When Dave Pynt decided to move his laureled modern barbecue restaurant, Burnt Ends from its Chinatown perch to Dempsey, there was really no question who the Australian chef would tap for the interiors. “Emma’s one-liner design pitch to me was ‘Fire, skulls and AC/DC’, and that pretty much sold me!” says the heavy-metal-loving, iconoclastic chef of his fellow Antipodean, the interior designer, Emma Maxwell.
True to her pitch, Maxwell has turned a mid-century colonial military barracks at 7 Dempsey Road into a mesmerising visual fest that blends Pynt’s culinary ethos and his ambitions for the restaurant – already crowned with a Michelin-star and ranked among the World’s 50 Best Restaurants – with a dash of his outsized personality.
“I loved the original space at Teck Lim Road which Dave opened in 2013 and where we first met and became friends,” Maxwell says. “I was a regular at the restaurant and over the years, I came to intimately understand the food and Dave’s ethos. My challenge with Dempsey was to keep all the features that made the Chinatown restaurant so memorable in its intimacy, whilst evolving them in the context of an enormous new 16,000 sqft space.”
Maxwell solved the challenge with a design that dramatically references the foundational components and ingredients of a barbecue – flames, wood and metal – whilst anchoring the whole with generous lashings of imagination and brio.
In particular, fire and heat are the touchstones of the design. Primal and elemental in their nature, and prized for their transformative, shape-shifting qualities, these touchstones are the bedrock of Pynt’s robustly muscular cooking, their presence infused in each of Burnt Ends’ three rooms – the dining room, the private dining room, and the bar.
In the dining room, a long slab of Indonesian suar becomes the counter table framing the open kitchen, the latter anchored by three tonnes worth of ovens whose sheer physical presence extends into the private dining room. “The ovens are the heart of the entire restaurant, a constant primordial burning fire of 1,000 degrees,” says Maxwell. “Everything, from the food to the interior design, comes from them.”
The floors are lined with teak planks rescued from an old bridge in Surabaya, their grainy patina already turning a darker hue with wear and age. The extant square pillars of the old barracks are sheathed in beaten copper panels, their surfaces mottled with random grid-like patterns imprinted from the palettes in which they were stored and transported.
A forest of studio lamps hangs from the double-height ceiling – the volume deliberately broken by the insertion of a faux wooden balcony – whilst the extra-wide teak-framed dining chairs, so comfortable because they were designed to be sat in for hours, are clad in vegetable-dyed leather and embellished on the back with tiny panels of customised buttons of skull, a detail that references Burnt Ends’ logo.
Meanwhile, the massive private dining room, accessed through pivot door whose handle is a polished metal skull, is a bona fide showstopper. “We wanted this space to be exclusive and a little mysterious, so that diners in the main dining room might catch a glimpse of the interiors when the door is ajar and be intrigued by the people going in and then they don’t come out again,” Maxwell says.
Dark and mood-lit like the lair of a carnivorous beast – Pynt’s avatar, perhaps – the walls are lined with naturally contrasting panels of petrified wood and timber charred in the tradition of Japanese shou sugi ban; a 14-seater, six-metre-long dining table of petrified black wood; and soaring high above, an incredible tubular light installation made of 5,000 black lava stones which took six months to make and one-and-a-half weeks to install. Maxwell loves the idea of the lava stones coming into existence when they were shot out of a vol- cano. “But more than that, this room, to me, shows how the fire, wood and metallic elements of the restaurant all come together in one space.”
In particular, the designer wanted the private dining room to feel like a precious jewel box. “Precious in the sense of its high-value components, and the unexpected surprises the diner uncovers. Like a naturally occurring pattern on the chef’s counter that looks just like the panels on a dress in a Klimt painting. And since we finished this space, the colours have all
changed and darkened. That’s the transformative, shape-shifting quality I was after.”
Maxwell keeps the surprises coming, especially in the last room, the bar and wine-tasting room. Here, she has unfurled the full force of her fevered imagination, casting aside the dark hues and moodiness of the first two rooms in favour of a lighter, more whimsical touch.
The tasting room is a gallery-like space she conceived with her high school best friend and theatre designer, Marc McIntyre, as a tribute to the old Cairo Museum, and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Here, the reproduction 19th-century scientific cabinets and fin de sie?cle glass-topped display cases are stocked with old locks, compasses, glass pipettes and anatomy charts; whilst the walls are lined with bespoke wallpaper festooned with fantastical creatures – sharks with interiors of sea waves, deer with dragons, and even geese inlaid with a Bavarian castle – drawn by the Dutch artist, Jan Leven, of whom Pynt is a huge fan.
Adjoining the tasting room, the bar is a full-on manifestation of the classic cabinet de curiosite? which, in Maxwell’s hands, becomes a playful interpretation of the 19th-century furniture and its association with science and discovery. Above the clerestory windows are curtains of chain netting, whilst the columns are wrapped with tall cabinets that reach almost to the ceiling, every shelf styled with a deliberately eccentric collection of jars, seashells, hand model, drainpipes, miniature buff of Venus de Milo, and antique bottles of all shapes and sizes.
If it’s not already clear, Burnt Ends redux is a tour de force of the imagination that’s firmly rooted in an intellectually rigorous approach to design, where every component – right down to the elongated copper submarine lamps and pulley lamps in the wine cellar, and the washroom sinks carved out of 10-million-year-old petrified wood – is customised.
There are surprises at every turn, not least the immensely heavy charred front door with its thick bronze-cast handle shaped like a tree branch, on which is engraved the first stanza of T.S. Eliot’s Preludes. That, and the copper runner on the bar counter that’s embossed with a portrait of the goddess Victory, her shield sporting a blazing skull (of course), and resting on the words “Sic Infernum. Uno Modo Ad Iter” – which loosely translates as “Hell, yes. One more for the road.”
Speaking of one more for the road, adjoining the main restaurant is Burnt Ends Bakery, a bijou volume with double-height raftered ceilings and a minimalist L-shaped counter made of unpolished, distressed concrete. “I’m a massive fan of Brutalism and functionalism which is very much evident in the main restaurant, but you really see that in this space,” Maxwell says.
“I wanted to create an amazing space for Dave,” adds the designer, “One that incorporated his philosophy on cooking and life. Every element in the design of the restaurant and bakery relates to this, whether the charred wood in the private dining room, or the transformative quality of fire and heat – but without being literal about it. It’s been such a lovely journey.”
For his part, Pynt is effusive in his praise of both the space and Maxwell herself. “We had a lot of dialogue about how I really wanted to push what I’m doing personally and with my food, and to reposition myself as a chef into this restaurant. I wanted to tell a new story. And Emma nailed it.”