Transcendence isn’t elusive when you commit fully to it. Gibran Baydoun, 33, spent a good part of his life suppressing the call of destiny until he relented. The sweat of his ardour is what’s made his hustle holy. Today, his BYGB (By Gibran Baydoun) seal adorns four concepts: Lucali BYGB, Etta, Corduroy Palace and Proper Slice BYGB; he testifies to the life-defining, story-shaping power of his calling.
You moved to Singapore six years ago. Given where you're at now, what does that decision mean to you?
I came to Singapore in a weird way: I came here running from something, not looking for something. I was so disillusioned and jaded with the New York dining scene that I decided to go the furthest point away. It was hard because New York is the first place that I felt was really mine. But I realised that my purpose couldn't just be to get people drunk and fed.
I thought I’d come here for a breather but I didn't realise that it was the prime time for hospitality. There was this wave of young guys, people like Dave Pynt who were opening really cool restaurants that weren't concerned about being thematic—they were just great. Watching this moment made me want to get in the water. This is where I wanted to roll up my sleeves and get dirty. And it's led me here.
One doesn't make the moves you've made unless there's an empire to be built. When did you first set your sights on food/hospitality?
Well, I spent my whole life trying not to be involved in food and hospitality—I mean that for a fact. I didn't want to do any job that involved working in hotels for long hours. When I was a kid, my mentor was a guy named Felix Rappaport. He was a CEO of a big consumer corporation and his daughter was my best friend. My mum and I didn't have much but they had quite a bit and he treated me like I was one of his.
One day, he had a few business guests over and I saw that one of them had finished his beer. So, I got him another, opened it for him and set it down. I was either 14 or 15 then. He noticed it and said that you can't teach what I just did and that I’d work in hospitality, eventually. But that was the exact opposite of what I wanted, which, to this day, is to effect change.
I wrote in my application letter to the University of Michigan, that I wasn't going to be in class much or get the best grades but what I did want to do was to leave an impact on the campus. For four years, my mission was to make it a better experience for poor black kids from out of state. Because of that, a restaurant group called Hillstone reached out to me and after some thought, I took the job and it became my first and most important job in my career.
Since then, on a personal level, has anything changed?
In a lot of ways, I've always been this way. But Covid-19 changed everything. We couldn't open Lucali and money was disappearing by the minute, and all I had to do then, which is the hardest thing for me, was hold my pose and wait. It was being alone during the lockdown that instilled in me my vision of hospitality and the industry, which is intentionality, doing things on purpose.
We leave too much to chance, which is the root of a lot of pain in this world. No one knows why we do what we do, but if we can control some of the decisions we make, imagine how empowering that could be if we took it to our personal lives. If I could take the same approach to creating a restaurant or wowing a guest to how I treat the people I love in my life, imagine how successful that relationship could be, and, by extension, how successful I'd be as a man, boyfriend and so on.
Now I know that there's only one way I can do something, and that's with authenticity and intention. It's the only way I can be professionally and personally. Corduroy Palace, Etta, Proper Slice and Lucali—I had to open them all. The burn came from inside me.
It may not have been the goal but BYGB has become an incredibly public-facing brand.
I wish I could say we had solid plans in the beginning, but it all went the opposite way. Each restaurant we've done fits together as brand; they have a certain voice. But being called a brand is the most surreal and oddest thing I've heard—until now, I've never heard that about BYGB—because I just kind of made three restaurants that I like to eat at! I didn't do any market research or studies. I just operated on the feeling of intentionality, that to me, is doing something that's honest and genuine. It's just been a blessing that other people feel that way too.
You are visibly successful. But there's a lot of grit that people don't see. What's the toughest part about being relentless?
Mental toughness. Everyone has good and bad days but it's how you go through a bad month, a bad year, that really tests you. I've never been more anxious or depressed than I've been in the last two years. But at the same time, I've never had more confidence in the fact that I was literally made for this. I was built to do this. The darkest valleys and the biggest peaks are the sum of all parts. The idea of being relentless about what you believe and know is right [and] is powerful. It's not popular, easy, sexy or comfortable, but you chase it.
You must have the courage to let go of your favourite staff member. You must have the curiosity to dismantle the best dish on your menu so it can be better. That's what people don't see.
Success is very often followed by hype. How do you navigate that terrain?
A lot of PR professionals will disagree with me, but I feel that one of the worst things for businesses is hype. It creates unrealistic expectations, and worse, it creates this illusion that the guest is somehow lucky to be there. It doesn't jive in my brain that a restaurant would not be incredibly grateful to have people in their dining room. We know we're popular but we fight it hard to come out in any way, shape or form as if we're not thankful that we're here. We're interested in making long-lasting relationships with our guests. We have long leases; we aren't going anywhere. We're trying to be the most hype-free restaurants we can be. We want to be an extension of your home, your family.
Lastly, can you turn yourself off from work mode? What do you do when you're not on?
I have a very close relationship with my maker. Everything we've accomplished would not be possible without His blessing, so I pray and meditate. Besides that, one of the things I love to do most is dine and host. I love making four people who don't know each other become an instant family for two hours.
I feel that God has given me certain talents and gifts. And success, to me, is being able to use those talents to effect change in this world. I spent my whole life trying to deny my destiny but I realised that some things just fit.
This story was first published in the October 2022 issue of Esquire Singapore.
Photography: David Bay
Grooming: Fiona Bennett
Associate Creative Producer: Hazirah Rahim