When Malaysians return from living overseas, they usually bring something back with them: a foreign degree, a few years of work experience and perhaps some new ideas on how the world works.
When Marcus Low moved back to KL after studying and working abroad, he had all of those qualifications. But he also brought back something that most people don’t: a lump of fermenting yeast.
Of course, this wasn’t just any yeast. This living yeast, known to bakers as a leaven or starter, had an illustrious history going back over a hundred of years. In time, it had been passed to the e5 Bakehouse in London, where Marcus worked for a stint. Their team later passed some of it to Marcus when he left.
Now, the leaven is used to bake bread every day for The Kitchen Table Bakery and Restaurant in Damansara Kim. The signature sourdough is sold by the loaf, but it’s also served with many items on the lunch and dinner menu. Toasted to a rustic crisp on the outside, yet generously soft and elastic on the inside, it’s a bite of homemade comfort.
The Kitchen Table opened just over a month ago. It’s a joint venture between Marcus and his business partner and fellow chef, Mei Wan Tan. But as many of their customers know, this restaurant-bakery started life as a supper club.
For a year, Marcus and Mei Wan hosted dinners at a private address as The Kitchen Table Supper Club. Word soon spread, and places were booked out weeks in advance. While supper clubs have become increasingly popular in the Klang Valley, they are usually a weekend pastime for people who have full time jobs. For Marcus and Mei Wan, however, the supper club was part of a long preparation for opening their own place.
One night, my friend and I arrived at the Kitchen Table Supper Club apartment to find a menu for a five course meal. The sourdough was first to appear, alongside some unexpected beef marrow bones. Instead of butter, guests were supposed to scoop out the tender, fatty marrow from the bones to spread on the bread. That’s when we knew that this wasn’t going to be an ordinary dining experience.
Marcus and Mei Wan both previously worked as chefs, with several years of experience between them: Marcus started out as a dishwasher and kitchen porter before moving up the ranks of The Corner House restaurant in Toronto, while Mei Wan trained as a pastry chef at Le Cordon Bleu before working under Michelin-starred chef Marcus Wareing in London.
The two of them met in the UK, through a mutual friend, only to discover that they had a lot in common: both had studied Engineering and both wanted to open a restaurant. The restaurant that they had in mind was not specific, but they already knew how it should feel.
“We decided on three things that we needed to do, no mater what kind of place we opened. First, to be happy. Second, to provide delicious food. Third, to make others happy. Sounds simple but in practice, it’s hard,” says Marcus.
The Kitchen Table concept arose from the idea of sharing: sharing food, sharing a table and sharing good company.
The Kitchen Table concept arose from the idea of sharing: sharing food, sharing a table and sharing good company. From the supper club to the shoplot, they have worked with this idea in mind. Both Marcus and Mei Wan had been greatly influenced by hospitality philosophy of the New York restauranteur Danny Meyer, who wrote the book Setting the Table.
Walking into The Kitchen Table, it’s clear that the space has been designed for groups to sit down to eat together. It’s a simple but airy space with large, solid wooden tables and plenty of natural light. The interior décor, by Joanne Chew, channels a rustic charm while still feeling contemporary. “Some people from the supper club have come in and said, ‘This is exactly what we imagined’,” says Marcus, beaming with pride.
The food is similarly unpretentious, with the menu comprising a few dishes done very well. During the day, the emphasis is on the bakery, which stocks sweet treats like brownies, cookies and “raspberry crack” – a sort of gooey, addictive flapjack adapted from a Momofuku recipe. For lunch, comfort food such as roast chicken leg or pulled pork is served with the sourdough bread and a salad.
The restaurant takes over in the evening, with a choice of small plates, large plates, vegetables and desserts designed to be shared. Here, American, European and Asian influences are mixed and refined for a fresh take: dishes like their citrus salad with grilled calamari; or their buckwheat fried chicken with Thai basil crisps.
While sharing dishes of food is common in Chinese restaurants, it’s not so expected for contemporary Western restaurants. Apparently, customers are still getting used to it – and there has also been demand for a bigger range of dishes. But the two head chefs are determined not to race ahead until they get things right.
A large part of the menu’s consideration is the source of ingredients. The Kitchen Table tries to use as much local produce as possible; their ingredients are mostly bought from the nearby TTDI wet market. “It’s great knowing the vendors on a name basis,” says Mei Wan. “We get to put a face to where the food comes from.” They even use a locally produced cheese.
The restaurant’s address is in a residential neighbourhood: one row of shoplots facing a row of houses. It’s a diverse street, host to the established Euro Deli and the fusion restaurant Kompassion, but also a kedai dobi, a car mechanic and an old school bakery called Bang! Bang! Two new coffee shops have also just opened: Grinder and Caffe Quotes.
Like other residential areas that have seen a flurry of F&B businesses opening, Damansara Kim will soon be a hub in itself, no longer just another suburb of PJ. Yet for now it still feels like a relaxed nook of a neighbourhood, where the Kitchen Table can comfortably become part of the community. The day they opened, their first customer was their neighbour from the kedai dobi.
Of course, people are coming from further away to dine here too. Familiar faces include their former supper club guests, as well as other restauranteurs from the local food scene. “It feels good to serve other restauranteurs,” they tell me. “It’s an honour. It feels like we’re finally part of the industry. The Kitchen Table is now an entity in itself.”
Since opening the restaurant is the culmination of years of planning, I ask how it feels to be sitting here now. “Surreal,” says Mei Wan. “I keep pinching myself.” But the logistical, day to day management is keeping them grounded, as is the financial prospect of paying back loans from family and friends. It will be two years, they estimate, before they break even.
At the same time, Marcus and Mei Wan have a bigger vision: to create a place for young, passionate people to train as chefs. “We don’t think we can change the industry by ourselves, but we want to be part of a change,” says Marcus. “The industry here is still young and it’s hard to find local talent, but we want to show that this is a career to be proud of.”
The Kitchen Table has a young staff team, where the average age is just 23 (Marcus and Mei Wan are 28 and 27 respectively). Both of them have a conscious desire to nurture young talent. “That’s why the kitchen window is so big, we want to showcase the people who are making the food,” says Mei Wan, gesturing to the back of the restaurant, where the window shows a hive of activity in the kitchen.
Both chefs sing the praises of their hardworking team, many of whom trained with them while they were still a supper club. They employ fewer than ten people in total. When I ask what they see in store for the future, they humbly demur to two goals: “We want to strive towards better experiences and building a stronger team,” says Marcus.
In time, Mei Wan and Marcus hope that their staff will go on to run their own businesses, creating a slow domino effect for the Malaysian food industry: “We want to work with people who want to open their own places.” When they do, maybe they will take some fermenting yeast with them.
The Kitchen Table Restaurant and Bakery, 23, Jalan SS20/11, Damansara Kim, 47400 Petaling Jaya (03 7733 4000). Bakery: Tues – Sun: 10am – 5.30pm. Restaurant: Tues – Sat: 6.30pm – 10.30pm (last order at 9.15pm)
Words and photos by Ling Low.