We first met Yugnes “Yugi” Susela at Singapore‘s Tippling Club some time in 2012. The young yet impeccably professional bartender took us through a memorable cocktail and dining experience, and we remember coming out of that dinner thinking, “that was one of the most knowledgeable bartenders we’ve ever met.” Years later, he took the helm of Smoke & Mirrors at National Gallery, and launched a creative cocktail menu inspired by the art pieces found in the building itself. And now, he’s finally opened his very own The Elephant Room in the Keong Saik neighbourhood on Teck Lim Road – and he’s given us first dibs.
Read on to catch up with one of Singapore’s most creative people as he talks about Moghul sweet shop, The Aviary, and floor tiles.
Hi Yugi! You’ve been in the industry for a long time, tell us a little about some of the places that have greatly influenced your experience in the hospitality and bartending world.
I think many experiences, beyond the hospitality industry as well, have shaped and influenced my vision for The Elephant Room. But if I had to pick one, it would be my recent stagiaire at The Aviary in Chicago last September. The experience was tremendous and definitely a milestone in my career. It was unlike any other experience and I am blessed to have been a part of it.
The Aviary trained my mind to think of cocktails in a unique fashion, thinking out of the box and in unconventional ways. It challenged me creatively and helped to discipline me in so many ways, even down to the way that service was executed. Perfection, perfection, perfection. It shaped what I saw for myself, and really influenced my plans for this industry.
Inspiration and creativity has been a big part of your career, with stints at Tippling Club and Smoke & Mirrors. How do you find inspiration and maintain that creativity?
I personally believe that it’s important to master walking before trying to run. There’s nothing more important than the fundamentals, and starting at the right place is undoubtedly a crucial element to mastering one’s craft. The Tippling Club was that place for me. That experience helped me to develop a strong base and foundation which has allowed me to approach mixology in a very different way. I never saw cocktails as mere liquids; to me, they’re an expression of my ideas and experiences.
Therefore, as a bartender, my dream is bigger than simply serving nice cocktails. With The Elephant Room, I want a space where I can connect with my patrons through the different experiences I’ve had, and share stories through the drinks that I make. I have so much to share and that keeps the fire burning within for me.
You’re about to embark on your newest and most exciting journey. How long have you been working towards creating your own bar?
The Elephant Room has been in the works for about two years. Last year, I began fundraising for this concept, and I’m ecstatic to see my hard work finally come to fruition. This is a concept I’m extremely passionate about, and I dare say, I put some serious blood, sweat, and tears into making sure it sees the light of day.
Right, onto The Elephant Room. We would love to hear it directly from you, what is The Elephant Room?
At the very core, The Elephant Room is a space where my team and I strive to express our ideas and creativity through tipples and bites. It is inspired by both the flavours and cultures of India, as well as my personal influences and experiences here in Singapore’s Little India. I am really passionate about sharing this rich tapestry of cultures and heritage with my consumers – so I decided to do it but in my own way.
India is more than just spices, there are so many facets to the culture, so many stories to be told. I remember as a kid, going to Little India with my mother, to the popular Moghul sweet shop. It was, and still is, a little slice of India for me – being able to savour my favourite Indian sweet treats that just weren’t available elsewhere in Singapore! That excitement and anticipation I had as a kid on the way to that sweet shop is something I’ll never forget and I want to be able to share experiences like that.
And I plan to do that, one cocktail at a time.
We’re sure we’ll see that in the cocktails! But does the narrative connect with the branding and interior design?
God is in the details for me. All the little nuances contribute to the larger story I’m trying to tell, without a doubt.
For starters, the elephant is a symbol of intellect and earthly mental strength in Indian culture. It’s a sacred animal and carries with it a symbol of patience and loyalty. As the elephant paves its way through the jungle, I feel like my concept paves the way for consumers to a modern-day appreciation of my culture and heritage. So the name was pretty much a no-brainer.
The colours used in the space are vermilion and gold, both widely used in India, especially for grand celebrations and functions. The bar counter is built on vent blocks, also known as ‘Jaali’ in India. We embraced the earthy and raw look, all the while creating a homely feel. This is a vibe that’s not uncommon in India, and it’s definitely something that stole my heart when I visited.
If you inspect our menus a little closer, you’ll see that it is laced with the cloth used in the women’s saris. As much as we pride ourselves on delivering the exquisite, modern experiences and flavours of today, it is equally important to us that The Elephant Room pays homage to the culture it is rooted so strongly in.
I left the floor tiles untouched as it holds some sentimental value for me. The Elephant Room is my baby and when I first got the space, I used to sit on the floor and tirelessly work to see this idea come to life. I used to even take naps on the floor when I got too tired. The floor is a reminder to myself of how far my team and I have come. It is also a reminder that when you have a strong team of like-minded people working towards a common goal, you can achieve what you set out to do.
Now for my favourite part, the cocktails, direct from the elephant’s mouth. What should we drink at The Elephant Room and let us know what makes these drinks so special?
I think the beautiful thing is that all of the cocktails we’ve designed cater to every kind of personality. Whether you’re a sweet tooth, a purist, or an adventurous soul, we have something for everyone.
If I had to pick one though, it would be ‘Tekka’. Based on the iconic Indian hawker centre and wet market, we’ve put together something very characteristic of all the popular flavours in the Indian culture. It is unapologetic and bold, yet incredibly comforting and homely. Rum based, it is without a doubt a spirit-forward drink that carries a full-bodied flavour of coconut with savoury notes from our use of lacto-fermented bananas. We even used the banana skin as an edible garnish. Trust us, don’t pass on this one.
We also have a cheeky little cocktail called the ‘Kamasutra’. It’s not for the faint of heart, but we promise you it’s an adventure!
Thank you Yugi for giving us the first look into The Elephant room. We’re pretty excited for your official opening! But before we finish up, let’s do some rapid fire questions so we can get to know you a little better...
What is your favourite cocktail? A Dirty Martini.
What is your favourite drink to have for breakfast? Spiced buttermilk with gin.
What is your favourite two ingredient cocktail? A gin and tonic.
What is your favourite glassware? The Nick and Nora glass.
What is your favourite piece of bar equipment? A Mr. Slim jigger.
What is your favourite beer? I’m a Guinness stout man!
What is your favourite ingredient to mix with? Unconventional, but ghee!
What is your favourite food? My mother’s mutton curry with white rice, there’s no place like home.
Last but not least, what is your favourite spirit or liquor? Gin.
The Elephant Room is officially opened! Drop by to say hi to Yugi and share in some of his favourite experiences.