Cultivating the Next Generation of Restaurateurs

22 November 2017

Malaysia’s culinary scene continues to grow, thanks in part to these restaurants who are breeding a new generation of food entrepreneurs – right in their kitchens.

No matter where you are, the food you eat in a restaurant is only as good as the people behind it. The hard work, skill, and resources that get poured into every restaurant are what feed every service cycle.

Oftentimes, what you see at face value as a customer is vastly different from what goes on behind closed doors.

Dewakan’s kitchen team at work.

Teams of dedicated staff toil in the kitchen hours before service during prep; they tinker about for weeks to develop a single dish that’s worthy of an appearance in the menu; and they tirelessly scour local markets in search of the freshest catch. It’s a cacophony of madness and excitement before the final orchestra that is service night.

It’s exactly this process that motivates the interns and stagiaires at Dewakan, one of Kuala Lumpur’s boldest restaurants specialising in modern Malaysian cuisine. Stagiaires – in restaurant terms – refers to someone who works in a restaurant without remunerations but serves a temporary stint to build on work experience.

Darren Teoh, who leads the team at Dewakan, says, “I don’t think that formal education gives you an accurate enough snapshot of what the industry entails. You won’t know this until you do an internship or when you do some work.”

The culture at the restaurant invokes inclusivity and a sense of camaraderie, aided by thoughtful staff meals prepared together in-house (featuring the likes of banana leaf rice and ikan bakar) and team outings. But perhaps Teoh’s most stimulating team initiative is his “staff project” where all kitchen staff are encouraged to conceptualise and execute a dish from scratch.

“They have to create a dish that has their DNA. So they come up with a concept and we put it together, and the whole kitchen critiques it,” he says. “During the conceptualisation, they talk to our chefs. That really sets the tone for learning.”

As a result of the project, 25-year-old intern Shaffiq Malek managed to produce a bold, wildly aromatic ice cream flavour – pisang salai. He joined the restaurant in hopes to learn about local ingredients, and has managed to do exactly that during his short stint.

Darren Teoh (centre) with his team.

Meanwhile, in the case of Table & Apron, a neighbourhood restaurant in Damansara Kim, a rotating task system is most efficient for the close-knit team. Founder Marcus Low says his system of rotating station positions keeps the team learning about not just the technical aspects of their jobs, but also about the communications relevant to each team unit.

“Gone were the days of a hierarchical brigade system in our dining room and kitchen. Our team is much more engaged and dynamic because of this [system],” says Low.

On top of that, staff are encouraged to master skills by teaching rather than listening. Every month, Low organises a culinary enrichment program where a member of the team will present a relevant topic to their peers. Topics covered in the past have included preservation techniques, pork butchery, and smoking with wood.

Table & Apron is known for its friendly front-of-house service.

Low’s efforts have paid off with many customers singling out the restaurant’s front-of-house service as some of the best in the city, indicating genuine passion. “We believe any form of learning should be organic, driven both by curiosity and passion for the craft, rather than a lock-step move as you would in a classroom setting,” he explains.

A successful case study is Lim Heng Kit, a Table & Apron alumnus who went on to conceive Li, a contemporary Malaysian outfit in Damansara Jaya. “Lim spent seven months with us before moving on, and along with gaining invaluable lessons in opening a restaurant – mostly from our mistakes – we’re sure he’s in good stead,” Low says proudly.

Basira Yeusuff, co-founder of Agak-Agak.

While restaurants often provide an informal structure within which staff can hone their skills, some applicants may require a more prescribed, hands-on approach and mentorship. This is where Agak-Agak comes in, a social enterprise and restaurant that develops culinary and hospitality programs for marginalised youth.

Apprentices undergo an all-encompassing one-year program and are taught every aspect of running a food business. The first six months focuses on soft skills, front-of-house service, and kitchen knowledge while the second half of the year emphasises leadership skills as well as marketing, logistics, and finance.

“We have coaches that speak to them to find out what they want to do with life or where they’re going. We build up their personalities and leadership traits,” co-founder Basira Yeusuff says. “We want to make sure they grow as people.”

The program’s current apprentices include a Burmese refugee, a slow-learner, and those whose parents can’t afford tertiary education. Applicants are thrown into the deep-end from the get-go, and many of them perform duty as front-of-house staff from their second day onwards, all while being paid.

Basira – somewhat of a veteran in the industry – along with her business partner and food personality Ili Sulaiman, have painstakingly designed modules for their apprentices, and the Agak-Agak brand is slowly gaining momentum as a culinary training facility.

The idea for the project sparked as Basira and Ili often had trouble looking for solid staff members who show up on time and who are just “good people”. The solution they came up with – supported by MaGIC’s accelerator program – was to train up youth to work for their restaurant while also moulding budding food entrepreneurs.

“The end game is for them to come with me on this journey after the one year program and help me out with whatever I’m doing, and in return, I will give them knowledge, I will give them growth, I will give them potential,” Basira says.

In the future, Agak-Agak hopes to work with school canteen operators, who often struggle with the finance and logistical aspects of running a business. After much research, Basira found that there was a lack of understanding about standard operating procedures, rendering operators – many of whom are women – working long hours while poorly compensated.

Says Basira, “It’s a win-win solution: parents get healthier food for their kids, the school doesn’t get as many complaints, and canteen operators will get to run their businesses well.”

Locations
Agak-Agak, Art Printing Works, Jalan Riong, Bangsar, 59100 Kuala Lumpur (03 2788 3590).
Dewakan, Lower Ground Floor, KDU University College, Utropolis Glenmarie Jalan Kontraktor U1/14, Seksyen U1, 40150 Shah Alam, Selangor (03 5565 0767).
Table & Apron, 23 Jalan SS 20/11, 47400 Petaling Jaya, Selangor (03 7733 4000).

By Surekha Ragavan
Photos by Teoh Eng Hooi. Photos of Table & Apron and Dewakan team courtesy of respective restaurants.

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