Interview: Mark Sargeant and Luke Whearty for Oxwell & Co

Had you been in Singapore before Oxwell & Co?
Mark Sargeant:
When I used to work for Gordon Ramsay, we used to work for Singapore Airlines and I’d come over here twice before. So I was familiar with Singapore. I’ve been over here four times now.

What do you think of the dining scene in Singapore?
MS: It’s fantastic. First, with Singapore Airlines, we didn’t get much time to get out. We did go to a few local places but that was probably around six or seven years ago. The dining scene has really gone through the roof, and there are really some fantastic chefs here right now, like at Luke’s around the corner, Ryan Clift of the Tippling Club obviously. It’s really good, love it.

Who’s working on the decor of the place?
MS: The Stripe Collective is working on the interior design, using furniture from Fred Lives Here.

Why open the bar first, before the restaurant?
Luke Whearty: Because it’s on the ground floor and we’re just working our way up. And we want to open up to the public with some drinking—and some food of course. There will be a kitchen adjacent to the bar and we’ll be serving bar snacks.

What kind of bar snacks?
MS: Luke’s a genius with drink and makes his own distillations. The real creativity here is about the drinks. The food is going to be good quality produce and just cooking it very simply. The sort of thing you can eat standing up, with a glass in your hand: things with lots of salt so people drink more. So, we’ll have deep fried baby squid with some chilli, and pea and ham croquettes—sort of comforting bar food.

Tell us about the space.
MS: We’ve got the lease on the building so there are four floors. And though it looks really big outside, it’s actually really small inside. This [the ground floor] is obviously going to be the main bar and the first floor is the restaurant, the second floor is the private dining area, then there’s going to be a rooftop terrace. Gradually, we want to have a garden up there with a small kitchen outside and maybe a barbecue. We want to plant some herbs and some salad things like radishes. We can’t grow all the vegetables but I think we’ll be able to grow all our herbs up there.

Do you try to use local produce?
MS: As much as we can we want to use local but I understand in Singapore there’s not a lot of land. In England we’re very used to working with seasonal produce and here we get things all year round. We’re trying to be as local as possible and right now that’s turning out to be Australia. They have fantastic quality beef and our chicken is going to be from Malaysia. I’ve recently been put in touch with a guy who farms sea bass on an island just off Singapore also.

Who do you intend to target at different times of day?
MS: Luke makes this incredible coffee, so we’ll be open quite early with simple pastries and breakfast offerings to go with the amazing coffee that Luke does, and then run into lunch and then dinner.

LW: So you can come and get a drink at anytime, like coffee in the morning. It’s very much because of the area. It’s very much on the way for people going to work and they can stop off here. The coffee is actually sourced locally as well. I mean they are South American beans from a company called Nylon. And the machine we’re getting is a custom-built espresso machine called a Slayer. We’ll also do cold drip coffee that we’re infusing with different things like lemon myrtle. And we’re doing bottle fermented coffee. It’s slightly alcoholic. You use Champagne yeast to carbonate the drink and it’s just really simple form of fermentation.

And you’re doing kegged craft cocktails?
LW: Yeah, we’re putting some modern techniques in these drinks but we still want to make it approachable. We don’t want people coming in here feeling intimidated: very simply, we’ll have the drinks on tap. We’ll have a house beer too. We’re working with a local brewer Jungle Beer and we’re brewing it with nutmeg and calamansi lime, so a bit of a local touch. There’s and also Prosecco on tap. We’ll have two rotating cocktails to start: a gin and tonic with a nutmeg leaf. We’re house distilling the gin also using a pretty fancy piece of equipment that looks like a time machine. And the other drink will be sangria. But instead of regular wine we’ll use vermouth so it has a lot more character, and we’ll use a lot more spices. And then we infuse it overnight with strawberries, cinnamon and star anise. At the end of the day, it’s still sangria but it tastes very different. We want it be very approachable we definitely don’t want to put $25 price tags on cocktails on tap. The focus of this bar is somewhere someone can come two-three times a week and it’s not going to break the bank.

MS: We want that for the restaurant too. That’s the way it’s setup. You can come in just two to three ladies and order some starters to share for a light lunch, and you can come back in the evening for a three-course meal with wine. It’s a place for the people and no passwords needed.

What were some challenges setting this place up?
MS: I think it’s getting the team to work together. After the first year it’s just automatic and it’s just like a ship, which you just have to gently steer. But in the first month, it’s chaos, even when you have run-throughs. We’ve also got quite a small space here—only 34 covers at the restaurant space, so it’s about organizing the space cleverly.

Do you have plans to do events here?
LW: Definitely, the different spaces allow us to do that. For private dining, we can arrange for a private bartender for the night and we’ll source some really cool vintage spirits from the UK: vintage gin and vintage glassware. We also hope to do Sunday brunches and things.

Plans to expand this concept to other parts of Asia?
MS: I think that’s on the cards potentially but like anything, you got to get the first one right first. I think it’s going to be a long time to make sure this is perfect, and then look at other things like that.

LW: We’ve definitely got such a great team for the design, bar, food and front of house, I don’t see why not.

Mark Sargeant and Luke Whearty are part of the team behind Oxwell & Co.