foodXculture: An Interview with Christina Keilthy, Founder and Co-Owner of Mod-Peranakan Restaurant Godmama
Christina Keilthy’s history is an interesting one, hailing from the fast-moving consumer good industry and having dealt with brands from Danone Yogurt to Evian Water, and even Wrigley’s chewing gum (she also happens to be the brains behind the brand’s Eclipse mints, circumventing Singapore’s strict chewing gum sale laws). But F&B, and a restaurant at that, was a whole new world and untapped territory for her.
Yet, as far as first time restaurant owners go, Christina has done a remarkable job so far at Godmama. Since the day it opened its doors to the public in June 2019, it’s been seeing one profitable month after another, with good feedback on its ambience, menu, and overall concept. On the move from the corporate world to the F&B world, Christina elaborates: “Back then, I was based in Guangzhou, while my husband was in Hong Kong. There was always so much heavy international travel and we ran around a lot. There were moments my mind wandered to when my father passed away, and I didn’t manage to get home in time to say my last goodbyes, which I still regret.”
“Eventually, we got to a point where we decided we wanted to get all our priorities right, and I told my husband I wanted to settle back home in Singapore, so we packed up and came back about 5 years ago. When I did that, my mother told me that this was a decision that made her the happiest person in the whole world, and that’s the moment I knew I had made the right decision.”
Godmama, which adopted its name thanks to her love for her mother and her godmother, is well-located in the brand new Funan Mall, right beside W!ld Rice’s theatre. Besides making for a good destination for a quick pre-theatre meal, Godmama also sees good traffic throughout the day from people from all walks of life. “I knew I didn’t want to become a destination restaurant, because when you do that, people need to make a conscious decision to go out of their way to visit you,” says Christina. “I needed to catch footfall as well, and setting up a restaurant in a mall was the way to do that. So far, it seems to be working, and we were lucky that Capitaland took us on, because most malls don’t take on first time restaurants.”
With the kitchen headed by co-owner Chef Fredric Goh, Godmama’s menu offers up almost the entire spectrum of familiar Peranakan cuisine, and even a modern spin on classic recipes on the brunch menu (weekends only).
Peranakan culture has always revolved around community, and with sharing such a big part of their ethos, the portions at Godmama are relatively large. Ideal for tables of two or more, Godmama is a great choice for get-togethers or parties so that everyone gets a chance to try as much of the menu as possible.
On the menu for lunch and dinner, we strongly recommend starting with some of their signature appetizers. Some of our favourites include the crispy Nyonya Fried Wings, which come with a side of homemade belacan mayo, as well as the Ngoh Hiang and in-house made All-Star Egg Skin Popiah. These appetizers capture the Peranakan spirit in a single bite – well-crafted, full of flavour, and bringing together textures and tastes into a coherent, delicious whole.
Equally impressive are the mains, and our picks include the Beef Rendang, Ayam Buah Keluak, Sambal Masak Hitam (squid with ink and tamarind sauce), the Nyonya Chap Chye, and the Ikan Gerang Assam. If you’re looking for a true blue Peranakan experience, then go for the Godmama Nasi Ulam (nyonya herb rice), with 8 Peranakan classic herbs and spices with ikan kembong mixed in with blue Bunga Telang Jasmine Rice.
And if you happen to be at Godmama on a weekend, try their brunch, which sees fusion ideas come to life, from Babi Assam Baked Eggs to Buah Keluak Bolognese Pasta to even a Pulled Pork Pongteh Sunny, putting a Peranakan spin on the usual Western brunch options.
Remember to save space for dessert as well, for no meal would be complete without a Sticky Date Red Pudding (our favourite) or a refreshing Gingerflower and Lychee Sorbet. Even the drinks are mixed with a Peranakan twist, with The Emperor of Melaka – a smoky old-fashioned with gula melaka, and the beautiful Peranakan Blue – a gin and tonic with butterfly pea to give it a signature shade of purple-blue.
With powerful flavours, innovative drink concoctions and a celebratory attitude constantly about the restaurant, one cannot help but smile when served up a meal at Godmama.
Christina’s business acumen is the key reason why Godmama has seen success, but also, she’s a boss with heart. Besides being fiercely supportive of local enterprises, such as coffee from local roasters TAD Coffee, tea from ETTE Tea Company, gin from Brass Lion Distillery and sorbet from Apiary, she also displays genuine love and care for all her employees. According to Christina, the business holds three primary goals – one, to carry on the F&B legacy of her mother and godmother by implementing their recipes into the menu; two, to be an incubator of talent, where they train and teach staff and give them opportunities to excel; and three, to help each one of their dreams come true.
“When I interviewed my staff, a lot of them said that one day they’d love to own a restaurant of their own,” says Christina. “The trick then, is not to fully open one on their own, but to give them ownership and shares within the business, so they can earn profit share as well. My big plan is that I want there to be development opportunities for all my staff, and the only way to do that is if we expand. With additional restaurants, we can give people opportunities to become restaurant managers and have all these platforms and pathways for growth.”
“As a person who does strategic consulting, the first thing I did after gathering my hires was to throw them into a room for 2 days and have them craft a 5 year strategy for the restaurant,” she continues. “They’d never done it before, but I guided them through the whole process. I split them into two teams of 5, and they ended up coming up with very different strategies. One team suggested franchising the Godmama brand, while the other saw an opportunity to branch out into other types of restaurants instead.”
“The next day, I took them through how to do a Profit and Loss table, and the reason I do all this is because I don’t expect them to just come here and serve, but to also learn how to run a business. They learnt how much revenue we had to hit, how much money we had to make, and how much time and profit we’d end up needing if we wanted to open three more restaurants in the next few years. There’s a lot of responsibility I want to entrust them with, and so it’s important for them to learn all these and inculcate these skills into their training.”
Trust is what the business stems from, but how it progresses depends on the working relationship between Christina and her team. “I want to create a safe work environment, where people are open to telling me if they think something isn’t a good idea, or has suggestions for how to improve or change things,” says Christina. “I want my guys to be thinking employees, and not just taking orders. It’s important because it lets people know that their opinions have value, and empowers them, and I encourage them to make mistakes and learn from them. Hopefully, 2 years down the road, at least 80% of my original team stay with me, which shows that I’ve been successful at giving them a reason and desire to stay.”
While profits are definitely important, Christina believes that the only way to do that is if her staff are motivated to come to work and do a good job. “Because we open 365 days a year, there aren’t any off days and the staff work in shifts,” says Christina. “So I like to come in after they’re done cleaning up in the evenings, and we end up going for a meal or go drinking together. Once a month, I also buy them an ice-cream cake to celebrate those whose birthdays fall in the month. You could say I’m the chief motivation officer!”
“Essentially, if you treat your staff well, feed them and make their time here worth it, they’ll be very stable and reliable,” she adds. “I want to improve the quality of someone else’s life, and create an environment where when they wake up in the morning, they want to come to work. These form our raison d’etre and core purpose of existing.”
“I really am glad for what we’ve achieved so far, and hope that the success will only continue to grow in the years to come,” she concludes. “But most of all, I really am happy that my mum has seen what I’ve managed to do, and that she’s very proud of me and Godmama.”
Photos courtesy of Godmama