If there’s one thing Malaysians take seriously, it’s food. But while our street food may be internationally renowned, our overall dining scene is still in its infancy compared to global culinary powerhouses.It’s an exciting time to be involved in Malaysia’s dining scene, and we speak to five industry players who are keen to help propel Malaysia’s rise to gastronomical prominence.
A native of Ferrara, Italy, Roberto Guiati arrived in Malaysia in 2007 to work in the oil and gas industry. While here, he spent some time in his brother’s restaurant – then one of KL’s most popular eateries – and became enamoured with the dynamism of the restaurant scene.
Zenzero was born in 2013, an Italian restaurant and wine bar that addressed Roberto’s desire for a wellrounded eatery with quality food, service and ambience. Three years later came Luce, a contemporary osteria (a place serving wine and hearty, rustic Italian food) in Old Malaya that serves up over 50 types of pizza – using real Italian dough – alongside other regional Italian dishes.
There are two things that Roberto doesn’t compromise on: attention to detail and quality. He’s very particular about the quality of the produce, equipment and expertise in his restaurants – he was the first to import an authentic wood pizza oven from Italy and hire a real pizza chef for Luce.
Service is also important to him and he likes to lead by example, often being on hand to work the floor after he gets off from his day job. Some of his fondest memories are when his restaurants play host to special occasions. “We see anniversaries every day, and for them, it’s a big deal. You make it memorable and they will remember it. That, to me, is the biggest reward.”
With expansion plans for new restaurants in the works, it seems clear that Roberto is here to stay. “It’s an exciting environment and we’re here for the long run. I want Zenzero and Luce to be here for 10, 15 years. I want to establish a brand that will be known worldwide. That’s the way we’re going and I think that’s the right way to do it.”
Christian Recomio is a very interesting character with his wry wit and obvious zeal for his craft – two elements needed to be a successful restaurateur, especially in this part of the world! When asked when his “I want to be a chef!” moment came about, Christian says, “I think I was always more fascinated with restaurants than with actually becoming a chef. I started with a sandwich shop at a time when putting pesto in a sandwich was considered pretty special!”
This experience led him to wanting a proper restaurant, which is how the Moonfish Café came to be in 2004. Located in Aberdeen in the north of Scotland, this city is more known for its granite architecture and being the centre of the oil industry than for its dining scene, but the Moonfish Café was a bit of a game changer.
This brings us to how he ended up opening up a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur of all places. After a stint at Noma, that most esteemed of restaurants, Christian came to here to visit family. As fate would have it, he realised there was a lack of chef-driven restaurants, met someone who had the same culinary ideas as him, and opened Sitka. The menu here is eclectic with starters like the Asian wagyu beef tartare and smoked egg yolk jostling for attention along with their famed selection of baos (steamed Chinese bun) filled with all manner of delicious ingredients from soft-shell crab to twice-cooked duck. This is modern cuisine and while purist foodies don’t like the term ‘fusion’, this really is an amalgamation of local ingredients, contemporary techniques and a bit of eccentricity for good measure.
Christian’s pride and joy is the cool space above the restaurant aptly called the Studio. This is where a special tasting dinner menu is offered twice a month in a more intimate setting which allows diners to see what actually goes on in the open kitchen, and is a platform for more adventurous dishes to be created.
“We focus on quality, not quantity. Fresh produce is imperative, and as we do all our own fermentation, dehydration and pickling, this inspires new flavour combinations. Right now yuzu kosho (savoury Japanese seasoning) is our focus. Simple things done right are always best.”
Affable and gregarious, Desmond Yatigammana grew up in Norfolk, England and originally wanted to be a dancer. He was classically trained in ballet, tap and jazz, joined a London hip hop dance company and even founded his own for two years, but it wasn’t to be his path. Instead, bartending, which he’d been doing since 1998 for extra income, proved to be his true calling.
“I watched the 1988 film Cocktail and basically just wanted to be like Tom Cruise,” he grins. “I’ve done most everything in that movie!”
Since arriving in Malaysia in 2016, he’s created the innovative cocktail menu at cricket-centric gastropub The Sticky Wicket and done stints in other Bangsar hotspots. From this month onwards, Desie will start work at JungleBird, a true-blue tropical rum bar in Damansara Heights.
While there’s no single perfect formula when creating cocktails, Desie always starts with the name. “Names give you a concept to work around. My ‘Cynical Brother’ is basically a Green Chartreuse Sour. ‘Cynical’ could mean a bad or ‘sour’ mood. Then ‘Brother’ could mean a sibling or a monk, and the Carthusian monks created green Chartreuse.” Finally, he conceptualises the look of the drink, focusing on unique details that make the drink stand out.
According to Desie, humility, creativity and personality are the keys to being a successful bartender. Meeting and connecting with customers, building a rapport with people – sometimes even doing magic tricks for entertainment and the odd tip – is a major perk of the job for him. He’s looking forward to helping to grow the local bar scene, and notes that Malaysia has a lot of potential.
“There are good bars here, but the key is getting people to realise that. London is good, but everything’s already happened there. I want to be part of helping Malaysia get on the map.”
Hailing from Salamanca, Spain, Marta Alonso Garcia had always loved cooking but never thought about being a chef. Instead, she spent five years learning French and Spanish at the University of Salamanca, became a teacher and started a family. But she never forgot her first love and even pursued a professional cooking course in Holland, juggling her time between part-time work, looking after two young children and learning to cook in Dutch!
However, it wasn’t until she came to Malaysia in June 2011 that her culinary career really took off. Through a friend’s workshop, she realised that she loved feeding people and began to write recipes. Then came a few Spanish home cooking lessons with some fellow mothers, a small catering company, and finally, after persistent convincing, Marta’s Kitchen at The Signature, Desa Sri Hartamas.
“I wanted to take typical Spanish dishes like spicy potatoes, pork kebabs and Spanish omelette, put them together in one place and make a restaurant out of it. I have Spanish ladies that come here and say ‘Oh, I come because you make the same croquetas (bread crumbed fried rolls of potato and meat) as my mum or grandma!’ So I know that the authentic taste is there. Food is very emotional for all of us,” she says.
Marta believes that Spanish gastronomy will grow locally and internationally because of its good reputation and travelling Spaniards. Judging by the demand for her cooking – she seats 120 people in her restaurant and there are still queues – that’s certainly true here.
“I’ve found my way now. Everything I will do in my professional life after this will be related to food and restaurants. My ideal day is to be around a table with friends, talking and eating. That’s my paradise.”
Vibrant, bubbly and motivated – these are the best words to describe Anabelle Co-Martinent. Of Chinese-Filipino heritage, she arrived in Malaysia when her husband was posted here in 2007. She found a job as a senior product marketing manager at Microsoft where she remained for four years. “After I quit my job at Microsoft, it was a two-year journey of discovering what I wanted to do. My husband was very supportive of my crazy ideas, ranting and my constant nagging – ‘Do you know, I’m meant to do something else. I don’t know what it is. I want to quit my high paying job and just discover.’”
And discover she did. Within a couple of months of meeting her future business partners, La Juiceria was incorporated in 2013 and is now a successful juice and healthy eating chain with outlets across the city. Since juicing had already been part of her routine before the brand was established, promoting her products came naturally.
Anabelle admits a downside of being blessed with so many food choices here is that the market is very competitive. New entrepreneurs need to stand out with their product or risk being drowned out. The cold-pressed juices gave La Juiceria a great start, so Anabelle moved on to wholesome foods to serve alongside them.
With the birth of La Juiceria Superfoods, Anabelle makes it a point to keep the cultural elements of Malaysian cuisine on the menu. Getting a warm response from the Malaysian market was liberating and as La Juiceria continues to grow – with an expected three new outlets opening this quarter – Anabelle is looking at starting a new food and drink venture.
Super Saigon will be a new restaurant concept featuring healthy Vietnamese cuisine, which is very likely to be set up beside her Goodness Greens café at Taman Tun Dr Ismail in June. “Vietnamese food is a familiar thing to us because it’s a neighbouring country. Whatever we offer will, of course, be halal, so we are doing research and development now to be able to deliver that flavour without that element.” If her present success is anything to go by, this will be just as delicious as it is healthy.
Expatriate Lifestyle Magazine May 2017