How Kuala Lumpur's F&B industry is responding to the COVID-19 crisis
From takeaway menus to cooking for frontline healthcare workers, Kuala Lumpur’s fine dining establishments share how they are coping with Malaysia’s Movement Control Ordinance (MCO).
The restrictions, which included going out to buying necessities, have been further tightened with the extension of the MCO from two to four weeks, effectively locking the country down until April 14, 2020.
The MCO is particularly strictly enforced in the Klang Valley, Malaysia’s urban centre which is the hardest hit by the outbreak. Kuala Lumpur (KL) is also home to the country’s largest concentration of restaurants which, under the MCO, are allowed to stay open, but only for takeaways.
This option may seem incongruous for fine dining restaurants which are more accustomed to serving up crafted courses on fine china rather than pastas in styrofoam boxes, but the reality is that restaurants are cash-reliant businesses; no kitchen activity means no revenue.
CNA Luxury spoke to five of KL’s leading fine dining destinations to find out how they’re making the MCO work for them.
For Michelin-starred chef Jeff Ramsey, who co-owns modern Japanese restaurant Babe, the MCO has been an exercise in seeing how quickly he and his team could pivot. Within a week of the MCO, Babe announced an entirely new menu that would work with the added delivery time.
Ramsey chose a Tokyo street food theme as it was related to the Babe brand. “We want to offer people some joy in these trying times, so we write messages to guests and put them in the delivery bag. We still have premium items on our menu in the hope that it appeals to those who want something of higher quality than what is available in the delivery market currently,” said Ramsey.
This seems to be going to plan as Babe has become something of a go-to delivery for Malaysians who are celebrating birthdays and anniversaries during lockdown.
“We want to offer people some joy in these trying times, so we write messages to guests and put them in the delivery bag.” – Jeff Ramsey
Copper is a modern European restaurant run by husband-and-wife team, chef Chai Chun Boon and Zeehan Zahari.
Zahari explained that even the day prior to the MCO announcement, they saw an 80 per cent drop in business as companies within the building Copper is located had started to instruct their employees to work from home.
Undaunted, the couple flipped the restaurant to serve the nation's medical frontliners, supported by crowdfunding from family and friends. “This has enabled us to make lunch and dinner boxes, which support the livelihood of our staff, farmers, producers and basically our F&B ecosystem,” stated Zahari. Her team’s journey is documented on her Instagram account @zeehanzahari.
While this shift from doing fine cuisine to more of a production-type offering took a few days to get used to, Zahari admitted that it also took a bit of courage to step out of their comfort zone.
“These days, the team cooks with whatever produce they can secure as delivery services are now limited. The kitchen team takes care to look into energy boosting ingredients and nutritional values to incorporate into the things that they make but honestly, nothing is really set and we have to improvise.”
“[Crowdfunding] has enabled us to make lunch and dinner boxes, which support the livelihood of our staff, farmers, producers and basically our F&B ecosystem.” – Zeehan Zahari
For Dewakan, 2019 was a big year, having put Malaysia on the map by placing 46th on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. This groundbreaking Modern Malaysian restaurant also moved into a new plush central location (NAZA Tower) in December. Just three months in with the MCO taking effect, Dewakan has chosen to close and take this time to hone its skills.
“With the MCO extension, we’re look at other avenues that will mitigate the [reduced] productivity but also lessen the impact of what is going on now because nobody wants to be inactive for four weeks running,” chef de cuisine and Dewakan founder Darren Teoh said.
This strategy has two prongs: The first is allowing staff with pending projects to work on those projects. These range from experimenting with juice pairings to R&D on chocolate products. The second aspect is rolling out a food kit delivery service, Cook Like Dewakan, that allows home-bound gourmands to prepare their own Dewakan-style meals at home.
“We wanted something that would play on our strengths and still be true to our brand. So we’re going to put our condiments, pastes and sauces into food boxes and supply them with the proper produce like a piece of goat meat that has been braised in an interesting sauce with instructions. This is our way of bringing a bit of us into their home,” Teoh explained.
Despite the challenges that this pandemic will wreak on the economy, Teoh is firm in his belief that his team can weather the crisis. “We’ve come from a rough patch in our previous location where a slow night isn’t foreign to us. What that has taught us is to be prepared and to pay attention to our product and allow our product to do the talking,” he affirmed.
Having trained an agile team that can adapt to whatever uncertainty comes next, Teoh is raring to start cooking again when the situation improves. And when that happens, he forsees that it will be “business as usual but on hyperdrive.”
“We wanted something that would play on our strengths and still be true to our brand. So we’re going to put our condiments, pastes and sauces into food boxes and supply them with proper produce.” – Darren Teoh
DC Restaurant and Bref are two of KL’s most feted restaurants, the former a fine dining manifestation of proprietor and chef de cuisine Darren Chin’s philosophy while the latter, its more casual sibling.
Grounded in French techniques with an overlay of Japanese and Thai influences, Chin is a dedicated supporter of local produce and one of the F&B industry’s leaders. Since the MCO was announced, both restaurants have been shuttered.
“DC and Bref are both gastronomic restaurants. We decided not to do takeaway or delivery meals because we can't guarantee the condition or presentation of the dishes. So we made the hard call to close entirely during the MCO period, and instead use this time for rest, reflection and research,” said Chin.
Chin, however, has been conducting live cooking demonstrations on his Facebook page where he reveals the secrets to his cooking techniques and applies these techniques to simple tasty recipes the home cook can follow. “All that’s needed is to follow the steps on my demonstrations!”
“I think it's a bit like having your own personal chef, as much as you can during a MCO,” quipped Chin. Based on the positive feedback he received on Facebook, Chin has come up with a special takeaway menu, with items not available on the restaurants’ menus.
“So far, we have done wagyu burgers, homemade pies, croissants, and recently Chiang Mai Khao Soi from an authentic recipe from my Thai mother-in-law,” he said.
“DC and Bref are both gastronomic restaurants. We decided not to do takeaway or delivery meals… and instead use this time for rest, reflection and research.” – Darren Chin
Sitka Studio in Damansara Heights is renowned for its inventive Friday night tasting menu, a laboratory of sorts for chef Christian Recomio and restauranteur Jenifer Kuah, who dish out intriguing interpretations of modern Asian cuisine.
Since the MCO, Sitka started out trying to do takeaways but ceased soon after as they wanted to guarantee the safety of their staff and felt it would be irresponsible to risk it.
Kuah instead channelled her team’s energies into feeding the city’s healthcare frontliners. “Chefs feel their best when feeding people. We started by cooking for the team at BIG supermarket at Jalan Batai, a simple meal of rice, boiled egg, sambal fish and stir fried vegetables – Malaysian comfort food,” said Kuah.
“Working with government-approved NGOs, we will be producing 200 meals a day using surplus produce from April 2 to April 11, with financial support from friends. Many will be going hungry with the extension of the order and we want to help where we can.”
“Working with government-approved NGOs, we will be producing 200 meals a day using surplus produce from April 2 to April 11, with financial support from friends. Many will be going hungry with the extension of the order and we want to help where we can.” – Jenifer Kuah
SOLIDARITY IN THE F&B COMMUNITY
Amid the uncertainty – speculation is rife about whether the Malaysian government will extend the MCO until April 28 – there seems to be a sense of solidarity among these restauranteurs and chefs about not going down without a fight for what they have painstakingly built.
Teoh summed it up: “I don’t think there’s ever a good time for a pandemic. It is what it is and a situation will affect us, the way it does but at the end of the day, I think it’s just about grit and determination. It’s about protecting and taking care of the people you work with and making sure that despite all of it, it’s not just one person that comes through but the whole team.”