VINNIE QUEK / DAN SEGALL / DARIO BUONAVOGLIA
The Three Musketeers Stage a Ku in Singapore
TEXT / PETER COMPARELLI
AMONG THE SYBARITIC habitués of Bali’s Seminyak Beach, Ku Dé Ta beach club is a legendary venue for anything from a serene sunset cocktail to a blowout dance party. Now the club has a new outpost on Sands SkyPark, 57 storeys or 200 metres above ground atop Marina Bay Sands, Singapore’s skyline-changing casino-resort. Set at the north end of the SkyPark’s infinity pool, the new 14,500-square-foot Ku Dé Ta restaurant, bar and nightclub aims to transport the Bali vibe to the Lion City’s beautiful people.
The young but accomplished trio managing this high-profile venture are Executive Chef Dan Segall from Zuma in Hong Kong and M1NT in Shanghai; Chief Sommelier Dario Buonavoglia, previously head sommelier at London’s Michelin-starred Hakkasan; and Director of Entertainment Vinnie Quek, well known from his days at Kee in Hong Kong and Zouk in Singapore.
Opened in September, Ku Dé Ta has already hosted parties during the Singapore Grand Prix and the Asian tour of The Flaming Lips, who invited Segall, Buonavoglia and Quek to their concert in Japan. So, in the spirit of the Three Musketeers – whose motto was “all for one, one for all” – the trio flew to Tokyo to don orange jumpsuits and dance on stage with the American rock band. “The team that parties together, stays together,” remarks Quek.
Tell us about Ku Dé Ta at Marina Bay Sands.
Segall: The challenge was to translate the feeling of an Indonesian beach club to a cosmopolitan urban setting. So we tried to do this “urban beach club.” That was the idea behind all the things that we did, in the designing, the food, the lighting, the music, the colours and things like that. We weren’t going to make a tiki-torch club on the roof of Marina Bay Sands. That wasn’t going to do it.
How are you going to mould your style in the coming years to stay current?
Quek: What we’re doing here is just a framework and a shell, and it should be timeless.
Segall: I wouldn’t necessarily call it timeless but it’s not over-themed, like a good DJ needs to ride the crowd.
Quek: You have a beautiful cityscape, which sets the backdrop by itself. And the beautiful people will decorate part of the night.
What’s the secret ingredient in running a successful club/restaurant/bar?
Segall: Having a team that loves to work. I don’t care what kind of food you’ve got or what champagne you’re serving or anything like that. If you don’t have a team that wants to be there, that absolutely kills it. The most important thing when we were putting this place together was, who are we going to have working here? After ourselves, of course.
So how did you get the crew together?
Segall: We interviewed a lot of people. Because normally, in a kitchen at least, if you’re interviewing staff, somebody comes on maybe for a trial shift. But we didn’t have a kitchen, we didn’t have anything. All we could do was talk to people. That was very interesting, because we hired people based on their attitude.
What were you looking for?
Segall: People who like to be out, not your homebody-type person. People who want to learn and people who, for me at least, when I ask people why they’re in the restaurant business, they have to say that they like taking care of people. Some folks say, “Oh, I like working in clubs because the music’s good. I like being a bartender because...”
Quek: “...I like to drink!”
Segall: But during our hiring, people said, “I really like the feeling I get when I help somebody fix a problem at the table, when I’m able to exceed somebody’s expectations. That’s satisfying to me.” And that’s the kind of experience we’re trying to deliver here. It’s a lifestyle thing. It’s not just a club, it’s not just a bar, it’s not just a restaurant.
Buonavoglia: It’s all together. They all deliver the experience of your journey with Ku Dé Ta.
Segall: This is a journey. We try to take you somewhere.
Buonavoglia: You start by the pool in the afternoon. At the moment we’re looking after the whole pool because we’re the outlet that’s closest. The club is open all day. You could stop by for breakfast. You could spend the whole day here...with sun, with a beautiful view and with beautiful people.
That’s the urban beach club concept.
Segall: Right. You could roll up at 11am, have a bite, have a couple of drinks, you could go downstairs and go to the shopping mall if you wanted to, take a break. Don’t discount the fact that we’re on the roof of Marina Bay Sands. Then you’ve got the amazing experience of being in Singapore. Being one degree north of the equator, the sun rises and sets pretty much the same time all year around. So we can pretty much bank on 6 to 8pm as sunset time. Post-work into happy hour. Great time to hang out. Vinnie comes on board, puts on some cool tunes, Dario’s got the wine flowing and we do some snacks. It’s a nice way to say goodbye to the day and say hello to the evening.
Dario, tell us about your 17-page, annotated wine list.
Buonavoglia: When I came here, I was amazed by the venue. I said, OK, we cannot go with a very common wine list. We need to do something special here in Ku Dé Ta. I created a very personal thematic structure that follows my personal vision, and also I want to educate guests. Even for my wines by the glass, I like to give as much information as I can, about the grapes it’s made from, a couple of words [in the wine list] to address them. I love champagne, and for me champagne is the business card not only of the wine list but of the restaurant. So I divide all my champagnes into styles. From vintage, non-vintage, small growers and big names. I want to help my guests. People tell me, “I’d like blanc de blancs,” but they don’t know what blanc de blancs is. So I like to add a couple of words to explain.
As for my main wine list, I want to bring some signature wines, some things that are very important to us, and we call it “656 feet from earth.” It’s a “Ku Dé Ta experience...wines that are close to our hearts.” Dan likes certain wines and I like other wines, and we just put it together.
I support biodynamic viticulture. Biodynamic is one step after organic. And homeopathic treatment...It’s almost a religion for some winemakers. They are fully biodynamic wines that are made with respect for nature. I also have a page that I call Indigenous, where I want to gather indigenous varietals. These wines, in a regular wine list, would never sell because people just choose a Chablis, blah blah blah...I call it “a chance to try obscure grape varieties from their own land. Say byebye to the usual cabernet...” [For example] Greco di Tufo is a grape variety that doesn’t travel. It stays in Campania. Albariño is in Rias Baixas in western Spain. It’s a local varietal. People say, “Albariño, I never heard about it.” But they’re learning and they say, “Thank you, I’ve never tried that wine.”
Segall: It works, depending on your level of wine education or your level of shyness. You can see people’s eyes light up when they read this menu. Wow, okay, they haven’t seen a wine list like this before. Maybe they want to impress their dates. So they gather as much information as they can off of this wine list and they say, “Oh, I was thinking about this one.” And it’s an excellent choice.
Buonavoglia: I update the wine list every two weeks, maybe maximum three weeks.
Quek: What I can say about what they do and what we do is that there’s a lot of heart and soul put in. Dario’s probably got one of the best wine lists in Asia. It’s not so much about how expensive the wine is. I try and do that with the music.
Vinnie, you’ve worked at Kee, Zouk and now Ku Dé Ta . How do each of the venues differ in their vibe?
Quek: It’s very different. Kee club is a bit more discerning. It’s a lot more edgy. People there are more receptive to something new. It’s a private members’ club. People that go there are probably opinion leaders. Zouk is a bit more mass. It’s a super-club. Working at Ku Dé Ta, we’re trying to bridge the two. It’s a lifestyle venue. For me it’s a first in Singapore.
How do you tailor the musical aspect of the venues to match and enhance the mood?
Quek: We have two sides: the club side and the restaurant side. We try to bring elements of what’s happening around the globe, like underground parties in New York, parties in London, try to emulate that sound in Ku Dé Ta. It’s also giving them what they want and at the same time educating them with new sounds from around the world, new genres, new DJs.
Does the music change through the day?
Quek: It does. We open up for lunch 11 to 4. We do a bit more bossa, soul, jazz stuff by the pool. When evening comes and the sun sets, it’s back to the dance tempo. Kind of like what you experience in Ibiza. Last night we dabbled in some soul, hip hop, R&B, deep house.
Segall: The music matches, literally hour-to-hour, what happens in the restaurant. At 5:30pm it’s very calm and cool and chill, and you go through the sunset experience. You don’t really notice it’s happening. I’ll be in the kitchen and I don’t get out again till 9:30 or 10 and it’s rocking. It’s his intuitive knowledge about how the crowd is going to be.
Quek: The tricky bit is to bridge the commercial aspect and the edginess of what Ku Dé Ta is about.
What’s the difference between Hong Kong and Singapore club-goers?
Quek: Hong Kong is a lot more vibrant. They have their own structure that’s different from Singapore, between old money and new money. Hong Kong’s got an underbelly. You need to know where to go for the right people. Hong Kong’s got that edge to it. People in Hong Kong are a bit more receptive. They’re more open to...
Segall: ...to new music and different stuff. But I would say as a vibe, there’s more of a relaxed, going-out culture here.
Quek: I think it’s also the stress level. Hong Kong is all very fast-paced. People go out for the sake of going out. They need to go out, they need to de-stress. They plan the whole night. From dinner they have drinks, and the night goes on until 1 in the afternoon.
Segall: Friday night in Hong Kong is way, way, way more happening than here.
How do Hong Kong and Singapore differ in musical taste?
Quek: It’s a lot more commercial here, but let’s hope that will change.
So there’s really nothing in Singapore like this?
Quek: You’ve got three in one. You get the restaurant, the club and the poolside.
Segall: There’ll be nights, I’ll bet you, when the party goes on till 4am or 5am. Somebody will pass out by the pool, wake up at 6am, have breakfast, do brunch, come back and party here.
Quek: It’s hard to explain certain parts of what I do. I market the place using sound.
Segall: Vinnie’s got this incredible knack for putting the right people next to each other at the right time. He’s got this feel for what happens in the room. He understands how a room works, the dynamics of bringing a slight change in music, a slight change in lighting, swapping one group with another group, moving a few things around. And he does it in a way that you don’t really know that he’s doing it. And then, next thing you know, stuff’s going on.
Where’d you learn that?
Quek: Through years of working in clubs. It’s the feel of the room, actually. It’s like a kind of orchestration of the night itself. Mixing the right people in the right spot, the music...
Segall: There’s no substitute for experience. I’ve been doing this for 19 years. I started when I was 16.
Quek: Sixteen years for me.
So you both started as teenagers.
Quek: A lot of what we do is from the soul. If you believe in what you’re doing, it comes from here. It exuberates somehow into the crowd, what you’re trying to do. Singapore is a challenge, but we’re trying to change the mindset.
Dan, talk about the food, if you would.
Segall: It’s modern Asian cuisine. I’ve been in Asia for eight years, I’ve been cooking Asian food for a while. I did strictly Japanese for about five years.
Quek: He’s a freaking amazing chef, by the way.
Segall: I love it when people try the food for the first time. There’s usually a strong reaction one way or the other. I was doing Japanese food for a while, and even in doing modern Japanese food, there are limitations because you’re confined by a set of parameters and if you go outside those, it stops being Japanese food. In Japanese cuisine, there’s no mint, there’s no coriander, there’s no fresh chilli, there’s very little garlic for the most part. There are a lot of things that I like to eat that aren’t really in Japanese food. I’ve travelled in Indonesia, Thailand, all over the place. So when I start making something and the flavours want to go places, I’m not confined by keeping it in the Japanese structure, as it were.
Everything’s served for sharing because that’s how I like to eat. I just want you to have a good time. The food to me is half the restaurant experience. At most it’s half. It’s got to be a really strong half, but...I want you to just have a good time. I don’t cook food that I think is going to challenge you. I don’t want to cook food that “says something about my personality.” I just cook food that I like to eat. And, yeah, everything on the menu I’m a big fan of.
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