Sunday, August 8, 2010

Living the Fabulous Life

BETWEEN riding a horse and driving a car, there are no guesses as to which Datuk Anna Lim, 40, prefers.

"Most people can drive a car but not all can ride a horse! Though I will not deny that a car is an essential mode of transport, I must admit that driving a car is monotonous compared with riding a horse," says the two-time beauty queen who was crowned Miss Malaysia in 1990 and then Mrs Malaysia in 2004.

"With a car, as long as you have the basic driving skills, you are set to handle almost any car. A horse however, is different as you can never predict how it will behave every time you sit on its back. For the rider, this means being in a constant state of alertness and to me, that makes it challenging and satisfying."

As a dressage rider who has committed herself to the sport for the past four years, Anna speaks the fondest of Sorento, a 14-year-old chestnut thoroughbred Gelding owned by the Selangor Equestrian Club.

She also rides on Jimmy, a 16-year-old Warm Blood from New Zealand that had made an appearance at the SEA Games in 2001.

Riding, says Lim, is her way of beating stress and having gone as far as England and New Zealand to hack, it is a sport that runs deep in her blood as her cousin brother, Benny Woodworth, is a champion jockey while another one of her cousins, Joe Lau, is a horse trainer in Macau.

"Iím planning to buy a horse with a view of training it for the race tracks very soon but I'm still at the stage of talking to some breeders,"says Anna.

Despite her preference for horse riding, it has not stopped Anna and husband Datuk Jeffrey Lim, who is also the president of the Rolls Royce Enthusiasts' Club, from being proud owners of a fleet of luxury cars.

To begin with, the Lims have no less than seven Rolls Royces parked in various private garages which include classic beauties such as the Corniche, Wraith and the Cloud.

The couple's present favourite is a red Silver Spur, a 6.75l V8, which has a beautiful beige interior with a luxurious wood paneling finish. However, it is a golden Wraith which holds the fondest memories for Anna as it had been the Lims' wedding car when they wed in 1995.

"It was wonderful feeling to be sitting in a Rolls Royce at that time because it meant that Jeffrey wanted the best for me," recalls Anna.

Little has changed for this couple who now have three children. At the time of this interview, it was Jeffrey who came to Anna's rescue after she found that a nail had punctured a rear tyre of her Mercedes Sport CLK. Gamely switching his BMW 5 series with her, Jeffrey gamely proceeded to pump up the back tyre with a foot pump before proceeding to the nearest repair facility while Anna continued with the question and answer session.

Just like horses, Anna reveals that luxury cars have always been a predominant feature in her life. Both her grandfathers had a collection of Cadillacs and Mercedes in the 1950s.

Anna herself would own a BMW when she turned 21 while still working as a stewardess with MAS in 1986. After sustaining a fractured ankle during an emergency exercise, Anna then took on a safer but more challenging role as Miss Malaysia in 1990, after which she became a stockbroker, which put her smack in the middle of the 1993 bull run and made her a proud owner of a 2-door Mercedes Sports.

Later, she would go on to a 190E and subsequently, a chauffeur driven S-class.

ìI have always been an advocate of the fabulous life in terms of living well, eating well and looking well. I cannot stand the idea of poverty as it depresses me,î admits Anna, who does not smoke.

This is a philosophy that Anna, who practises yoga and swims no less than 55 laps a week, imbues into her work.

Her latest projects includes the launching of her book called Magical Moments which will take place this 10th of July at The Club Saujana with Casa Vino and Trinidad Tobacco as her sponsors.

An elegant coffee table hard copy which highlights the luxury resorts in Malaysia, it had taken Anna two years of hard travelling and research.

Before this, she has also authored two other books, Beauty and Beyond which details her experiences as a beauty queen and Children-The Future of Tomorrow, a book on parenting.

In line with her role as a former beauty queen, she is also the founder of Beauty and Fashion Studio with Amber Chia and come this August 7th and 8th, the pair will be presenting a grooming workshop in PJ Hilton. This star-studded event will be graced by the presence of Datin Josephine Fonseka, who was Miss Malaysia Universe 1970, and Miss Malaysia International 1979 Nancie Foo.

. For more information, call 012-331`6257 or visit

Story and pictures by Grace Chen

The Abishegam Formula

JUST what does it take to own a fleet of luxury cars? Andrew Abishegam, the proud owner of a Jaguar XJ V6, a Ferrari F1 Modena Spider and a fleet of Mercedes Benz motorcars which includes the S Class, SL, CE and a nine-seater Mercedes Vito Grand Luxury and the managing director of X2, which specialises in the management of international corporate launches and special events, gives us his take.

The first crucial ingredient is the ability to turn a "no" into a "yes".

"To me the question of 'no' does not even arise. I have banned the words "cannot", "I don't know" and "impossible" from my vocabulary," says Abishegam, who founded X2 on Aug 8 in 1988.

It is a simple principle and assures Abishegam, easily applicable as well. All one has to do is to ask nicely.

Of course, it pays to cultivate the art of effective communication to put the message across clearly and effectively.

For this seasoned launch master, it all boils to creating a first good impression.

"How you look, how you dress, how you look people in their eyes, the way you talk, your language, your accent and how you read the person in front of you is all part of the communication process," says Abishegam.

Definitely, having knowledge on what you can or canít do is also supremely important.

This father of four says that he would never dream of asking for the impossible or putting the service provider in a position where he would have to incur expense.

Another trait that one must have is the readiness to push everything to the extreme and to the very end until almost to breaking point because, according to Abishegam, that is the only way to achieve the best.

"The one phrase that is prevalent in my life is, ëTo give the best, to get the best and to be the bestí- nothing less, nothing more. As long as you're not stealing or hurting and upsetting anyone, do whatever pleases you. It's your life! You have one life. Don't waste it. Make your life an experience, the best experience ever," he says.

Naturally, one must also have a perfectionist attitude.

In Abishegam's case, he says that the only reason guests get to see a beautifully orchestrated event is because it is planned, rehearsed and executed exactly according to how he wants it to be.

One example was the simultaneous launch of the Proton Perdana V6 2.0 and the Proton Satria 1.8 GTi at the Bukit Jalil in-door stadium in 1998.

The logistics, he says, was one of the most complicated as it involved 3,000 Proton employees which had to be choreographed, fed, clothed and kept entertained for three days from nine to five.

Another event was for a Ferrari Club dinner earlier this year which entailed pushing (yes, you read me right) a Ferrari ENZO from the ground floor to the ballroom of the Kuala Lumpur Convention Center of which the path had to be carpeted every step of the way.

"Nothing is left to chance. Absolutely nothing! I don't believe in luck or even hope for the best. As Confucius said, 'Preparation + Execution = Guaranteed Success'," says Abishegam.

The idea of celebrating life with a touch of fanfare is something that is not only confined to events organised by X2.

In one year, Abishegam bought his wife, Chris Liew, the creative genius behind X2, a red Mercedes SL convertible, wrapping the whole car in bows and ribbons before presenting it to her.

"When she saw it, the first thing she said was, "Can we afford it?" That's Chris, always the practical minded one," laughs Abishegam.

It also helps to abide by a life philosophy.

For Abishegam and Chris, both in their youthful 40s, it is the fairy-tale life for them and as Liew admits it, the love for the fabulous life.

This means running the gamut of hands on childcare with the fraternal twins, Alexa and Alia, both 10, Adam, 8 and Allegra, 5, and creating out-of-this-world experiences for their clients.

Once, they chartered a private jet from Malaysia Airlines to bring 130 passengers all on first class service, including private air hostesses, special meals, private check-in as a treat for a group of international VIPs.

Another time, it was a sail into the sunset among the 99 islands of Langkawi on a private yacht, Lily Marleen, with a band and dancing on board.

It is also important to remember one's humble beginnings.

For Abishegam, who recalled how he had to spend nights working in the office while his friends partied, the first car he owned was a Proton Saga 1.3 manual which he bought for RM26,000. Five years later, he sold it at RM27,000, at a time when Protons were highly sought after.

Lastly, one must have a strong desire to progress in life.

From a Proton Saga 1.3, Abishegam would jump to a Mercedes 300 CE Sports Coupe with electric seats, electric steering, remote robotic safety belt, sun roof, electric head rest.

ìI was 29 when I bought it. Everybody was very surprised when I moved from a Proton Saga to a Mercedes Sports. I enjoyed it so much because I knew that every part of that car was earned by my own hard work," he says.

"This is one car I will keep in my collection forever."

Story and Pictures by Grace Chen. Published in CBT

Carven the Couturier

The BMW sedan motivated Ong to work hard. Model Esther Siaw is seen here modelling one of Ong's creations.

MENTION Carven Ong and the image of soft, fluid gowns come to mind.
As the couturier of choice for beauty queens, blushing brides and glamorous celebrities, it is no wonder that Ong was named Asian Top Fashion Designer 2009 by Fashion Asia in Hangzhou, China.
“Making a dress is not unlike making a car. It is a very technical affair,” says Ong, who does couture, pret-a-porte and runs an academy in Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur.
Some of the fascinating aspects of tailoring, reveals this fashion designer, is a formula that only requires the measurement of the back and bust line.
The accurate summation will provide the tailor with dimensions for the neck, arm hole, shoulder, waist and hip lines.
Of course this formula has seen a bit of tweaking from Ong who converted the original scale, which was formerly in centimetres, to work with the same accuracy in inches.
He also speaks of the seamless dress where not a stitch can be seen along the length of an entire gown.
This, says Ong, is attributed to the method of wrapping the fabric around the mannequin, a modus that is only reserved for the masters.
However, none of the above is even possible if a student does not know the character of his materials and it is a long process of introduction which can take no less than 1 1/2 years.
Having been in the line for two decades, Ong reveals that his love for fashion started from childhood in the small town of Taiping where he would watch his sisters dress up.
The youngest of six siblings, he fondly describes his sisters as the neighbourhood trendsetters. Coming from a financially challenged background was no obstacle as the girls tailored their own dresses.
“This was during the '70s and '80s, an iconic time where fashion revolution was concerned. My sisters were tall and beautiful, so whatever they wore looked good. I became the ‘unofficial’ fashion advisor and it was from them that I learned how to cut and sew,” says Ong.
The early years, as he describes it, were hard.
For one, Ong’s father, a lorry driver who drove one of those old Mercedes 10-wheelers with doorless wooden cabins and hard planks as seats, was not exactly happy about his son’s choice of profession in the beginning.
Two, the story of Ong’s first sojourn to the city, was one that had been fraught with one disaster after another.

As the story went, Ong was only 17 when he took a bus from Taiping to Kuala Lumpur as his family did not have a car. It was 9pm when the then naive small town boy arrived in Pudu with only RM50 in his pocket. As luck would have it, he was threatened by a thug while on his way to Kota Raya.
“Can you imagine? I had no choice but to bargain with the thug and at last he made off with RM5, which broke my heart,” says Ong.
That would not be the end. When he arrived at Kota Raya another bad hat stopped him and this time, there was no mercy. Ong was left without a dime.
“The next recourse was for me to take a cab to my former boss’ place, who ran a direct selling business in Taman Maju Jaya. Imagine, my first meeting with the boss and I had to ask him to pay for my cab fare,” says Ong.
But find his footing he did and after 1 1/2 years as a salesman, Ong finally persuaded a sister to sponsor his studies at an academy near Super Kinta in Ipoh, Perak. This was the time when the bosses of Pop Soda were still operating a little tailor’s shop in Yik Foong Complex.
Of this time, Ong would vividly remember wearing carrot cut trousers, the type where you could stuff in two hens down each leg. His fashion acumen soon caught the attention of the academy owners and they offered him a job as a part-time lecturer. In all, Ong took only a year to complete what normally would have been a three-year-course.
A man like Ong certainly suits the profile of a BMW driver and it is the 318i which has been his faithful companion for the last seven years. The Beemer, as expected, also comes with a story.
“On my second time to Kuala Lumpur to really start my own business, I drove a second-hand Mazda 323, which I bought from my brother for RM11,000. I was constantly honked at on the highway and at that time I thought, ‘Never mind, you can honk and overtake all you like. The next time, I’ll be the one overtaking you’. That was my motivation for working hard,” says Ong.
True enough, Ong was able to self finance his own Proton Iswara a year later. By this time, his academy in Jalan Panggong, Petaling Street, had 20 students and was only a modest 400 sq ft.
The Iswara finally made way for a Kia Sportage after five years. Ong’s academy had then grown to 1,500 sq ft and his pret-a-porte line had just begun making headway in departmental stores.

“It was only after I was convinced that I had established myself did I dare to think of buying a BMW. But let me tell you, it was a wonderful feeling when I got into the car for the very first time. That was when I knew that I had made it,” says Carven.

Story and pictures by Grace Chen

Mum’s the word

Three restaurateurs share their stories of how time spent in the kitchen with their mothers not only taught them how to cook for the family but also infused them with the passion to run their own food outlets.

SHE was merely five then but she remembers the scene vividly. She was in the kitchen watching her mother make the family’s favourite dish: braised duck flavoured with ginger. It was a for special occasion which also called for the black beans and oyster sauce gently simmered for hours over a charcoal fire.

And when Leong Lai Choo turned 11, her mother gave her the run of the kitchen.

“My mother had to be in Singapore for a week and I got to show off what I learned. That was the first time I cooked for so many people,” says Leong, 44, who runs The Nyonya One restaurant in Seri Petaling, Kuala Lumpur.

Aside from honing her culinary skills, the kitchen was the place for mother-daughter bonding. While she may have no difficulty being physically affectionate with or saying “I love you” to her two children, such outward displays of emotion were rarely forthcoming from her mother Low Siew Yoong, now 74.

“She came from a different era where people believed that it was best to keep the feelings of affection for one’s children in the heart instead of expressing them outwardly.

“However, because of the time I had with her, I know deep down that her love for me is as high as a mountain,” says the former beautician who traded her creams and potions for a nasi lemak business in the pasar malam with her husband five years ago before opening their 10-month-old restaurant.

As Leong grew older, the kitchen became their special nook where she would listen to her mother as the latter dished out advice on taboo foods, nutrition, boys and life, in that order.

She is undoubtedly the boss of her kitchen at home where she is very fond of boiling soups and cooking dishes that have been passed down from her mum.

Taking a cue from her own childhood, she is teaching her 13-year-old daughter, Brenda Anne, some kitchen basics, and this proud mum attests that her daughter can make very good bak kut teh.

With The Nyonya One, however, Leong is content to leave the running of the kitchen to her husband Simon St Maria while she takes care of the service side.

But that doesn’t mean she does not have a say in the menu. As it is, one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, the basil, mint and spring onion chicken (known as the B.M.O Chicken), is made according to her mother’s recipe.

Their nasi lemak, by the way, does not contain santan, thanks to Leong who insists on low-fat cooking in all her dishes wherever possible.

For May Miranda, 48, owner of May ‘n’ Mike’s in Petaling Gardens, the kitchen was where her mother Stella, now 84, taught her the importance of sharing.

The youngest of five siblings, May says she grew up at a time when the family was experiencing financial challenges.

The Mirandas could only afford to have meat on Sundays and even a simple dish like Hokkien noodles was considered a treat they looked forward to when their father got his monthly salary.

“We didn’t have money but we grew up with love and it was from the kitchen that my mother taught us how to share.

“On Sundays, for example, when we cooked mutton curry, she would set aside a portion for my brothers who could not make it for lunch so that they would be able to enjoy it later,” May recalls.

Another lesson that Stella would impart on May was one of generosity. As a child, May often wondered how her mother could be so generous with a neighbour when they barely had enough themselves.

One day, on seeing her mother giving a bowl of chicken curry filled with the choicest parts, May blurted out that she needn’t do that when all they got from the same neighbour were bones and chicken neck.

“My mother turned round and told me that my neighbour was expecting and that we should pity her because her own mother was not with her.

“She also said if the same thing were to happen to me, she hoped someone would treat me with the same kindness. That is how my mother impressed upon me the lesson that you should give only good things to people.”

Nevertheless, it wasn’t her mother who got her on the road to starting a restaurant. Instead, it was her late mother-in-law Lisa D’Cruz who shared with her the recipes for what are now May’s signature dishes like prawn toran and fish pottu.

At a time when the idea of being in the food business had yet to take form, Lisa enlisted the help of May, who had just married into the D’Cruz family, to help prepare the family meals. These were interesting sessions as May not only became familiar with her mother-in-law’s recipes but she also heard stories about the scrapes her husband, the late Michael D’Cruz, got into as a child.

Today, May’s three children, all girls, are keen on following in her footsteps in the food business.

Her eldest, Sharrolyn, 26, has her own place called The Ranch in Kota Kemuning, Selangor, which she opened a year ago. Among the items on the menu is Indian grilled chicken, a dish that was inspired by May.

The other two, Sherona, 22, and Shereen, 21, have big plans to promote their mother’s business which, they say, has an annual turnover of RM1 million.

Unlike Leong and May, Rose Weiss, 42, who goes by her husband’s surname, never spent time in the kitchen with her mother.

“We were forbidden to step into the kitchen!” says Weiss, who has been running Chez Rose (formerly known as Klimt’s) in Damansara Heights for the past 25 years.

The reason was that mum, Hasmah Pakir Mohamad, 65, wanted her to concentrate on her studies.

“We owned a rubber estate and there were three maids in the house – one to do the washing, another to clean and the third to cook. So, there was very little point or need for us to go into the kitchen,” says Weiss who is of Afghan and Thai descent and the eldest of four siblings.

So she studied, and by the time she got her degree in economics, mum had already groomed her for a diplomatic career.

There was one snag, however. Weiss did not like the life at all and so she became a management trainee at the Pan Pacific in Pangkor.

There, mum was not around to keep her away from the kitchen, which she found fascinating because she had been denied its entry as a child.

And was she in for an “enlightening” time.

“This was the era where chefs were a really rough lot, the type who would not hesitate to catch you by the scruff of your neck and throw you out of the back door if they caught you smoking in the kitchen!

“Nowadays you have people expressing their shock at how Chef Ramsay can cuss and swear in Hell’s Kitchen, but that was exactly how the atmosphere was back then,” Weiss says.

And, not surprisingly, one German chef would declare that her slender and petite frame would render her unsuitable for the heat and heavy work.

“When you are in an industrial kitchen, being a chef is more than just stirring. At Chez Rose, for instance, I can have 15kg of lamb shank in a pot and to handle that you need brawn,” says Weiss who heads seven staff in her kitchen.

However, her mother’s lesson on perseverance, industry and the need for perfection would not be lost on her. Now a mother of one, Weiss not only mans her own kitchen but supplies frozen soups to other outlets as well.

Another thing which was not lost on her was her mother’s sense of vanity. As such, Weiss ardently promotes low-fat food and eating plenty of vegetables at Chez Rose, which serves pork-free continental cuisine.

To date, Hasmah, who lives with Weiss, has yet to overcome her amazement at her daughter’s ability to whip up good European fare, but she has accepted that the kitchen is the place for Weiss after all. To show her support, she often comes for her favourite dish, the vegetable strudel which Weiss has created especially for her.

As a Mother’s Day treat, Leong, May and Weiss are sharing their favourite recipes with Sunday Metro readers.

Healthy eating: Leong Lai Choo showing off her santanless nasi lemak at The Nyonya One.

B.M.O Chicken (courtesy of The Nyonya One)

3 chicken thighs
Pinch of salt, black pepper and turmeric powder
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
5-6 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon Szechuan red pepper seeds
2 tablespoons hoi sin sauce
1 tablespoon dark soya sauce
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
3 tablespoons sugar dissolved in ½ cup water
Sprigs of fresh thai basil, mint and spring onions

Chop chicken thighs into small pieces and season with salt, black pepper and turmeric powder. Wait half an hour for marinade to seep in. The smaller the pieces, the easier it is for the flavour to penetrate the meat. To seal in the juices, half fry the chicken after marinating and set aside.

For the sauce, put Szechuan red pepper seeds in vegetable oil and fry over low fire till fragrant. Throw in smashed garlic cloves, followed by hoi sin sauce, dark soya sauce and oyster sauce. Stir briefly before pouring in sugar solution.

When sauce thickens, put in chicken and allow to cook until gravy is almost dry. Quickly throw in fresh thai basil, mint and spring onions and stir fry. Recipe serves three.

Indian Grilled Chicken (courtesy of The Ranch)

1 whole chicken leg
Pinch of salt and white pepper
¾ tablespoon chilli powder
¾ tablespoon powdered chicken stock
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon orange juice
Butter for basting
½ medium onion sliced
4-5 curry leaves
1 tablespoon ghee
¾ tablespoon cumin seeds

Debone chicken leg and marinate with salt, white pepper, chilli powder, powdered chicken stock, sesame oil and orange juice. Leave aside for an hour before grilling. Baste with butter to keep meat moist.

For the topping, fry sliced onions and a few curry leaves in ghee and cumin seeds until the onions turn soft and brown. Arrange on top of meat. Serve with steamed vegetables, fries or baked potato.

Vegetable Strudel (courtesy of Chez Rose)

A mixture of broccoli stalks,
julienne of carrots, button mushrooms and capsicums
2 tablespoons olive oil
Pinch of salt and pepper
1 cup vegetable stock
1 sheet filo pastry
2-3 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon chopped onion
1 tablespoon chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon chopped basil

Pre-blanch broccoli stalks, julienne of carrots, button mushrooms and capsicums. Sauté in olive oil, adding salt and pepper to taste. Then reduce in vegetable stock until vegetables become soft. Wrap vegetables in filo pastry, put in the oven and bake.

For the sauce, sauté garlic and onion in olive oil, add in chopped tomatoes and basil. Season with salt and pepper. Reduce in vegetable stock, thicken with cream and pour around baked vegetable strudel.

To finish, sprinkle chopped Italian parsley on top.

Published in The Star, Sunday Metro, May 9 2010.

Keeping ’em happy-The lengths that service providers go to, to keep their customers satisfied.

TO what extent will service providers go to please their customers?

In the case of wedding planner Stephen Foong who has been in the business for 30 years, it can entail flying a bride via helicopter from Ipoh to Kuala Lumpur just so that she can appear fresh and rested for the wedding dinner.

There is the touching story of Kabab and Quarma, a Northern Indian restaurant in Jalan Yap Kwan Seng in Kuala Lumpur which has since ceased operation. When two customers showed up on the very day that the place was closing down and the kitchen cleared, the owner took the trouble to run to a nearby shop to fulfil his customers’ request for ice-cream and insisted that it be on the house as a thank you gesture for their support.

Service above self: Allen Teh (far right in grey T-shirt) during a teambuilding programme that stresses the importance of communication via activities like war games. Customers don’t care about your problems; they just want service, he says.

Then there is another about a Starbucks employee who sat with a customer after reading her latest status of glum on Facebook.

Ask him what customer service is and Allen Teh of Center for Customer Care (CCC), which conducts training workshops for organisations that aim to achieve maximum business profitability through service excellence, comes in with the science.

Emotional quotient

The root word, according to Teh, 47, who has been coaching others in the art of fulfilling customer expectations since 2003, is emotional quotient (EQ).

“In the service line, EQ is the understanding that attention, respect and the service provider’s time are what customers want at anytime,” he says.

Teh’s advice is a reminder that anyone who has signed up for a career in the hospitality industry will have to put service before self.

One example given by this self-styled service guru who is known for his mystery shopper masquerades is the character of Stevens, a butler, in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains Of The Day. In one chapter, Stevens continues to serve at his employer’s banquet despite the knowledge that his 72-year-old father has just suffered a severe stroke. By the time the banquet ended, Stevens father had passed away.

While there will be very few who can emulate Stevens’ example in real life, Ravie Naidu, 46, who started as a waiter in the hotel industry in 1982 and is now general manager of D’Tandoor that operates a chain of restaurants in Malaysia, is one example who comes close. He remembers his posting as the night manager in Puteri Pan Pacific in Johor Baru during the 1990s.

“At that time, my shift was from 11pm to 7am. Imagine! I had just got married and when I got back from work, my wife would have already left for work. When I was about to go to work, she would be sleeping. It lasted a year before I decided that there had to be some work and life balance as I was starting a family,” says Ravie, now a father of three.

It’s not about you: Ravie Naidu of D’Tandoor says service providers who don’t believe they should give in to the customers are in the wrong line of work.

Long hours, says Ravie, is something that those in the hospitality industry will have to endure and he truthfully admits that without the support of his wife, Para, 42, he would have kissed his career goodbye a long time ago.

Without question, for a job that extensively exposes one to the human element, there are days when one will have to handle the drama and idiosyncrasies that come with it. In a field where brickbats are more abundant than bouquets and rants more than raves, there are times when things can go very wrong and the service provider gets an earful even when he is not to be blamed.

Foong, 53, remembers one wedding when the mother-in-law had a stroke and fainted at the main table. Foong had to quietly engineer the transfer of the poor woman to hospital via the hotel’s back door so as not to upset the wedding guests.

In a separate incident, a power cut caused a ballroom of wedding guests to dine in candle light but due to the heat, the guests left before the ceremony got into full swing and the wedding ended in disaster.

Ravie recalls one incident when he found what looked like a bomb next to the ballroom of a hotel that he was then working for. After evacuating the hotel and calling in the bomb squad, he found out that the device was a dud and someone had played a hoax.

Summing it up, Foong, who does not hide the fact that his cholesterol levels have gone haywire due to the stresses of his job, says that at such times, there is nothing to do but be patient in which case, Ravie agrees that it is one virtue which a service staff must have in limitless abundance.

Difficult customers

The keyword here, according to Teh, is “emotion management”. In stressing the EQ point, Teh says the customer service staff should remember that they are like actors and actresses and their job is to please their audience which is the customer, no matter how they feel at that time.

Having a giving nature that is completely free of egoistic tendencies also goes a long way as service providers must realise that customers will have the tendency to be selfish.

“They don’t care what kind of problems you have. They just want to get the kind of treatment and service they have paid for ... that’s it,” states Teh frankly.

As for giving the fussy customer the boot, Ravie simply has this to say: “A waiter who is going to ignore a fussy diner will inadvertently lose him to the competitor.”

A smile to go: Starbucks marcom director Sydney Quays says the job requires cheerful types who are friendly with customers.

This is not to say that service providers are “yes men”, because there are times when the customer cannot be king.

Car racing champion Admi Sharul, 39, who is also a safety driving instructor admits that though politeness and tact is a de rigueur standard in his courses, he once had to order a driver out of a car after he repeatedly ignored safety instructions.

“I was not afraid of the repercussions because he was driving recklessly,” says Admi.

For this father of two, recklessness, even within the confines of the Sepang race track, is not a matter to be taken lightly, having survived a car crash in 1994 in which he suffered neck injuries as a passenger.

Another interesting observation in Teluk Batik, Perak, also reveals that not all customers can be placated by niceties. In a tense showdown between a banana boat operator and an irate customer, one of the operators’ team mates, in recognising the starting signs of a heated argument that was on the verge of becoming physical, promptly “attacked” his own colleague and shouted at his own man for being a trouble maker. The “attacker” then swiftly removed banana, boat and his entire team out of sight, putting a full stop to further trouble, an example of reverse psychology at work.

Later, when the situation had quietened down, the banana boat operator revealed that if the argument had gone on, it would be disastrous as he has suspicions that the customer had ulterior motives.

“If the customer had laid hands on me, the other beach boys would have gotten involved and that would be bad for business. Yeah, I’m a bit sore that I have lost revenue for the day but it’s better for all concerned,” says the operator who spoke on condition of anonymity.

At the end of the day, says Foong, it is crucial to preserve dignity. In his case, he had no choice but to call off a wedding just 10 minutes before the registration ceremony after the groom confessed to him that he was married before.

“I just couldn’t let the marriage go on until I was sure that the groom had the all-clear from the proper authorities. This is my reputation we are talking about because if anything happens in the future, I would be called up!” says Foong.

Right response

Teh does not think that mindsets will change. “Customers are more concerned about their bill of rights and not their code of conduct. In the end, we can’t change the customers. Service providers will just have to change the way they behave and react in response to different types of customers,” he says.

Of course, everyone is well aware that customers are equated to sales and in today’s competitive scene, keeping a customer happy is still top priority.

This is why Ravie stresses on the importance of intelligence and the innate nature to please on the service provider’s part. Those who harbour thoughts that they should not have to give in to the customer are obviously in the wrong line of work.

“Ultimately, what will make a customer return is the comfort he gets from a service provider. Another thing that can take a service provider very far is when your take the effort to surprise and delight the customer. A complimentary drink or a platter of fruits are gestures which will make him feel valued,” says Ravie.

“What we also want is a smart service provider who can read a customer’s mind. Let’s say if you notice that a customer has been looking at the menu for a long time, then you know it’s time to make suggestions. What we are also looking into is a manager who is able to lay down a standard operational procedure to ensure that there is communication between the kitchen and the service team. This rids the problem of waiters who do not know what an establishment has or does not have on the menu which can irritate the customer to no end.”

That is why, according to Sydney Quays, 41, director of marketing communication at Starbucks, it is important to choose the right people for the job – cheerful types who will not hesitate to greet every customer as soon as they walk in and who are not shy to engage in small talk.

In addition to personality, Quays also reveals that training is another essential aspect to maintaining service standards and all 1,500 employees working in this coffee chain have to go through weekly training sessions in product knowledge and service procedures. Classes are limited to no more than 14 people per session and are conducted in the U-shape formation for better attentiveness.

The subject of training service providers on the art of treating customers right has evidently become serious business as more organisations recognise its importance.

Telco giant Maxis, for example, has a two-floor, 1,500sqm, RM5.5mil learning facility in Plaza Sentral in Kuala Lumpur. In 2008, the Maxis Academy clocked a total of 187,000 training hours and close to RM10.5mil in training costs (excluding running costs).

Even Teh’s outfit, which includes war games and drumming circles into its training programmes to encourage better team rapport, is not doing too badly having recorded a revenue of RM200,000 in the last nine months from his corporate clients.

“In whatever field, there is always an element of customer service. When you look at it as a whole, each and every one of us is deemed as service providers. This is because, no matter what line one is in, we will inadvertently deal with customers albeit they are termed differently. A famous movie star, for example, will have her fans. A ruler will have his subjects. Employees will have their employers,” says Teh.

So ultimately, everyone will inadvertently have someone to please and this is where the importance of understanding the needs of a customer will work to the benefit of all, concludes Teh.

Published in The Star, Star Two, May 17 2010

Another side of Maple

Many know Maple Loo as the stylish judge in Showdown 2010. But few are aware that this choreographer, dancer, actress and model is also a successful restaurateur.

IT is late morning and some terrapins have climbed onto a rock in the middle of a pond to bask in the sun. They are in the lush, green paradise of Tamarind Springs, a restaurant in Taman Tunku Abdul Rahman, Ampang, where fish wriggle in streams nearby and monkeys are free to jump among the trees.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m running an animal hotel,” remarks Maple Loo, emerging like a goddess from the cool, softly lit labyrinths of the restaurant.

Multi-tasker: Maple Loo may be busy with her restaurant business but she is still passionate about the performing arts, especially dance.

It is clear that she loves animals. The terrapins and fishes had been gifts from her guests and were released in the natural settings of the three-acre restaurant garden.

“A rustic oasis”, “an alluring and refreshing escape from the city” – these are some of the phrases used to describe Tamarind Springs, a restaurant that serves traditional Khmer, Laotian and Vietnamese cuisine.

Having entered the food and beverage scene seven years ago at the encouragement of her Italian husband, Federico Asaro, 42, Loo has evidently used her experience in the performing arts to inject a sense of dramatic charisma into the restaurant’s design.

The result is a place where one does not only eat but also experiences a heightening of the senses, soothed by the glow of flickering oil lamps and the sound of the gurgling fountain in the background. Understandably, the restaurant and its grounds have become the perfect setting for weddings and romantic twosomes.

Loo describes the concept as a destination restaurant where diners “would take the trouble to travel to the location for a meal”. “When we first started, the concept was still experimental but that was what made it so interesting because people had to look for us.”

She admits, however, that the beginning was hard. “We had to struggle but we believed in what we were doing and persevered.

“We did everything we could think of to market Tamarind Springs. One of the most powerful PR tools, I believe, is word-of-mouth and, true enough, after a while it took off.”

To date, Loo and Asaro have five restaurants under their name. Three of them, Tamarind Springs, Ii Tempio (an Italian restaurant), and Mandi-Mandi (a Thai-Malay outlet) are located within the same grounds in Taman Tunku Abdul Rahman. The other two are Tamarind Hill and Neo, both located in Jalan Sultan Ismail opposite Equatorial Hotel. The couple also own Japamala Resort, a 14-villa boutique resort in Tioman, and are in the midst of opening Villa Samadhi, a 21-room urban retreat in Jalan Madge off Jalan U Thant, Kuala Lumpur. “All our projects are inspired by Mother Nature. We use second-hand timber and all our properties are built around the natural landscape where we use the beauty of nature to create the ambience. The idea is to make our city restaurants feel like an escape. As it is, our company name, Samadhi, means ‘state of mind’ in Sanskrit,” Loo explains.

When Loo is not playing lady boss, she in-dulges in her favourite obsession, pole dancing. She is the owner of Bobbi’s Pole Studio, which is housed in a corner bungalow beside Sucasa Hotel right behind Ampwalk Mall.

Speaking of her foray into the entertainment industry, Loo says she started at the age of 19 with the Kit Kat Club and learned the theatrical elements of her art. From there, she went on to pursue a career in entertainment.

The self-trained dancer who also has an MBA from Edith Cowan University says her success has been about grasping opportunities as they came and making the best of them. “You have to multi task and be superb when it comes to time management. In my case, I make it a point to finish what I have to do that day because I know the next day will bring new tasks and new challenges.”

Even though the restaurant business takes up a lot of her time these days, Loo is still very serious about dance.

Dance is an art that should be taken seriously, she professes. And her passion for it shows. In one episode of Showdown 2010, she did what other judges have never done: she gave Wakaka, the eventual champion, a standing ovation.

Recalling that moment, Loo confesses that she was just blown away by their creativity.

“Dancers are made of passion, not technique. It is about performance skills, energy, stage presence and impact; magic that sometimes doesn’t come from merely applying dance techniques,” she says.

As for perceptions about dancing being a short-lived career, Loo is quick to point to herself as an example. “I am almost 40 and I am still pole dancing. Believe me, age is just an excuse, never a barrier!”

Where food is concerned, Loo’s philosophy is to live to eat, not eat to live. She likes home-cooked food like penne with tuna and tomatoes. When eating out, she prefers to go for Japanese, although for her, “actually nothing beats hawker food.”

She has asked Fat Zuli Sukran, executive chef of Il Tempio, to share a recipe with Sunday Metro. Chef Zul, as he is popularly known, is of Sumatran descent and has over 15 years of experience working for award-winning restaurants in Kuala Lumpur.

For reservations and enquiries, visit and

Lobster Linguine

THOUGH Italian by name, the ingredients are inspired by Chef Zul’s childhood days in Kuala Selangor wh ere there was an abundance of life in the rivers. When choosing a river lobster (udang galah), he recommends picking the ones with the brightest blue shells and to avoid those with blackish signs on the underside of the flesh.

1 river lobster (about 350g)
90g linguini (dry)
1 tablespoon chopped onions
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1 teaspoon Italian parsley
100ml tomato sauce
50ml olive oil
50ml prawn stock*
Salt and pepper for seasoning

Split river lobster in the middle taking care not to break it in two. Sauté onions and garlic in olive oil. Throw in river lobster, prawn stock and Italian parsley. Season with salt and pepper. When cooked, remove river lobster and set aside. Boil linguini for 15 minutes. Strain linguini and toss in sauce for two minutes to let flavours seep in. Arrange on plate and top with river lobster. Garnish with tomato cubes and spring onions.

*To make prawn stock:
1kg prawn
1kg baby flower crabs
2 sticks celery stalks
1 carrot
2 onions
5 ripe tomatoes
10 litres vegetable stock

Bake prawn and crab shells until brown. In a pot, sauté vegetables (all roughly chopped) until fragrant and add in shells. Pour in 10 litres of vegetable stock (this can be made with any vegetable. Just boil an assortment in water for ½ hour and strain). Boil for eight hours over medium fire. The result should yield about 2 litres. Keep unused stock in freezer.

Published in The Star, Sunday Metro, 8 August 2010

Make up for self-expression

THE new buzz word coming from the French cosmetics house Make Up For Ever is “beautinista”! The term descibes women who view make-up as a means of self expression. Thanks to its impressive range, the French maquillage house is a veritable playhouse for the drama queen.

The first Make Up For Ever boutique opened on rue la Boetie in Paris in 1984. But its real genesis can be traced back to the early 1960s when Danny Sanz, a Parisian painter, sculptor and artist decided to dabble in the chemistry of maquillage in her own kitchen. Her aim was to create a budge-proof make-up that could withstand the onslaught of perspiration.

In retelling the story of Make Up For Ever, Jennifer Nelson, the brand’s PR, reveals that Sanz, who is now in her 70s, started out as an artist in a French theatre. One day, a director had approached her to paint the actors’ bodies in a play to add a touch of surrealism. The ensuing result of seeing her work “come alive” inspired her to embark on a career as a make-up artist. While it was not immediately realised then, the concept probably made Sanz one of the world’s very first practitioners of body art.

A wonderful partnership: Alicia Chong and Theresa Ong both share the same passion for Make Up For Ever.

She strived to achieve a formulation that was not only waterproof but colours that would come true on the very first application. It makes perfect sense why the brand started out as the preferred choice of international make-up artists and performers before popping its head in the retail sector.

The secret of Make Up For Ever’s success stems from Sanz’s deep understanding of the use of cosmetics in the showbiz industry. Its academy started in 2002 in Paris, and to date, there are 10 Make Up For Ever Academies worldwide. Today, Sanz still remains the brand’s artistic director.

In its academy in Paris, make-up courses are given in French, Italian, Portugese, Spanish and English, and students are sent for internships to work on movie sets and fashion shows. For a realistic professional experience, photographers and established make-up artists fill the guest speaker lists during conferences.

“I was told that students would enquire if the academy that they were signing up with was using Make Up For Ever. If the answer was ‘no’, they’d go somewhere else,” says Theresa Ong of Hue Haven, the brand’s Malaysian principal company.

For the showgirl in you: Diamond dust and shimmery red striped faux eyelashes.

Having achieved its original intention of steadfastness and colour honesty, the progression from the pro circle to the ordinary but discerning woman came naturally.

“When you look at what it was originally intended for, there are numerous possibilities for ordinary women who want to look good in our humid weather be it at the gym or while taking a dip in the pool,” adds Ong, who teamed up with Singapore principal Alicia Chong in 2008 to establish the Malaysian office.

But, you wonder who would use the matte black shade or the ultra transparent iridescent ocean blue gloss in the lip colour range.

“The thing about make-up is, you never know what goes on in a ‘beautinista’s’ mind,” she explains.

Make Up For Ever offers close to 1,400 products in its catalogue, including 125 shades of eyeshadow and 95 lip shades.

Lip glosses come in pearl, chrome and shimmer form, not to mention the super and extreme shines. There is also a “magical” formula in this category which allows matte lipsticks to have a vinyl effect, living up to its “glossy full” promise. If matte is the texture of the day, there is a lip matifying cream for the lips.

The most dramatic elements lie with the eye and artistic range.

From ultra shimmery eye shadows to the metal and diamond powders, the brand has a brilliant collection of mattes, satins and iridescents. For falsies alone, there are 60 different patterns for lashes ranging from single implants to nudes, for every day use to dramatic appearances.

Aqua-Water proof cream eye colours to withstand the onslaught of sweat and water.

“The professional artist will find things like volume and length primers, and waterproof eyebrow kits in our catalogue. These are exactly the type of things you need in a make-up range,” says Chong.

Of note are the waterproof cream eye shadows from the Aqua range, specifically designed to withstand water submersions. The Aqua range, used by water ballerinas, has a sizeable range that encompasses waterproof eye shadows and eyeliner pencils. To safeguard the finished result, there’s a liquid waterproof eye seal.

The artistic and special effects range also carries accessories like cotton string underwear for body painting, glitter and strass-little bling bling to be placed on the face. In addition to the colour creams and powders for clown make-up and body art, Make Up For Ever also has special effects items like artificial blood and liquid latex for extreme theatrical makeovers.

In 1999, LVMH, the luxury brand leader which also handling other make-up brands like Dior, Kenzo, Guerlain and Givenchy, took Make Up For Ever under its wings. In the subsequent years however, there was a decision to drop Make Up For Ever from its line up as it was not such a well known name then and hard to market.

Enter Chong, then, a new mother battling the throes of post-natal depression who decided to turn to Robinsons (department store) in Singapore for a little retail therapy. The counter staff of Make Up Forever offered her the hand of friendship.

“One day, they told me that they were being retrenched. I felt I needed to do something to help them,” recalls Chong.

Her past experience as the division manager of Luxasia, which handled international prestige brands like Ferragamo, Bvlgari and Jean Paul Gaultier, came in handy. She approached LVMH and offered her business plan. Since the company was about to relinquish Make Up For Ever, there was no harm in giving Chong’s idea a go.

She was given the task to rebuild the brand in Singapore and Malaysia. Since 2002, the brand has gained a firm foothold in the island republic. Its headquarters is currently housed in Stamford House, a beautiful colonial building on Bras Basah Road in Singapore and it also has a make-up academy.

High definition make up

THE latest from Make Up For Ever is its HD line, launched in 2008 with foundation, powder and primer. A concealer, blush and a radiance-cum-hydration elixir joined this line-up two years later. Described as an extensive range, the foundation alone for the HD line sports 25 shades to suit the skin tones of Caucasians, Asians, Blacks and mixed races.

HD (which stands for high definition) is designed for the cinema industry and promises a faultless complexion under the lenses of HD cameras which optimises images up to six times of the standard camera. It is a formula which promises a natural look even under very close scrutiny, thanks to the advent of micro-sized ingredients.

The Moulin Rouge range for Fall 2010.

The formula is a combination of three powders, namely sericite, which reflects light and produces a satin finish; lauroyl lysine, a lamellar structured powder for a comfortable glide and blend; and microcrystalline cellulose, a matifying powder for a smooth touch.

For the fall trend of 2010, Make Up For Ever forms a union with Moulin Rouge, the famous French cabaret on Boulevard de Clichy. In mirroring the seductive can can dancers, it hails the coming of scarlet lips, faux eyelashes bordered with a glittery line of red and strass of Swarovski crystal in white, red and black for the flirty sideways look.

The Rouge easy-to-wear collection is reminiscent of the glamorous show girl who is not afraid to show her sexy, feminine self. The collection was unveiled recently at the Singapore Turf Club with live performances by can can dancers and free make overs for guests.

Make Up For Ever has a presence in 50 countries. It is available at Suria KLCC and Parkson at 1-Utama, Petaling Jaya. For details, log on to

Published in The Star, Star Two, Thursday August 5 2010

Thursday, July 15, 2010

It's Tea Time

The traditional tea time treats that used to be available mainly at market and roadside stalls and pasar malam are now going big time commercially.

THINK crisp hot fried bananas, savoury yam cakes, apom swimming in coconut milk, melt-in-your-mouth kuih and you can understand why Malaysians look forward to tea time.

Never mind if you don’t have time to make them yourself. There’s plenty of these yummy treats to tempt your palate (and ruin your diet) on sale in every nook and corner. The question of where to go really depends on whether you are looking for a relaxed sitdown with a teh tarik or a quick takeaway.

Thanks to commercialism, there is never a problem with choice. However, authenticity is a real bone of contention and nothing can be more irksome than a ketayap with a meagre coconut filling or a kuih talam that has been artificially flavoured.

Mum’s the expert: Wan (left) learnt to make melt-in-the-mouth kuih from his mother Mak Jah

So how are the best kuih supposed to taste? If you have sampled the kuih talam at the Mak Jah Café at Jalan Kolam Air, Ampang, you will want no other after that – the white tops of the kuih here are practically sagging from the weight of rich coconut cream.

Better known as Mak Jah, Halijah Karim, now 65, started the business at the end of a row of MPAJ stalls opposite an animal shelter some 20 years ago.

On closer inspection of her seri muka, you will also see a translucent layer between the glutinous rice and the green top. This, explains Wan Mahalel Wan Daud, 38, Mak Jah’s son, is due to the caramelising effect, a testament to the fact that they have not stinged on the amount of eggs and sugar. As a result, the kuih all have a luxurious melt-in-your-mouth feel.

“What I have learned from my mother is that you have to be a perfectionist when it comes to making kuih. My mother believes that a kuih should be rich in coconut milk and eggs. As it is, she uses no less than eight eggs for every tray of kuih,” says Wan.

Though Mak Jah is retired now, this grand dame is still head of quality control and is known to test every tray to make sure that all are in accordance with her stipulations. Those that don’t meet her QC standards will not be seen at her stall.

The issue of being “generous” is a sensitive one. The ones who are guilty of meagre ketayap fillings and airy curry puffs will give the standard excuse of inflation and compromises in profit. But old-timers like Sun Yoke Lan, 55, have different answers.

Going places: Malaysian kuih have the potential to be exported.

“One way to ensure return customers is to make their stomachs remember you,” says Sun who has been running her nyonya kuih stall in front of the Yit Seang coffee shop at Jalan Thambypillai in Brickfields for the past 30 years.

Sun’s strategy is simple. She gives away big portions, be it her trademark steamed pumpkin rice cake or her large deep fried prawn cucur.

Both Halijah and Sun will attest that their kuih business strategy has been tested and tried by time. As it is, Halijah’s kuih is also sold at the Daily Express in KLCC and the Warung in Mid Valley Megamall.

After having kept a roadside enterprise alive for three decades, the question of expansion is bound to pop up for these traditional tea time vendors. In most cases, it will involve relocation, which many believe will sound the death knell for their livelihoods instead.

Thus, most are staying faithful to their original spot, one case being the Mr Chiam Pisang Goreng stall at Jalan Tun Sambanthan 4, Brickfields.

Another is the vadai and curry puff mobile van situated between Jalan Telawi 6 and 7 in Bangsar, which is operated by Kanagaratnam Vengadasamy, who is in his 70s, and his wife Visalatchi Thanugodi, who is in her 60s. They have been there for the last 15 years and the simple reason for their decision to stay put is that everyone knows them.

It is a similar story with the Chiams. After 27 years, numerous mentions in foodie blogs and appearances in food programmes on TV, the most recent one being 1 Day Five Meals which airs over Astro Wah Lai Toi and is hosted by Angel Wong Chui Ling; the father and son team are content with their roadside spot. Never mind that there is no space for the duo to prepare their bananas and sesame balls for frying. The Chiams have opened a preparation room above the shophouse. A buzz from an intercom at the stall will see a basket of nien kao sandwiched between slices of tapioca or freshly rolled sesame balls being lowered in a plastic basket to an eager recipient below.

But modernisation has a way of changing mindsets and now that the current generation prefers the air-conditioned comforts of the supermarkets, it may be time to rethink the issue of location.

The Lim brothers of Homi Chicken Curry Puffs are an example. Having established a name for themselves at the Hock Seng Two coffee shop for almost 20 years in SS2/66, Petaling Jaya, they made a move to apply for a spot at The Gardens Mid Valley four years ago.

With a monthly rental rate of RM8,000, one wonders what gave the Lim brothers the courage to make the jump with nothing but curry puffs as their star product.

Lim Meng Kong, 54, the eldest of the three Lim brothers, reveals that they have had to set up a shop lot factory in Jalan Kuchai Lama, which now produces about 3,000 raw curry puffs daily.

“The decision to expand was like taking the big plunge. There was no business strategy. What we did instead was to take the opportunity as the situation presented itself. It began when my brother, Meng Lee, saw an existing curry puff chain prosper. He thought he could do something better and that was how we came to be here.”

Like the Lim brothers, Lady Luck also had a role to play with Wong How Yong, 54, a kuih supplier who started from a roadside stall at the PJ Old Town market 20 years ago. Eventually, she moved to a stall inside and one day, eight years ago, a Caucasian approached her and asked if she would like to supply Giant, the hypermarket. That opportunity gave her the courage to venture into the catering scene in addition to supplying local kuih to the hotels’ buffet lines.

“It just happened out of the blue and at that time I was still making kuih from my home kitchen,” recalls this former housewife.

Her chief worry then was how she would be able to supply the volume required, but she soon found the solution.

Of course, comfort, convenience and hygiene will come with a price and as Homi reveals, a slight change in pricing was necessary to cover costs. Puffs sold in The Gardens are between RM2.00 and RM2.50 each compared to the ones in their SS2 HQ, which are only RM1.40 each. Still, when one compares the posh contemporary settings of The Gardens to the hot stuffy surroundings of a roadside operation, what is an extra 60 sen?

And thanks to the constant demand for the different varieties of kuih, the makers have had to lean on each other. “It has become very normal for them to sell each other’s products because one factory just cannot handle the making of so many varieties,” says Wong.

This has led to another emerging trend such as that of Deli Delight. A nyonya kuih kiosk in Mid Valley’s basement right in front of Eu Yan Sang, it is run by Theresa Yoong, 60, who has been a familiar face here for the past eight years. Yoong runs a consignment style operation with other kuih and biscuit suppliers.

How far can one go in the kuih business? Nancy Lu, 52, of Lulu Nyonya Kueh believes it can even be exported. She is already looking into this aspect, with help from her brother Tony Lu, 48, whom she describes as “the one with the ideas”.

Since the business started in 2000, Lulu Nyonya Cakes has opened five outlets all running on the kiosk format in Sungai Wang Plaza, Mid Valley, Amcorp Mall, Great Eastern Mall and Jaya Jusco Taman Maluri. And they are also supplying kuih to hotels for the buffet lines.

In the future, says Lu, there are plans to take the kuih business into the gift market, which requires compact and attractive packaging for travellers to take home as presents for friends and family. In line with this, there are plans to work on freezing the kuih, Sara Lee-style, for export. The R&D remains to be done, however.

At such a rate, it will not be long before the kuih lapis becomes as international as the cheesecake. Already, as Lu reveals, there have been enquiries from as far away as Abu Dhabi.

A new touch to the traditional

IT is hard to imagine the popular ketayap as anything else but green in colour, flavoured with pandan and stuffed with a sweet filling of grated coconut and gula melaka. At Ibunda, a Malay fine diner on Jalan Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur, patrons may well see some surprising changes, however.

Here is where you’ll find ketayap with Philadelphia cheese fillings or love letters dipped with roselle salsa all served in dainty portions.

“Malay desserts are traditionally very heavy and with the addition of coconut milk and glutinous rice, it can be very overwhelming after a starter and a main course. So, we decided on a serving that would not exceed 600g,” says Mohd Sofi, 35, the sous chef and spokesperson of Ibunda.

Glamorous twist: The banana pengat coated in sugar

The inspiration is still Malay in origin, he insists, taking Ibunda’s signature dessert, the Nangka Gulung, as a case in point. It was created after the chef and restaurant owner, Zabidi Ibrahim, saw a cempedak fritters stall.

“The whole idea is to be different, to push the boundaries on what is considered the norm in Malay tea time treats. In the end, it is all about culinary creativity,” says Sofi.

Dishing it out with a smile

Nothing makes a dining experience more memorable than great service with a smile. Beauty queen Debbie Goh has it down pat at her new Indonesian restaurant.

SERVICE with a smile, no matter how irate the customer. With this motto in mind, beauty queen and restaurateur Debbie Goh has maintained the reputation of providing good service at her Indonesian food outlet.

The star of Age of Glory, which became the highest rated Chinese drama in 2008, is the new lady boss of a three-month-old Indonesian franchise. Sharing a recent encounter with a customer that had her on her toes all night, she says: “A distinguished-looking gentleman came in with a party of friends. From his manner, I could tell that he was a seasoned diner so I quickly signalled to the staff to be extra vigilant.

Debbie Goh offering her favourite dish, the Yellow Rice Combo, which comes with a mild beef rendang and crispy fried chicken.

“When the food arrived, he found fault with every single dish ordered and even after we replaced it with something else, he was still not satisfied.”

The former Miss Malaysia Chinese International 1998 and a Hong Kong TVB artiste was at her wits’ end and decided that dessert would be on the house.

When it was time for the diner to leave, Goh personally saw him to the door and apologised profusely, certain that she would never see him again.

“Boy, was I surprised to see him again! Later, I found out that he had been impressed by the service and that was when I patted myself at the back for having exercised patience,” says Goh.

As the owner of IR1968, she says that her patience is stretched every day but maturity has helped her keep a tight reign on her temper.

“The onus is on the restaurateur to be tactful and diplomatic. It is your job to find out your diners’ likes and dislikes and then use the knowledge to make sure they have a pleasant dining experience so that they will be back,” says Goh.

In deciding to embark on a career in food and beverage with IR1968, which stands for Indonesian Restaurant 1968, Goh (pic right) reveals that it was her business partner Hudson Chang, a 37-year-old Hong Kong native whom she had met while hosting a culinary programme with TVB, who convinced her to become a restaurateur.

Cosy: Soft red lights and blue porcelain for the table setting mirror Debbie’s artistic touches.

“IR1968 is a franchise and they were the first to offer Indonesian cuisine in Hong Kong in 1968. I was very taken by the concept and thought that it would be a good idea to bring it to Malaysia.

‘Coincidentally, I was also looking into other business opportunities apart from acting, so everything fell into place,” says the Ngee Ann Polytechnic graduate who believes in being hands on in her restaurant.

“One sure-fire way to lose money in business is to be constantly absent,” says Goh who has appointed her 21-year-old niece, Yvonne Chiew, to man the cash register because she is the only person Goh trusts.

She also sees the restaurant as a place to entertain and network, and as such, has taken great pains to make the 120-seater outlet into a cosy enclave with red Chinese lamps, multi-coloured cushions, authentic whitewashed wooden tables and blue porcelain.

Among the restaurant’s signature dishes is the Yellow Rice Combo (RM25), which comes with a very mild version of beef rendang and a piece of crisp fried chicken drummet. This hearty dish is best paired with the Assam Fish (RM38), a spicy and sour concoction laden with brinjal and capsicum.

The specialty of the house is none other than the tender and aromatic Braised Ox Tongue (RM32), which takes five hours to prepare. For those who fancy something light, there are the Shrimp and Corn Patties (RM15) and the Gado Gado, an Indonesian salad made up of bean curd, bean sprouts, cabbage, cucumber, lettuce, potatoes, boiled eggs, prawn crackers and thick peanut sauce.

The restaurant, which is just behind Hock Choon supermarket in Jalan Ampang, also does private catering for a minimum of 10 pax and home deliveries around the Ampang area. IR1968 is located at 241-B, Lorong Nibong, Off Jalan Ampang, 50450, Kuala Lumpur. For reservations, call 017-7883 2160.

Semur Lidah

1 whole ox tongue

For the sauce

3 large tomatoes

3 big onions

3 whole garlic bulbs, peeled and separated into cloves

400g aniseed

4 nutmegs

100ml of kicap manis

Boil ox tongue for five hours. Meanwhile, blend all the ingredients for the sauce with a little water. Heat the mixture in a pan and let it simmer until it thickens. Do not add water. Once ox tongue is ready, slice and sauté in butter. To serve, pour sauce over the tongue.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Let’s go to market

The farmer’s market is a lively place full of colourful characters selling fresh produce and a whole lot of other things besides.

WHY make a beeline for a farmers’ market with their nose-wrinkling odours, humid conditions and noisy surroundings when you can shop in the air-conditioned comfort of a supermarket?

The answer, my friend, definitely blows in the wind. Unlike the sterile atmosphere of a hypermarket, the pasar tani gives one a sense of freedom with its open-air concept. Another magnetic attraction is that it throbs with life, thanks to the colourful personalities of the vendors and their wide choice of fresh produce, including petai just plucked from the tree and exotic jungle vegetables.

Going bananas: Bananas in the hundreds of bunches are found in abundance at Selayang.

Shopping aside, this is where you’d find hefty fishmongers and Wellington-booted greengrocers with superstar smiles – the types who will not hesitate to claim every passer-by, old or young, to be their “sweetheart” or “darling”.

It is very hard not to fall in love with this noisy, gregarious lot! You know, those easy-going types who will not think twice about hollering to another trader who is six stalls away if he’s got any lemongrass to spare for a “pretty auntie” who just must have some for her nasi ulam?

Not one to practise favouritism, everyone is either a liang lui or a leng chai. The surroundings may not be posh but it is easy to see why the pasar tani has become so popular in our culture.

Engaging smile: Jamaludin Ismail started selling keropok lekor under a tree. Today, he has two shops in the Selayang wholesale farmers’ market

The Malaysian pasar tani probably made its way into the local scene sometime in the early 70s. The whole idea of creating a temporary spot for the farmer to trade was to address the issue of the middleman. Back then, it was not uncommon to hear stories of some unscrupulous middlemen who would pay the poor village farmer a mere RM10 for a basket of durians, which were later sold in the city for RM10 per kg.

This effort to bring the farmers in direct contact with the consumer was initiated by Fama (Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority) which was formed in 1965. The main objective was to help the farmers, fishermen and livestock breeders eliminate the problem of the middleman.

Locations were selected based on market research carried out by Fama and consumer traffic; and the willingness of the district authorities to cooperate and the number of entrepreneurs who would find the area viable for trade were some of the prerequisites taken into consideration.

Training ground: The best salesmen can be found in a pasar tani, says Azizi, who is roasting chestnuts with his boss, Rezuan Baba.

In terms of commerce, the pasar tani would be a separate market from the wet, morning and night markets and were under the jurisdiction of Fama who would arrange for the basic facilities such as umbrellas and stall space for rent in each of these designated areas. Close to half a decade later, the humble pasar tani took off, and the wholesale farmers’ market in Selayang was one of the first to start.

Located by the side of the old wing of the Selayang wholesale market, with its existence traced back to 1987, it is perhaps the oldest pasar tani in Selangor, according to Kamar Kilau, 60, who is a regular shopper here.

“In those days there were only 34 lots and rent was only RM13 per lot,” reveals Kamar.

Fama support: Razlan Ismail, a keropok lekor vendor, standing in front of his colourful lorry. Painting of the vehicle was sponsored by Fama.

Today, the number of lots has doubled and, according to Shamsuddin Zainal, 30, who helps run the Fama produce stall here, rental rates have gone up to RM500 per unit.

While the business hours of the pasar tani were originally confined to the morning, the one in Selayang has extended operation hours to seven days from 7am to 6pm. Some stalls like Jamilah Hashim’s coconut stall, which sells fresh santan and kerisek, runs on a 24-hour basis.

Jamilah, 31, a mother of four, reveals that she had started in Selayang with a small stall under a tree selling cakes, crackers, pickles and steamed peanuts in 1999. She changed to selling coconut milk in 2000 when Fama offered her a stall after a former tenant lapsed in rental payments.

Enterprising: Jamilah with her sisters, Rahimah (in red) and Rohizan (in black), who are showing off the cendol and bakso noodles that are a hit with Selayang folk.

On estimate, no less than 1,000 coconuts go under the grating machine at Jamilah’s santan shop in one day.

In Jamilah’s case, the spirit of entrepreneurship runs in the family as her husband, Saiful Azam, 37, also has a poultry stall in the area.

Her elder sisters, Rahimah, who runs a nasi campur and roti canai concern, and Rohizan, who, in addition to a watermelon stall, also sells bakso and lontong, also have shops in the Selayang wholesale farmers’ market area.

Bite me: Sup gearbox, one of the many hundred types of food available at the Shah Alam Pasar Tani.

It is not unusual to find one boss managing a few stalls and keropok seller, Jamaludin Ismail, 48, is one of them. A keen biker who also has a health spa in Rawang, Jamaludin now has two shops to distribute his keropok lekor which comes from a factory in Rusila, Terengganu. Jamaludin, who started selling his keropok lekor from under a tree in 1996, says that he sells between 20 and 30 big bags a day.

The most popular pasar tani is none other than the one at the Shah Alam Stadium on Sundays from 7am to noon. What makes this market such a draw is that it is just next to the Bazaar Arena which operates in conjunction with the farmers’ market.

Catergorised as a pasar tani mega (mega farmers’ market) by Fama, this is a shopper’s heaven with over 800 stalls selling everything from fresh produce, meat and fish to bundle clothing, facial products and handicraft.

Showtime: Razali Jaafar got his 15 minutes of fame when he was featured in TV shows like Jalan Jalan Cari Makan.

One bargain hunter, Norashikin Sidek, 37, who is a regular, says that one of her favourite draws is the beef bone soup (sup gearbox) from Wak Jas and the array of fashion clothing from the bundle stalls. Where prices are concerned, hypermarkets can be cheaper, she admits, but the advantage of being able to bargain here is an added plus.

Competition is certainly keen and Azizi Alif Khalid, 26, a business management diploma student from UiTM who sells roasted chestnuts, says that working in a pasar tani is a test in PR, work discipline and marketing skills.

“The best salesmen are found in a pasar tani. You learn very quickly that charm and the ability to say the right things will win you customers,” say Azizi, who sells about 80kg of chestnuts every Sunday in Shah Alam.

Without the advantage of window dressing, one also learns to rely on creativity, and for salon owner Norhasni Muhammad, 42, that involves providing on-the-spot facials at her stall where she sells her beauty soap bars.

This is not to mean that Fama has taken a back seat with the promotional efforts. The agency will sponsor the painting of a vendor’s lorry, as in the case of Razlan Ismail, who had his done recently.

The 25-year-old keropok lekor seller who hails from Klang, Selangor, has been in the pasar tani circuit for 10 years.

Facial on the go: A marketing tactic used by Nor Hasni to promote her beauty soap bars

Ingenuity also helps to sell a product, as Jeffri Mohd, 26, found out when he changed the original cylindrical shape of the ice cream potong he sells to square shapes. This Kelantanese who has only been in the pasar tani circuit for a year is under the employ of Zaman Ice Cream which has two sales outlets at the Shah Alam market.

Incidentally, the pasar tani has also turned out to be a place where one can find fame. Razali Jaafar, 39, a former broadcasting man who gave up his job to open up his own enterprise called Uncle Jilli’s Jacket Potatoes two years ago, has attracted media interest. So far, he has appeared in Jalan Jalan Cari Makan, in a slot hosted by Maria Tunku Sabri, and in Sheila Rusly’s Ketuk Ketuk Ramadan, which were both aired over TV3.

Laden with petai and other jungle vegetables, Abdul Rahim Muhammad’s stall in Shah Alam is what the pasar tani business is all about – selling the freshest produce, whether they are harvested straight from nature or from the farmers’ plot, directly to the customer.

Rahim, who has been in the pasar tani trade for the past 25 years, says he is chairman-cum-treasurer of the Persatuan Peniaga Penjaja Negeri Selangor (Selangor Petty Traders Association), which aims to help the small entrepreneur. The motto of the PPNS is “Dari Gerai Ke Global (from stall to the world)”, he says. But it looks like their fight is still on the local ground for now.

One of the things that PPNS continuously strives for is the protection of the pasar tani traders from unscrupulous individuals who, after obtaining licences from the council, will try to sell the lots at a high price to newcomers, Rahim says, adding that at one point, PPNS even went as far as reporting the culprits to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. Thanks to their efforts, such incidents are becoming rarer but the underhanded practices still exist, he says.

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Published in The Star, Sunday, 25th April, 2010