Over the last 10 years or so, there has been a rapid boom in the food and beverage industry in Malaysia, particularly the Klang Valley — thanks to the newer generations returning from their studies overseas, and their passion to bring a piece of the foreign culture into their hometown, not to mention a cuppa with standards that challenge the likes of Starbucks, Nescafe packets and the Kopi-O from your neighbourhood mamak.
In more current times, the cafés that survived the trend and persevered have evolved into something more substantial to keep their heads above waters. Before you know it, a second wave has hit the F&B industry, in which independent restaurants are found tucked in various nooks and crannies in many residential neighbourhoods.
In this two-part feature, we visit some of these restaurants that may be young in their establishments, but very much wise in their hearts and souls; not only providing the middle ground between bite-sized fine-dining dishes that break the bank, and overwhelming franchised eateries in the malls, but also keeping the generation of culinarians inspired and, perhaps, even prepare the next one to chip in their talent for the future of the F&B industry in Malaysia.
Lim Heng Kit, Head Chef
They say that home is where the heart is, and young chef and restaurateur Lim Heng Kit has kept his home dear to his heart, even from when he was studying abroad for his Bachelor in Culinary Management at the William Angliss Institute of TAFE in the city of Melbourne. Little did he know then that there was where he will meet his future partners and operational managers Lim Yee Rui and Lee Ziyan, with whom he will eventually start a casual dining restaurant together, with a name that is a play on their respective family names.
“When we came back after our studies, we attached ourselves to respective F&B outlets, hotels and event companies around Klang Valley, during a time when a lot of cafés were popping up, set up by people like us, who studied overseas and returned home,” Kit recalls. “There were a lot of coffee and brunch spots, sure, but for us, as cooks and hospitality people, we did feel that the industry was lacking in something, and we wanted to do something a bit different.”
Two years down the road since the opening of Li, the three partners have managed to grow the humble little restaurant nestled in the bustling Damansara Jaya district. Despite the initial shortage of staff, they have been able to expand their individual skills and specialities: Yee Rui takes charge of the bar, where her love for coffee is given room to grow; Ziyan, the front of house, where her natural friendliness further exemplifies Li’s philosophy in good hospitality; and Kit, the kitchen, where the home he has long carried with him takes root.
“A lot of the dishes served in Li are inspired by my childhood memories. We take these memories and update them with a slight modern twist. You know, a play on something traditional to make it a little bit more fun for younger people and even families,” Kit says, when asked about the contemporary Malaysian comfort food on their menu.
“I’m sure a lot of us remember munching on soft white bread spread with a dollop of kaya that is thick and gluey,” he continues, highlighting one of the signature staples that portray the restaurant’s philosophy for nostalgic comfort food: house-made sourdough bread with sous-vide kaya peppered with sea salt.
“We managed to concoct our own version that is lighter, fresher, crunchier and less sweet using sourdough loaves we have learned to make ourselves while overseas that is naturally lemony in taste with a bit of tang, and a kaya mixture that is left in a water bath overnight.”
Other favourites that tickled the customers’ fancies include the Pork Toast drizzled with chilli mayo, sesame seed and cilantro (a revised version of another of Kit’s favourite childhood snack), as well as the bestselling House Rice Bowl, which pays tribute to Kit’s Hainanese roots with the pan-seared chicken thigh snuggled in a bowl of fluffy rice seasoned with chilli mayo, ginger scallion and pickled cucumber, and finally, topped with a soft egg that younger customers would have fun posting a video on social media when it’s popped ceremonially at the start of the meal.
“Our goal for Li is simple: we want to provide anybody who’s looking for a good meal to feel comfortable enough to come in here, a day-to-day restaurant that we continue to hone into a more casual, cosy and friendly community space,” Kit says. “One thing good about Li is that there is no concept to the restaurant; I don’t think there’s a real label to it, to be honest. If we must, we’d call ourselves contemporary Malaysian food, but really, it’s just what we like to eat day in, day out!”
“Over the years, we have learned that what is more important for us is to highlight our personalities in the project itself, you know, put our own stamps on the brand,” he adds. “We believe that the key word ‘hospitality’ is the glue that keeps everything we do together, and we aim to provide just that on all aspects – food, service and ambiance, for the senses and the soul.”
“A lot of the dishes served in Li are inspired by my childhood memories. We play on something traditional to make it a little bit more fun for younger people and even families.”
In further keeping with the top-notch hospitality, not to mention equipping themselves for the restaurant’s third year in business to face another year of newer F&B spots spouting up, Li is spicing things up a little in their small space just across the road from the Atria Shopping Gallery.
A coffee bar counter/window will be erected at the front, where customers can grab essential provisions on the go, such as baked goods and coffee, even their signature chilli mayo which are bottled and sold for customers to bring home. Not only that, dinners are about to get more exciting as Kit rolls out sharing dishes for family-sized patrons to enjoy.
“The competition will continue to be tough, there’s no doubt about that, but I’ve always felt that it pushes you to want to be better – to be more creative with the food you serve, or the service you provide,” Kit comments. “You always need that sort of competition hanging around to keep us on our toes, especially for small businesses like Li.”
Li is located at 47 Jalan SS22/23 Damansara Jaya, opened from Tuesdays to Fridays for lunch and dinner
Ng Hun Yan, Head Chef
By the time Hun Yan returned from Singapore to take up his position as head chef in the newly rebranded Deuce, he had already made headway in his culinary career, working five years as sous chef in the famed Tippling Club, under the mentorship of head chef Ryan Clift. When it was time to write the next chapter of his story, Tricia Kandiah, the owner of Deuce, coincidentally, was also ready for her second chapter with the restaurant.
“Two is my lucky number, and since it’s my second restaurant, it’s only natural that I call it Deuce, which means anything representing or represented by the number two,” Tricia says, when talking about the restaurant, which has opened its doors to the public but five months ago – on November 2, as a matter of fact.
“Personally, I believe the kitchen environment should be one that’s akin to a close-knitted family. It should be about teamwork, and people having fun. It should be about the staff wanting to come into work every day, and that they are interested in getting their job done.”
If its location at a quieter corner of Publika triggers a vague memory from the past, it’s because Deuce used to be called Coquo, with a more refined modern European menu based on the former chef’s Michelin-star style of cooking.
“Although we didn’t consider Coquo as fine dining, a lot of people perceived us as such. So, to break away from that image, we had to go through a rebranding exercise,” explains Tricia, who comes from a family who already has a firm footing in the F&B business, (her brother is the wizard behind the curtain for Barfly just a few doors down).
“Not to mention, Coquo was synonymous with the former chef as we branded the restaurant according to his image. The common perception in Malaysia is that when the chef leaves the standard of the restaurant will drop, which is not the case, as there’s a whole team of chefs behind the head chef.”
“Even so, a rebranding is called for to counter the inevitable perception, while at the same time, making Deuce more accessible and affordable to more people via a more casual restaurant setting,” she adds.
While retaining the modern European cuisine style, Hun Yan and his team are given carte blanche in experimenting and coming up with sharing dishes that will end up on the menu. The roomy creative discipline has resulted in beloved dishes like the Pan-seared Snapper, served atop ribbons of zucchini fettucine, finished off with bouillabaisse, shaved fennel and tobiko – a tribute to the journey Hun Yan has been through in culinary, and what he has learned from his past in Tippling Club.
“What I’m trying to instil here in Deuce is the openness among the kitchen staff, an unconventional break away from the old school practice commonly seen in the kitchen, where head chefs scream at their staff and use fear to get the wheels turning,” Hun Yan says. “The environment is bureaucratic and strict, and it limits you creatively, as you’re not allowed to voice out your opinions; you are only to do what the head chef tells you to do down to a T.”
“Personally, I believe the kitchen environment should be one that’s akin to a close-knitted family,” he adds. “It should be about teamwork, and people having fun. It should be about the staff wanting to come into work every day, and that they are interested in getting their job done.”
“We believe in nurturing talents, and not stifling anyone’s creativity, everybody has their own sets of skills and potentials, and you’d want them to develop to the best that they can,” Tricia concurs. “If you give people the freedom to create and nurture their talent, they will, in return, come up with pretty amazing stuff.”
Although Deuce is only six months old, Tricia has already planned for a menu change every six months. By the end of the month, 80% of the menu will be modified, in which a snacks menu will be integrated alongside the usual small plates and big plates, catering to customers patronising Deuce’s wine bar and would like complementing bites along with their drinks. The small plates will be the more innovative and creative dishes that can really show off the chefs’ talents, whereas the big plates will be more driven by comfort food.
“Despite my past at Tippling Club, I’m still learning every day, getting more comfortable in my place as head chef in Deuce, and practising the use of more local produce, cooked in European fundamentals and techniques,” Hun Yan says. “When I come up with a dish, there is only one criterion that I base my creations on: the human sensory. The first thing for me is always flavour for taste, followed by texture for sound, and then, the aroma for smell, before finally the presentation for the visual.”
Deuce is located at D1-G4-6, Publika, Mont Kiara, and is opened for dinner daily from 6PM onwards
Photography by Xerxes Lee / Awesome Image Studio
Videography by Andrew Loh
Art Direction by Joyce Lim