Born of nostalgia, fuelled by boundless self-expression, NAE:UM is the inaugural restaurant of Chef Louis Han. In Korean, ‘Naeum’ is a literary description of a fragrance that brings back memories. And indeed, NAE:UM is awash in memories of Chef Louis’s youth in South Korea and his work in foreign lands. Of his search for roots and heritage, his fascination for things new and undiscovered, and his distillation of these experiences into innovative dishes that are not just plates of food but lingering evocations.

The restaurant is a labour of love; the logo depicts the word ‘naeum’ in Korean Hangeul characters and the initials ‘LH’ – designed over almost a year and personally hand-drawn by the chef himself. Much else besides – from the restaurant’s conceptualisation to the fermentation jars on display – bear the imprint of a man who, at just 31, has led a life remarkably full and fulfilled.

At 14, Chef Louis started cooking Western cuisine and later embarked on this career at 17 years old. After three years in Seoul, his work took him to the Middle East and expanded his knowledge and skills. His recent return to South Korea after six consecutive years abroad marked a new chapter in self-understanding as he reconnected with Korean food culture and traditions. During this time, he had a Sous Chef stint at a two Michelin-starred restaurant, picked up pottery, and tended a home farm developing an understanding of Korea’s seasonal produce.

These new sensibilities, combined with Chef Louis’s innate cosmopolitanism from his time overseas and his years growing up in the trendy and forward-looking district of Gangnam in Seoul, blended into a personal cooking style he calls ‘contemporary Seoul cuisine’.

At NAE:UM, the progressive vibrancy of Seoul meets the flavours of folk traditions meets the rest of the world. Woven throughout is a sense of familiarity delivered through flavours layered and nuanced, new and coherent. The menus are episodic and showcase different food stories in Chef Louis’s personal journey – because people relate to one another when they share a common experience; and for Chef Louis that bond has always been food.

Through his dishes he seeks to open the stream of remembering. Through warm and engaging service, he brings intimacy and comfort. To Chef Louis, NAE:UM is heart and hearth, so he works to make diners feel the same – like they were eating at a friend’s house. He does this by making the restaurant casual and welcoming but filled with personal, refined touches – a place of happy moments and lingering memories.

The man behind the concept

Despite his relative youth, Chef Louis Han has 14 years of experience behind him, having entered the profession at age 17. He trained for years in the Western tradition and worked in Seoul, Lebanon, Abu Dhabi, and Singapore, honing his expertise and forging lifelong friendships. His return to South Korea after six consecutive years abroad sparked renewal and self-discovery, especially in terms of his roots and heritage and approach to food. While in Korea he worked at the two Michelin-starred restaurants, Mosu – a trendsetter in Seoul’s food scene – and picked up pottery. While tending a home farm, he came to fully appreciate Korea’s seasonal produce. His natural curiosity drove him to constant discovery and fresh insights – and new horizons.

Chef Louis first arrived in Singapore at the beginning of 2016 to join the opening team for Meta Restaurant. In late 2017 he assumed the role of Head Chef at KIMME where he focused on Innovative Modern Korean cuisine. And two years later saw a new challenge and the next chapter of his life – opening his very own restaurant.

At NAE:UM, his first inaugural restaurant, Chef Louis Han truly comes into his own. In every aspect and every detail, his mind and personality are writ large. He drew the brand logo, planned the layout, oversaw the furniture design, and handpicked each artifact.

Other elements bear his indirect imprint: the menu and wine list illustrations are customised drawings by Chef Louis’s cousin-in-law, while the paintings are by his Seoulite friend. And his heritage is brought to bear by way of his grandmother’s secret recipe for gochujang (fermented Korean chilli paste), the different types of kimchi he makes, and the sauces and liquors he plans to bring in directly from Korea.

Food from the soul

Chef Louis Han was born and bred in the Gangnam district of Seoul, known as the pulse of the city for its trendy and forward-looking character. His growing-up years were therefore spent in a modern and cosmopolitan milieu where global cultures mingled, and international influences interwove with Korean heritage.

As the nation’s capital and economic centre, Seoul throbbed with vibrancy. Its culinary landscape comprised temples of fine-dining sitting beside casual, hip eateries and a plethora of street food. The purveyors of the best ingredients in Korea and across the globe supplied to the leading gastronomic restaurants of Seoul; and in this cornucopia of local and world cuisine, young Louis was immersed during his formative years.

His later training, and his career throughout Seoul, the Middle East and Singapore added to and reinforced his global sensibilities; leading him to develop a style that combined western techniques with Korean heritage flavours. The food that NAE:UM presents is best described as contemporary Seoul cuisine. And while it references the city, it is not food from Seoul or mere interpretations of Korean classics.

Instead, it models itself on the culinary diversity of Seoul, going beyond Korean provincial flavours to embrace the international influences found in the city, while at the same time blending old and new. And in lockstep with Seoul, Chef Louis sources the finest ingredients from Korea and around the world to craft innovative dishes with a sense of familiarity, with flavours that are nuanced and layered, new and coherent.

NAE:UM’s menus are episodic, each showcasing a different food story or inspiration in Chef Louis’s personal journey. Episode one features the chef’s favourite ingredients; ones he grew up with, came to love, and now, is fortunate to work with every day even though he is away from Korea. Designed so that diners get to pick how many courses they want to enjoy, the dinner menu starts from 5 courses at $148++ with supplementary dishes as add-ons.

One of Chef’s favourites is ‘hwae’ (sashimi). There is a dish popular with Koreans in the summer called ‘mulhwae’, a cold spicy raw fish soup that makes a refreshing start to a meal with its sour and umami flavours. Instead of a soup, a yuzu chilli sauce is poured tableside over slices of aged fish, shaved cuttlefish, and koji-fermented daikon rolled in Korean sesame leaves, topped with Korean herbs.

’Jjim’, which means steamed, is a dish that highlights this cooking technique through the delicate flavours of brined grouper, accompanied by spanner crab encased in a roulade of thin zucchini slices, cabbage and daikon. A burnt leek doenjang (fermented bean paste) sauce with cured fish roe lends lusciousness.

‘Gochujang’ is another of Chef’s favourite ingredients that features mostly in conventional Korean cooking. Regarded as the Korean ‘mother sauce’, it is used to flavour rice and stew dishes, or to marinate meat and vegetables. For the opening menu, gochujang serves as a marinade for a Challans duck that has been dry-aged in-house. Seared, roasted and finished by grilling over binchotan, the duck is served alongside pickled beetroot and onion purée.

To complement the meal, full or half alcohol pairings are curated from a list of handpicked old- and new-world wines, as well as a range of Japanese sakes. For non-alcohol options, NAE:UM brings in artisanal juices, and in time, will widen the variety with kombuchas that are currently fermenting.

A very personal space

NAE:UM is located in a shophouse in Telok Ayer. Chef Louis Han has conceived a space imbued with the casualness and comfort of home, refined with his personal touch. The 28- seat restaurant boasts a minimalist-inspired aesthetic, with a flowing layout defined by open- shelved partitions and blinds. Its palette is an elegant tonal assemblage of dove grey and off- white set off by a raw cement floor. Furniture is contemporary and birch coloured, with solid oakwood tables thoughtfully custom-fitted with individual cutlery drawers holding forks, spoons and knives, which in addition to chopsticks, allow diners to eat any way they choose.

A variety of seating – banquette, table and counter – offer group-size versatility and different views of the restaurant. A cosy nook seats up to 4 in a semi-private space partitioned with wooden Venetian blinds. Raise the blinds and the space transforms into a large party table for up to 16 diners. Pendant lighting, wall coves and suspended ‘beams’ with concealed lighting bathe the interior in a comfortable glow and draw the eye to interesting focal areas. One of which is the open kitchen and its dry-aging cabinet, and the bar counter in the middle of the dining hall with its display of liquors, Japanese sakes, and fermenting kombucha.

Subtle indications of Chef Louis’s personal passions and handiwork enliven the space. For example, his love for the arts and especially pottery is evident in the logo that greets guests at the entrance. The motif was drawn by the chef and hand-etched into a concrete ‘medallion’, then carefully inlaid with gold foil; it is a delicate piece-by-piece work requiring four designers to complete.

Also capturing the eye at the reception with its exquisiteness is ceramicist Jeanette Adrienne Wee’s adaptation of the Korean moon jar that traditionally represents purity, honesty and modesty. Adorning the walls are two paintings depicting abstracts of the seasons; one at the semi-private dining space and another discreetly hidden on the other side of the kitchen. On the shelves sit large glass jars of house-fermented and pickled vegetables and fruits used in the chef’s cooking.

With its quiet charm and sense of a guiding, nurturing hand in every detail, NAE:UM both comforts and welcomes; drawing diners into a space to gather, bond and simply enjoy themselves.

Address: 161 Telok Ayer Street, Singapore 068615
Contact number: +65 8830 5016
For reservations: reservations@naeum.sg or https://cho.pe/dineatnaeumsg
Opening hours: Tuesday to Saturday, 6pm – 10.30pm (lunch will be introduced in the future) Seating capacity: 28 diners under normal dining circumstances
Instagram: @naeum.sg
Website: www.naeum.sg