I don’t know how to do this. This year you must make 3 or 10 million. I don’t understand. For me, I open, work hard and then let it go. I need to pay people their salaries. They have their livelihoods. Restaurant needs to be busy to make money – that’s the ultimate bottom line. They are happy, I am happy.
He was tired of the hassle of running a restaurant and decided it was time to change direction – one of his former restaurant regulars, a Canadian lawyer, helped him set up a hospitality consultancy called White Rice Co.
“So I asked him, how much do I pay you? He said, ‘Just feed me sushi.’ I always had somebody looking out for me, [in life].” Ramadan arrived and he made a chocolate tart that was distributed among friends. Everyone loved it, so much so that eventually his wife came up with a brand name and price and started selling them – almost 30 tarts a day.
“Chocolate Oreo tarts… that was in June 2020, by December 2020 with the money we made from the chocolate tarts, we went on a nice trip to Maldives and my wife bought herself a nice Rolex. So, yeah … sometimes things come.”
That’s exactly what happened next; he met up with a former colleague who was now part of Sunset Hospitality Group. Anuar set up Goldfish, a Japanese restaurant in Galleria Mall, in partnership with the company. On January 2, 2021, it opened - to great success.
This followed with an Asian restaurant in New York called 53, in collaboration with Egyptian Ahmass Fakahany, founder and CEO of the Altamarea Group. He then opened 11 Woodfire in January 2022, in Jumeirah, followed by Otoro in Abu Dhabi serving modern Japanese cuisine, in March that year. “Now I was a very busy man…. All I wanted, my ultimate dream was to be a very good head chef in a very good restaurant. By end of 2012, I had become one of the best chefs in the world.
“What made me who I am today is that although I make very risky decisions, often I don’t know what to expect, I will work towards the result. I won’t just wait for the fruit to drop.
“In business when people say show us your feasibility studies, show your revenue projection, I don’t know how to do this. This year you must make 3 or 10 million. I don’t understand. For me, I open, work hard and then let it go. I need to pay people their salaries. They have their livelihoods. Restaurant needs to be busy to make money – that’s the ultimate bottom line. They are happy, I am happy.”
“The key to my success is sincerity – if I want to do it I will do it, otherwise I will say no immediately.”
A mantra that has stood him in good stead. Goldfish received a Bib Gourmand from Michelin and his restaurant 11 Woodfire got a Michelin star two years in a row starting 2022.
“The Michelin guide reception was at 9.30pm. I didn’t want to go. My wife said you must go. I was one of the last to arrive. Wanted to stay at the back. Goldfish was called for Bib Gourmand recognition, I thought very good. When they said 11 Woodfire got a Michelin star, my head was spinning as I walked down the steps. The energy was too much; they put the jacket on me, I exploded. I shouted so loud on stage. So memorable… so special. The second Michelin star says you are doing it right. It says you are consistent.
“Dubai has helped me a lot … as this city grew; I managed to be in that progression with Dubai. It is nice. I hope one day to be somebody who is appreciated in the city and noticed as one of those people who has contributed to the city’s growth. I hope people will remember me.”