February 8, 2018

We tried making friends with Gan Guoyi of Jigger & Pony Group over drinks.

“If you like to drink, we can get along.”

And so we did, or at least we made attempts to. Trying our best to camouflage the slurs, she took us on a whirlwind journey through blue-blazed thrown cocktails, orange wine basking in neon lighting, and pints of ice-cold Stella Artois with har cheong gai.

By 7:30pm, Guoyi had been on her feet all day. It was the sneak preview night at Humpback—a taste of things to come—once Caffe Fernet (her latest addition to the Jigger & Pony Group) officially opens in March. Holding a bowl of Cacio e Pepe in one hand and Chicken Picante in the other, she flashed her pearly whites and greeted us at the door with an energetic, “How are you?”—it was evident where her 5 years of flight experience had gotten her.

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Bopping to the popish tunes at Humpback, she reacted to exemplary praises for the creamy Cacio e Pepe, heady with freshly ground up black pepper, with tales of husband, Indra Kantono and Chef Polo Seah who had both worked their way diligently through 8 plates of pasta a day, during their trip to New York recently. Call it research or a quest for inspiration—either way, the dedication to their craft can be found in their soon-to-be-opened all-day Italian inspired restaurant-bar, Caffe Fernet located along the panoramic waterfront of the Customs House.

“Shall we proceed upstairs to Gibson for a drink?” Guoyi said, with a cheeky glint in her eyes.

We relented. Navigating the staircase, we arrived in Gibson Bar, our eyes taking double-time to adapt to the dim lighting. Decor-wise, the space showed maturity; old-meets-new in the antique ceiling, stained glass windows with sleek bar counters and customised lampshades. Occupying high tops near the bar, we were in good company, Sarah Tsang, friend and acting Marketing and Communications Associate at Jigger and Pony, joined in for what seemed to be a raucous night ahead.

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“You want a fucking hell drink, go for the Whiskey Blazer,” Sarah said.

At this point, we’re throwing the one drink per venue mantra out the window. We’ve got an enabler on our hands.

After the showy theatrics went out of the way, Guoyi cycled us through her relationships with some of her nearest and dearest friends in the industry. Fellow F&B entrepreneur and drinks partner-in-crime, Howard Lo, had shared some special moments earlier in the year, reminiscing over Lychee Martinis at Ice-Cold Beer—a drinking institution located in the gentrified laneway of Emerald Hill.

“Our meeting was serendipitous,” when describing how she made acquaintances with Howard, “I had met Howard earlier and thought to myself that he would be a really cool guy to hang out with.” It wouldn’t take long before their friendship was solidified, insured by many great tales of drinks and foodie escapades.

Chen Liping, a famous Singaporean actress and former top model, made an appearance. She sat at the table next to us, with what seemed to be an intimate gathering of close friends. Bartender Roger Yeap exclaimed excitedly over the bar top, announcing her presence to Guoyi who remained oblivious, unfazed even.

“I’m very bad with this,” confessed Guoyi, “I’m not the paparazzi. It’s good that way since everyone gets the same treatment.” 

The conversation takes a slant towards Public Relations. Naturally, Ivy Woo, Managing Director at Food News PR and founder of Singapore Cocktail Festival gets dragged into the picture.

“What do PR people do?”

Back when Jigger and Pony had just rolled out their first concept on Amoy Street, the pair were partial to the value of Public Relations. The story goes that Ivy was introduced to the couple by a friend and there was instant chemistry; especially where a mutual love for alcoholic tipples was concerned. In 2012, when Ivy and her business partner, Shermin Cheong tied the knot, they invited the pair to their wedding. “Even at her own wedding, Ivy was up for anything. She was the epitome of fun and if anyone can represent our brand, it would be her.” Since then, the boutique public relations firm has been representing all of Jigger and Pony’s endeavours, case in point, the excellent hosting at this evening’s Caffe Fernet preview.

“The value of PR is intangible”, Guoyi said. “But it’s extremely crucial for businesses that are just starting. It does provide value only if the firm understands the brand, and set goals that are in line with what you’re trying to achieve.” She recounted the experience of having to sack her first employee, a chef so set in his ways that he was in denial over his over salted cuisine. “Ivy refused to serve the dishes to the media—adamant in not putting a stamp on the quality of food she was representing. I truly respect that.”

Our second drinks were quick to arrive and Guoyi took a sip of her Botanic Gardens—a sweet yet potent nectar of Monkey 47 Gin, bee pollen, fermented honey and clarified granny smith apple juice.

We discussed the emergence of ‘gourmet babies’ in present society and she exclaimed in bewilderment of children who have finer taste in oysters than she does. “I love pizza so much,” she professed. “It is a very strange thing for me. I’m amazed at how Singaporeans are still eating Canadian 2 for 1 pizza! I get it that it’s cheap, but ALT pizza serves much better quality for the same price.” The rant continues for a good few minutes. And as much as she appreciates a delicious slice, she values good hospitality even more.

“As a host, you want to know that all your guests are having a good time. If you’re backed by a good strong team, you don’t have to worry about the small details and you can just enjoy your party”, she said. Point to note, the Jigger and Pony group and its bevy of concept dishes outclass some of the best service standards where local bars are concerned.

After sieving through the office space, we gathered our things and headed to our next destination: Wine RVLT. Indra offered to give us a life to our next destination. During the ride, Guoyi talked about her fonds memories of going on dates at Changi Airport back when she was an air stewardess, and he had to travel to Jakarta on a weekly basis. 

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At Wine RVLT, we were joined by the whole gang from Hong Kong’s Young Master Ales. Orange wine was poured, friendly business advice exchanged and somewhere in there, a platter of cured meats induces food reverie.

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The last stop at Tess Bar was supposed to be the final stop of the night’s trifecta. Unfortunately or fortunately, due to the fickleness of the situation lured by fond reminiscing, our last port of call was swapped out for Ice-Cold Beer where she took a walk down memory lane with baskets of warm buttered popcorn straight out of a microwave bag and deep fried har cheong gai washed down with jugs of frosty beer.

“If you had acquired special skills overnight and could win at any Olympic Sport, what would it be?”

While the others at the table claimed “table tennis, high jump, etc…”, Guoyi replied with effortless cogitation. “Golf, because that’s where the money is.”

Pragmatic, much? But if this is what it takes to manage an empire of successful F&B businesses—Sugarhall being my favourite haunt for rums, we’ve got to be thankful that this petite ball of fire has got a good head on her shoulders.