It’s 2015, and Raj Datwani and Alex Chew have just landed the rights to bring Ultra, one of the world’s biggest electronic music festivals, to town the following year. They’re on the hunt for the perfect site to hold the festival, one that can match iconic venues like Miami’s Bayfront Park, and there is one spot they can’t stop thinking about – an open field at Marina Bay, next to Marina Bay Sands Tower 1. The pair see a rare opportunity to put Singapore on the map.
Fast forward to preparing for the second Ultra outing in June this year, and they’re ready to look back on the inaugural event. “Some people looked at us like we were crazy to throw the Ultra Festival at Marina Bay,” says Datwani, 35, with a laugh.
For starters, it was no easy task convincing multiple government authorities to give their go-ahead. Not to mention that the site was an entirely untested venue. “You couldn’t go to another event organiser and ask what their experience was like,” recalls 31-year-old Chew. As for facilities, there was none – no water, electricity, or Wi-Fi.
“The location is so iconic and beautiful. Anybody who sees the images know that it’s Singapore,” says Chew. The inaugural event played to a massive 45,000-strong crowd from over 60 countries, featuring top acts such as Norwegian DJ Kygo, Swedish DJ Axwell and American-Chinese producer Zhu. The event was also streamed live to half a million people around the world, with the Singapore skyline in full view.
“For us to be able to do Ultra and to have the sort of reception that it did is a testament to this generation of millennials and how open they’ve become. They’ve culturally changed, along with the world. Six years ago, I’m not sure if the reception would have been like that,” reflects Datwani. The pair have a knack for capitalising on the moment. They’ve started and grown not one, but three ventures that are making waves in Singapore. Alongside producing Ultra, they manage and co-own the newly minted one-Michelin-star restaurant The Kitchen at Bacchanalia, as well as launched Madison Rooms, an executive business lounge, last year.
It’s not hard to see how they’ve accomplished so much in so little time. After all, they are first and foremost consummate professionals; at the photo shoot, both respond to every instruction by our art director without missing a beat. When asked to take on the BFF Challenge – with questions testing their knowledge of each other – it’s clear what makes them tick: food, and their love for having a good time. Says Chew: “We want to encourage people to let loose and enjoy themselves.”
VIDEO: The visionary pair behind popular music festival Ultra Singapore and Bacchanalia have their friendship put to the test.
The leisurely life is something the two men know a lot about. Though born and raised in opposite sides of the world – Datwani grew up in the US, Chew in Thailand – their lifestyles were similarly fun-driven. Describing themselves as “entertainers at heart”, the well-heeled duo share a love of good food, entertaining and travel. You’re just as likely to find them in Los Angeles checking out the coolest clubs, as spending a summer in the south of France, or planning a trip – next stop, Patagonia.
They both met by chance in an elevator in 2011, while heading to a mutual friend’s party. Datwani had just moved to Singapore in June 2010 from New York to pursue opportunities in a faster-moving Asia. A graduate in international business, he had already run a women’s fashion business and a real estate venture back in the US.
Though born in Singapore, Chew spent his childhood and early teenage years in Thailand, where his father ran the KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell franchises. He returned to Singapore at age 16 and initially found the city “boring”. He later pursued business administration at Singapore Management University, spent several years working for Thai company Charoen Pokphand (CP) Group and started a sports supplements business.
For both, Singapore in 2010 was a city ripe with possibilities, due to the construction of the integrated resorts. “The city was getting so vibrant. The clubs and F&B were a lot better. It was also a period of time when a lot of the millennial generation had come back from studying overseas and were trying to do things here. You could feel a shift in attitude and personality. Singapore became a very exciting town to live in. That’s when we really started our friendship as well,” says Chew.
They started partying and hanging out with mutual friends, and found they both shared a world view held by the millennial age. “We define the millennials more as a mindset, rather than age. Experiences make millennials tick. It’s about enjoying the now and not being afraid to do things that are out of the box,” says Datwani.
It wasn’t long before they started brainstorming together. “In our minds, there was no reason why Singapore couldn’t have certain concepts,” says Datwani. He recalls attending brunch parties in New York. He says: “Those were the most fun days of the year – you go in a group of eight and leave in a group of 20.” The duo started creating Saturday brunch parties in Singapore. During their first brunch party in March 2012 with 60 guests, they saw people start dancing on couches at three o’clock in the afternoon. “For me, that was a big moment because I came from New York where that was the norm. We started seeing success when people began prioritising Saturday afternoon over Friday night,” says Datwani.
“Experiences make millennials tick. It’s about enjoying the now and not being afraid to do things that are out of the box.”
– Raj Datwani
Their brunch parties soon caught on, and by their fourth event, the crowd had grown to 500. Their success with those early parties gave them a sense of a changing mood on the ground. They also discovered their knack for entertaining and creating events that could draw crowds.
“When we create something, we realise that it takes time for people to understand when it’s a newer concept. That’s just what’s inside of us: We want to create something cool that perhaps hasn’t been seen before,” says Datwani.
Learning from Hard Knocks
Their predilection for mixing new concepts hasn’t always turned out the way they expected. Their original Bacchanalia restaurant in Coleman Street, opened in April 2013, took off , with the mixing of daytime parties and food finding success. But by late 2015, serious foodies who went to the restaurant were turned off by the bar and loud music. “We learnt that parties and fine dining don’t mix!” reflects Datwani.
They moved the restaurant to Hongkong Street in August 2015, with a name and concept change: The Kitchen at Bacchanalia. Besides cutting seating from around 100 to 36, they eliminated the barriers between the kitchen and dining area.
“With so many food programmes on TV, people want to see what’s happening in the kitchen. We used to stick a video camera on one of our chefs and project the video on a wall. When we had a chance to re-invent Bacchanalia, we said, why don’t we let people truly see what’s happening?” says Chew.
Acknowledging that kitchens can be stressful places, it was their belief in then head chef Ivan Brehm, and their team, which gave them the confidence to take on the challenge. Says Datwani: “From a chef’s perspective, it’s a massive change, because they are effectively learning a new way of communication: with their eyes instead of speaking. That got us very excited, because that’s very forward on a global level.” Today, they both enjoy watching people’s reactions as they walk through the door. Chew says: “People still get very surprised. Here you can literally tap the chef on the shoulder.” Brehm’s food impressed the Michelin Guide inspectors so much that they awarded the restaurant a coveted star late last year.
“When we had a chance to re-invent Bacchanalia, we said, why don’t we let people truly see what’s happening?”
– Alex Chew
POWER OF TWO
What makes the pair formidable is the combination of their backgrounds, allowing them to understand not only global trends but also local culture. Datwani recalls one passionate debate about chicken rice that almost ended up with him “getting punched”. While planning for the launch of the restaurant in 2012, Datwani and chef Brehm were pushing for a chicken rice dish on the menu. “Ivan and I were just getting so excited about the idea of changing something that was so important,” shares Datwani.
The new dish – which transformed chicken rice into a “dehydrated hash brown rice, with a little bit of chicken” – provoked objections from Chew. “I was upset,” he says. “There are certain dishes we shouldn’t mess around with. I think with Singaporeans, these national dishes are about quality and quantity, not just quality.”
He adds: “(The dish) would have overshadowed the opening of the restaurant. Imagine the headline, ‘Chef comes from Fat Duck and takes on chicken rice!’”
While it got the axe, other re-inventions have been runaway successes. Those include the coconut risotto (an Italian dish infused with Thai flavours), and uni pasta with chocolate and vierge (a French basil-based sauce) – a dish that Chew had bugged the chef to introduce for more than two years.
The space vacated by Bacchanalia in Coleman Street was transformed into Madison Rooms, a business lounge for the jet set. Datwani and Chew introduced a space that could marry work with entertaining, after noticing that many of Bacchanalia’s customers were using it as a meeting spot. Naysayers pointed to the shrinking market for private clubs here, but the duo were not deterred.
Membership is by-invitation only and the space caters to guests’ business and lifestyle needs. Cubicles offering private spaces to work sit alongside a traditional men’s den, bright and airy terrace seating, private meeting/dining rooms, bar, and library. Charging points are plentiful and the Wi-Fi is consistent for those who cannot do without their laptops.
The duo recently hired a chef from Sydney to serve a “cross between comfort food and fine dining” and brought in luxury concierge Quintessentially Lifestyle to see to members’ special requests. Madison Rooms attracted about 100 members during its launch last year; the club currently caps membership at around 400.
This year will see the prolific duo expanding their individual businesses. “We’re going to be sleeping a lot less in the coming year,” says Chew with a laugh.
Deep into planning for Ultra, they’re eager to learn from last year’s lessons. A major highlight for their audiences will be “less queues for food and drink”, says Chew. They’re also looking to focus on the Live Stage part of Ultra – a showcase for rock to electro-pop acts – which featured Far East Movement and Korean pop stars Hyolyn and Jay Park last year.
The experimentation will continue at The Kitchen at Bacchanalia, which just saw Australian Luke Armstrong, recently at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze restaurant in London, replace Ivan Brehm as head chef. Regional plans are afoot to expand Madison Rooms in South-east Asia.
But as their businesses grow, the blurring of lines between work and their lifestyles cannot be avoided. “As we started creating businesses around things we enjoy, we enjoy them less. Going to a restaurant is not the same anymore,” remarks Datwani. Chew concurs: “You start analysing all the businesses.”
Interestingly, this has propelled them in new lifestyle directions. “Something that I find really cool because of our chefs is growing herbs. I might want to grow them myself,” says Chew with a laugh. Datwani muses: “I think I’ve started to enjoy doing nothing once in a while. I never used to be able to stay still.”
They’ve scoured the globe for cool ideas and experiences, so what does it take to impress these lifestyle entrepreneurs? Here are their most recent picks.
“I was with 80,000 people in Bombay watching Coldplay and Jay Z play at a big charity concert called Global Citizen, which started a few years ago in Central Park. I never thought it would be possible to have 80,000 people be orderly at a concert in India.” – Datwani
“Imagine the beautiful high ceilings and columns of Amsterdam’s recently restored 200-year-old Rijksmuseum, then having Maceo Plex – a deep house, techno DJ – do a set in there, with 2,000 cold yet sweaty people cramped shoulder to shoulder.” – Chew
“I ate at Gjelina in Venice, California, which is probably one of the best farm-to-table restaurants. It doesn’t take reservations so we had to wait an hour. The vegetables were so fresh and so vibrant.” – Chew
These are local dishes they’ll love to reinvent.
“The noodles and chilli are the most important parts of wonton mee, and I’m a big chilli fan. I would love to let our chefs re-invent that, and see how crazy they could go with it.” – Chew
“This question is easy for me because I don’t eat seafood. I would love to see chilli crab re-invented with no crab.” – Datwani
“It’s one of those dishes where I can’t tell if it’s good or not. You could put two bowls next to each other, one good and one bad, and I can’t tell the difference at all. My mee sua would be literally drenched in soya sauce and chilli padi. It would be interesting to make such a staple food a lot more interesting than it seems to be.” – Chew