Nick, chef & founder of Nsquared Barbecue. Nick wears a summer jacket designed by David’s Daughter, with his food served on plates by Supermama.
By now, Nick has become habituated to breaking barriers: whether it’s reinventing the traditional concept of barbecue, or defying the stereotypes about what it means to be Singaporean. Born in Ukraine, Nick moved to Singapore when he was four years old, stayed till he was 14, and moved to the United States for seven years, before coming back to serve in National Service. He worked in several F&B joints, before deciding to start his own: Nsquared Barbecue, in the bustling old-meets-new hawker centre, Timbre+. A glance at the menu will tell you that he puts his very soul in his food—from the tamarind kicap pedas to the grilled fish served with a punchy sambal of his own creation, Nick’s shop is a merged reflection of both his culinary journey and his journey as a Singaporean.
How did you get interested in food—and more specifically, in barbecue?
I knew how to barbecue before I learnt how to fry an egg. There was no particular person who taught me—I just picked it up along the way. My parents were members of a windsurfing club and whenever we went during the weekends, there was always someone grilling or cooking. So instead of playing video games with other kids, I was filling barrels with sand, firing up charcoal and marinating chicken. When I grew older, it became a way for me to escape the crowd (laughs).
What made you decide on starting your own grilled meat store, after working at several other businesses?
Opening up your own place is always the endgame for every chef. You can choose from two options: be stressed and unhappy working for someone else, or be stressed and happy running your own place. The nature of the industry is that you’ll be working long hours, but you can either do it for yourself or do it for other people. I realised I needed to at least try this out, because that’s the only way I’ll progress.
What are some common stereotypes people have of you or your occupation?
Everyone looks at my name and asks me where I’m from—even when I tell them I’m Singaporean, the question comes up about where I’m originally from. I’m Singaporean! I went to PCF Kindergarten! You really can’t get any more Singaporean than that.
Something people hardly realise is that being a hawker is tough work! It’s easy to look down on certain occupations, especially hawkers—there are a lot of hawkers in the country, and the media glamourises the industry, so people don’t really think too much about the work that goes in. But we’re all doing our best to earn a living the best way we can, and we’re doing very hard but very honest work.
What’s been the biggest change you’ve experienced since running your own business?
I’ve never been an extrovert or a party person, but I think I’ve become less social since I opened Nsquared. I don’t usually have the energy anymore to socialise after being at the shop the entire day. It’s not a bad change—it’s a part of life—and I like having some peace and quiet after a long day. It’s a necessary sacrifice to keep the shop running, and I don’t have any regrets. I also had to come to terms with the fact that you won’t always make as much money as you want to. You can run short for some months, or you need to pump some money back into the shop for maintenance, so there’s no fixed salary.
How do you deal with negative comments and criticism? What keeps you going?
Some people have told me that what I’m making isn’t barbecue. I’ve never tried to put a label on my barbecue style, because my understanding of barbecue’s always been very different: it’s about cooking together with friends and everyone bringing a different ingredient to make a meal together. It doesn’t need to be just about meat; I always tell people that barbecue can be made out of very different things, like dessert or nasi goreng.
I believe in delivering quality food at an affordable price, without cutting corners. A lot of times, it might mean I make losses, and I’m okay with that. At the end of the day, I need to be happy with the food I’m putting out, and I want to be cooking the food I love. I enjoy creating and playing around with possibilities, and I love hearing customers tell me they loved my food. When you truly love what you’re doing, you’re willing to put in the work.
What are your some hopes and concerns you have regarding your business?
Of course, I want to keep growing my business. I love cooking barbecue and I want to keep going on forever, but the rent is tough and the crowd can be sporadic, depending on the weather. There’s no air conditioning, so sometimes people ask why they’re paying a higher price for what they call ‘hawker food’ when they don’t enjoy all the facilities. I’m still trying my best to build a brand—some people call me ‘Sambal King’ and that’s a good start, I guess (laughs).
As someone who’s lived in various countries, what’s something distinct that you feel sets Singapore apart?
I think the Singaporean level of efficiency is really different. You get food all around the clock, public transport is very well-connected, and buses run every few minutes—people don’t really appreciate this as much as they should. Life is good, and of course there are things that we could complain about, but definitely not the efficiency.
Was there a particular defining moment that made you feel truly Singaporean?
I grew up here and I’ve been Singaporean since very young, so I don’t think there’s a defining experience—everything adds up, you know? I can’t describe any specific moment, but if I had to describe my sentiments towards Singapore—if someone told me that Singapore was about to be attacked tomorrow, I won’t run away, I’ll stay on to fight.
To you, personally, what does it mean to be Singaporean?
Being kiasu (laughs). For me, this is where I grew up and the only place I want to call home. Being Singaporean means coming from very different backgrounds—when people tell me I don’t look Singaporean, I tell them to remember that, in fact, neither do they.
What’s a Singaporean value that you feel you can identify with, and why?
#HairForSoldiers (laughs). On a serious note, progress and determination. Everyday Singaporeans like us need determination to get through our daily lives. We’re sometimes known as being ghost workers, but I think that’s untrue: if you want to make it here, you need the determination and the hard work to pull yourself through. It’s only through this that progress will follow.
Nick is wearing a summer jacket designed by David’s Daughter, and the delicious food from Nsquared Barbecue is served on plates by Supermama. Stand a chance to win these for yourself—find out more about the #My1959 collaborations and giveaways at www.sg/1959. Contest ends 31st December 2019.