The world of F&B is one filled with rollercoaster highs and lows. Ethan Leslie Leong, mixologist, chef and owner of the iconic Singapore Japanese bar and restaurant Maison Ikkoku, shares his eventful 30-year journey and how God brought him to City Harvest Church after three miraculous encounters.
Imagine walking into a bar and sipping a cocktail specially crafted to suit your tastebuds, employing your chosen flavours. If you just want to chill and not make any decisions, simply suggest an ingredient or two and let the bartender surprise you with an impromptu concoction.
Welcome to the exciting world of bespoke drinks, one of the ways Singapore’s vibrant cocktail scene keeps up with the latest trends. You can find bespoke cocktails in the best bars across the island today, but this trend first caught fire at the cocktail bar and modern Japanese restaurant Maison Ikkoku, one of the pioneers of the trend.
“A decade ago, the concept of the cocktail bar was still very new,” says Ethan Leslie Leong, the 46-year-old mixologist, chef and CEO of Maison Ikkoku. “Handcrafted bespoke cocktails were so new to local consumers, I had to spend time educating customers who were used to ordering drinks like vodka cranberry or whiskey soda.”
He recalls how upset his customers would get when he refused to serve drinks typically found on the menu. One of them even asked Ethan, “You have a whiskey bottle there, why can’t you just pour me some whiskey?” While some customers could not accept this concept, others loved the personalised drinks they were presented and kept returning to Maison Ikkoku. It took all of two months before Ethan’s cocktail business picked up and attracted a full house crowd.
Over his 30-year-long F&B career, Ethan has encountered celebrities like movie star Jackie Chan and even filmed with actor Henry Golding. One highlight was performing a flying cocktail in Singapore’s indoor skydiving attraction, iFly and another was concocting the most expensive cocktail in Asia, The Jewel of Pangaea, which comes at a price of S$32,000 a glass!
Today he may be best known for his mixology and flairing skills—he was once crowned “Bartender of the Year” —but Ethan’s career began in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant in Malaysia.
FROM KILLING LIVESTOCK TO TENDING BAR
“When I was young, I had no passion in life, so my mother asked me to go out and work,” says Ethan. At just 15, he ended up working at a Chinese restaurant that served wedding lunch and dinner crowds, a thriving business back in the 1990s.
He had to slaughter and clean more than 100 chickens, ducks and pomfrets every morning—it was the only kitchen task he was assigned to.
Two years in, Ethan started to resent his life and got into illegal racing. “I found excitement in racing,” he shares. “It was a way to escape from my pain and from facing the kitchen, which wasn’t an easy life.” He went as far as to buy himself a fully modified motorcycle and he would race with his friends every night. He quit his job shortly after and stayed unemployed.
However, when Ethan’s best friend passed away from a biking accident, and another friend became severely injured while racing, Ethan’s mother decided it was time for her son to enter a new environment. She bought him a one-way train ticket to Singapore and gave him $300. He eventually found a job in another Chinese restaurant—same position, same role—where he had to kill livestock every morning.
“My life hasn’t changed! It’s still the same,” Ethan thought to himself. Dissatisfied, he found another job, this time at a steakhouse and he climbed to the position of chef within two years.
One day, a friend introduced Ethan to a bartending job in a club and taught him how to pass the interview without any experience in the field—by making a gin and tonic. While it was a new opportunity, life was not easy in the club either. “There were fights in the club almost every night,” he recalls. Unbeknownst to the owners, customers in the club smoked and took drugs every night. It was an extremely unhealthy environment, and Ethan made a mental note not to go down the same path.
Still, good things came out of that experience. The bar owners were nurturing Englishmen who found it important to impart bartending skills to their team. Led by Jonty Cheshire, a respected personality in the scene, Ethan and the other young bartenders were trained in the finer points of bartending, such as how to carry themselves and serve customers.
Subsequently, Ethan was headhunted by another club and his popularity grew. At his peak, he was invited to hold an afternoon cocktail show for the Television Corporation of Singapore (now MediaCorp).
After the TV stint, Ethan returned to work for his previous bosses and continued to receive training from them. Within a year, he emerged as the local champion in the “International Flair Competition 1997” in Singapore. The day after the competition, he travelled to Birmingham as Singapore’s representative in the world finals.
“It was a very grand competition, an eye-opening experience,” Ethan recalls. After returning from the world finals, he participated in a few more local competitions and took up a management course. However, he soon grew sick of nightlife and tried to look for new ventures in other industries. He even took a huge pay cut to work as a salesman in a furniture showroom.
One of his business ventures was a company specialising in events and consultancy. He was looking to collaborate with another events company on a three-day dance festival and met them to explain his strategy and plan. The company eventually rejected his proposal.
Imagine how shocked Ethan was when he found out that that events company held a dance festival at the same venue just one week before his. That resulted in his event suffering a huge blow and Ethan lost all his life savings in one night.
It was a blow that would have driven some to despair but Ethan saw no choice but to pick himself up as he had bills to pay. “A self-driven survival spirit just came upon me,” he says.
He found work as an outlet manager at a bar, and eventually quit that job to start his own cocktail bar.
HE MET JESUS 3 TIMES FOLLOWING A POLICE ROADBLOCK
Nestled in Singapore’s hipster Kampong Glam district, Maison Ikkoku started out as a cafe serving brunch favourites. After forming a partnership with Maison Ikkoku’s founders, Ethan started his first cocktail bar on the third floor of the building, and eventually opened a second outlet in Fort Canning featuring a Japanese restaurant and a cocktail bar.
In 2011, while working at Maison Ikkoku, Ethan received news that an ex-staffer, whom he trained as a newbie, had committed suicide. He was heading to the funeral with an ex-colleague, but first, they had a couple of drinks. They were also in possession of two bottles of vodka when they were stopped at a police roadblock. Ethan was the driver and he failed his alcohol breath test. As a result, he was brought to the police station and locked in a holding cell.
Ethan recounts, “I was a little tipsy, looking at the ceiling, thinking, ‘There are so many gods in this world, which one is going to help me?’” He realised that the circumstances would be severe if he failed his second breath test.
Growing up following another religion, Ethan was always resistant to people attempting to share with him about Jesus and Christianity. “Nobody could convince me about Jesus, not even my then girlfriend (now wife) who was a Christian,” he relates.
But at that moment in the cell, Jesus came to his mind. Ethan said a prayer and promised that he would attend church the next day if he miraculously passed the second breath test. God heard his prayer and a miracle happened. “I thanked Jesus and left the police station, but I didn’t know which church to go to,” he says. He ended up at a church that he passed by often, fell asleep during the service, gave an offering and never returned.
Yet God did not give up on Him. Two years later, Ethan was stopped at a police roadblock again, and the same thing happened. He said the same prayer, passed the second test and visited the same church the next day. Incredibly, this encounter took place a third time. This time, Ethan knew better: he asked God for direction.
“I asked Jesus to show me the church that I should go to, one that is suitable for me,” he remembers. One day, a friend invited him to City Harvest Church.
“When I stepped into the service, everyone was speaking in tongues. I immediately fell in love with this church,” he remembers. Six months later, Ethan decided to get water baptised and he found a cell group. Since then, he has been attending service with his wife every Saturday.
“After becoming a Christian, I feel love and peace from God. I also enjoy the presence of the Holy Spirit,” shares Ethan, who holds on to 2 Corinthians 5:7, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”
Ethan believes that God has equipped him with culinary and mixology skills to cook delicious food and create tasty cocktails, to inspire and serve His people.
When working at Maison Ikkoku, “I was looking to create a modern Japanese cuisine menu with cocktails. It was uncommon in Asia, but already very popular in the US and Europe. I told myself it’s time to upgrade my culinary skills, and that’s why I went on a trip to Switzerland to meet my culinary master Mymy Ha,” says Ethan. “The weather was so cold, and I had to wash rice with my bare hands under freezing, sparkling mineral water.”
The real challenge began when Ethan came back to Singapore: the ingredients, as well as the temperature and source of water here were very different from Switzerland’s.
In 2017, when Ethan’s partners decided to sell their Maison Ikkoku business, he prayed to God and asked for direction. There was peace in his heart to buy over the business, which grants full access to the kitchen. That was also the start of Ethan’s cocktail bar and modern Japanese cuisine business in the Kampong Glam district.
The response was great as customers loved the food, and Ethan kept creating new items to place on the menu. His personal favourites are Tacos Lobster, made with lobster, Hokkaido snow crabs and burned onion, as well as Yuzu Champagne, made with fresh yuzu from Yamaguchi in a bubbly champagne cocktail.
Just as Ethan was building the business with hope, accompanied by strong marketing efforts, the pandemic hit.
TRUSTING GOD FOR WHAT’S NEXT
“During the circuit breaker period, I lost all my life savings again,” says Ethan, who sums up the ordeal in one word: “suffer”.
Many customers continued to support Maison Ikkoku through food delivery, but it was not a long-term solution. Ethan and his staff spent their days waiting for orders, but on some days, not a single order came in.
“I hoped every day for at least one sales order, so I would have money to pay salaries and the rental,” recalls Ethan. “Every hour I would check for orders coming in. If there was one, I would rush down to the restaurant, open the kitchen, heat up everything, cook, and send out the order.”
In this current climate, he is still finding ways to improve his business model. He is also seeking direction from God on the way forward for Maison Ikkoku and for his career in F&B.
“I’ve been praying and waiting for a sign from God,” says Ethan, who hopes to retire and sell his Maison Ikkoku business. “I hope to find like-minded people who have the passion to continue this legacy, so I can pass on my skills and knowledge. They can take over the business and make it even better.”
He has also started brewing his post-retirement projects, which include opening a distillery in Japan and setting up an NFT talent marketplace to connect artists to clients.
“I hope that everyone in this world who loves drinking can become a good mixologist at home just by buying a bottle of spirit from my distillery.”
Visit Maison Ikkoku at 20 Kandahar Street; opens daily from 5pm to 1am from Mondays to Thursdays, and 4pm to 2am on Fridays, weekends, and public holidays.