Every year, The Singapore Women’s Weekly shines a spotlight on inspiring and influential women who are shaping our world. We call them the Great Women of Our Time. The list for 2022 includes Ong Liling. As founder of the Cicheti Group of restaurants and bars, she’s shaking up Singapore’s F&B scene and putting sustainability and people at the heart of everything she does.

It’s no secret the Food & Beverage industry in Singapore has endured a very tough few years, but Ong Liling has never been afraid of hard work. Although she trained as a lawyer and worked in venture capital funding, in 2013 she took a leap of faith and launched Cicheti, an Italian restaurant known for its homemade pasta and wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas on Kandahar Street. “ I wish I’d followed my heart and done it earlier!” she says simply.

 But she remembers it wasn’t easy in the beginning. “I was looked down on by some senior male staff, and wasn’t taken seriously, “ she says. “ I had to work twice as hard, and equip myself to cover many different roles in running a restaurant to demonstrate my commitment.” Liling learnt how to do everything from opening and closing the restaurant, to consulting with the kitchen, manning the till and cleaning up after service.

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Founder of the Cicheti Group of restaurants and bars Ong Liling talks with tech entrepreneur and co-founder of She Loves Tech, Leanne Robers. Location: Conrad Centennial Singapore

Today, she still believes in being hands-on when it’s needed. “When people ask me what I do at work I say ‘Simple: I work for my employees’. On a day-to-day basis, I do what no-one else has the time or bandwidth to do. I pick up the slack, and do a lot of behind-the-scenes work to allow my team to focus on their respective roles.”

Restaurateur Ong Liling and Chef Lim Yew Aun, of Chicheti Group, featured in Great Women Of Our Time 2022, by The Singapore Women's Weekly
Restaurateur Ong Liling and Chef Lim Yew Aun of Cicheti Group are cousins and business colleagues.

The Cicheti Group of eateries now includes Cicheti, Bar Cicheti and Wild Child Pizzette, which opened in August 2021 on Circular Road. All offer variations on Italian food, but with an upscale, artisanal twist. For example, Wild Child Pizzette serves Neapolitan-style 10-inch pizzas made of slow-fermented, hand-kneaded dough. Cooked in a traditional wood-fired oven, the pizzette are airy and crispy bites.

Undaunted by the pandemic, in March 2022, Liling will open a fifth dining concept in buzzing Joo Chiat. Forma is an upscale trattoria with handmade pasta helmed by an all-local culinary team of chefs and pasta makers. To add to the theatre, the chefs work in full view of diners, in an open kitchen, using traditional techniques and tools instead of modern machinery. 

It’s a brave move, but Liling, now 35, dares to think big. The Cicheti Group’s also joined the F&B Sustainability Council, a local industry group set up to foster sustainability practises. Eateries in the council aim to drive eco-friendly solutions such as reducing food waste and taking on carbon assessments.

Singapore restaurateur Ong Liling  of Cicheti group, in a boat on holiday in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, Africa. For Great Women Of Our Time 2022 The Singapore Women's Weekly
Her love of unspoiled nature is one reason sustainability matters to Liling – here’s she’s on a break to the Okavango Delta, in Botswana in Africa.

But for Liling, sustainability also includes creating long-term value for her customers and staff. So she serves fresh artisanal pasta you can’t find anywhere else and buys biodynamic and organic wines from small, sustainable vineyards. Her restaurants are decorated with artwork by Southeast Asian artists and furnishings by local firms. “I’m a Singaporean. I want to showcase us,” she explains.

Liling also makes a point of thinking sustainably when it comes to staff. “I look at things in a holistic way. What can I do to give that person a long-term career where they can grow? What training can we give that adds value to their goals?

 “I like to think I am a good listener. Someone who is always behind my team, never in front of them. I try my best to remind each person no issue is too big or small. They can just call me directly

“I’m proud we stuck to our guns and built a respected brand centred on Italian cuisine… but doing it on the shoulders of local talent is something I am extremely proud about.”

Ong Liling on a bicycle tour in Germany. Great Woman of Our Time 2022, The Singapore Women's Weekly.
Ong Liling goes fuss-free on a bicycle tour in Germany.

Married, and with an 18-month-old-son called Theo, Liling de-stresses by going for walks outside, surrounded by nature. She says, “Just the simple act of taking a half an hour walk before or after work completely changes your mood.  Walking and being around nature is my best form of meditation – mainly because I can’t sit still!

“When you lead a business or a team, people are constantly draining from you. They need your opinion on things. It’s an amazing position to be in, but it does leave you feeling worn out if you don’t take time to recharge yourself again.

 “If I don’t take the time to be on my own and recharge my batteries, I’m not giving 100 percent of myself to the situations that mean the most to me, both personal and professional.”

Liling also starts her day by spending an hour of quality time with her son. “Starting my day that way is incredibly grounding. I think when you have a child, it reshapes your perspective on everything. Time with your children really brings you back to basics, and to what really matters.”

Singapore restaurateur Ong Liling and her husband on holiday in South Africa, for Great Women Of Our Time 2022, by The Singapore Women's Weekly
Liling and her husband on a getaway in South Africa.

Liling is open about the fact that the pandemic has been extraordinarily stressful for the food and beverage business. But she’s determined to stay positive. “The biggest takeaway I have learnt is that you can’t change what is out of your control. So instead of sitting still and feeling overwhelmed, I rally myself to take tiny steps each day in the right direction.

“A friend shared something with me a few weeks ago that stuck with me: If you take a single cent and double it every day, by day 30 you will have $5,368,709.12. I believe that small efforts, and small mindset shifts, done in a consistent manner can lead to great things.”

Photography: Kathy Lim
Videography: Stacey Rodrigues
Hair: Ash Loi
Makeup: Ginger Linette Leong
Location: Conrad Centennial Singapore