Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Extraordinary Food Passion of Penang One Founder


My friend told me there is a place that sells delicious and original Penang food. Me, being the skeptical Penangite who has been deceived so many times by cafes and food joints in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor touting original Penang food, found it hard to believe my friend. I told my friend that I will only step into this café and become the guinea pig if he gives me something in return. Then, finally, after considering his threats that he has always accompanied me to eat whatever I like and what harm would accompanying him to eat what he likes, I finally relented, thinking that perhaps there is some truth in what he said. Then as I approached the café, again, I was apprehensive but by that time it was too late. Anyway, the colourful pictures and photos of hawkers inside attracted me and I was a little convinced when I saw a few newspaper cuttings displayed prominently, at the entrance, and thought, it even The Star food journalists gave this a chance, it musn't have been too much. 

My friend said that the Assam Laksa is not that bad. Since I was still full from food tasting session of 16 dishes at Sunway Resort Hotel and Spa at 2 pm this afternoon, I opted for something sourish and Laksa be it.

When I glanced through the menu, the sight of the photos of the most famous hawkers in Penang for each food item was unbelievable. The wall is full of road signboards showing the origin of each food item sold there. Postered on the wall were signboards of Lebuh Cecil’s Duck Meat Koay Teow Thing, Kampung Jawa Char Koay Teow, Lorong Selamat Laksa etc.

There were two televisions in the Bandar Puteri Puchong HQ branch, televising videos of the hawkers who cook the food in Penang. Seeing the video alone is already tantalizing enough.

After taking in the ambience and also the signboards and road map of Penang food sightings, my food soon arrived in less than 5 minutes.

The Kampung Jawa Char Koay Teow is so tasty. My friend said that the prawns were so big and succulent, the crunchiest prawn he has ever tasted in his entire life! There were about 2-3 big prawns for this plate, costing RM 9.50. The bean sprouts, were very fat and fresh and I have never tasted fat springy bean sprouts in KL. I later found out from the founder and General Manager, Gary Teoh that he actually had the bean sprouts imported from Ipoh! I guess nothing beats Ipoh home grown bean sprouts! I found the cockles a bit too small, and not as fresh as the ones we normally have at the conventional hawker stall, probably because they were imported from Penang. The egg, I admit, for the first time in my lifetime of eating Char Koay Teow eggs, is fried just the way I like it, not overfried, and not fried till black. In fact, the char koay teow egg beats the one I had in Penang and I am not ashamed to say that. The prawns were also not overfried till black. 

Small plate of Char Koay Teow but so tasty it leaves you begging for more!

The Siamese Laksa (RM 9.50) is the tastiest Siamese Laksa I have ever tried in my whole life, even compared to the one I had in Penang and Thailand! I cannot even imagine myself, a Penangite saying that (Pardon me, my fellow Penangites!) There was a whole piece of sardine fish on top of the laksa. The Siamese laksa is not too watery like the one I had in Pulau Tikus which is even made by a Thai lady and another one made by a Chinese lady. The gravy is very thick and satisfying. The only problem is the soup was not hot enough so perhaps next time I would have to remind the waiter to ensure mine is steaming hot. 

Now I think I do not need to travel all the way back to Penang to fulfil my Char Koay Teow and Siamese Lakse cravings. 

The only let-down I had was the Hokkien Dumpling (Bak-chang) for RM 5.90 where the glutinous rice was too soggy and soft, overcooked in a sense. The boss, told me that the Golden Chang is better.  Probably I was not good enough a judge as pork is not my top list of favourites. However, the price is quite worth if for the amount of ingredients inside.

I totally love the ice-blended Peach Tea (RM 5.80). Although quite sweet, when drinking using the straw through the bubbles, the feeling is refreshing.

Ice-blended Peach Tea (Left) and Cucumber Jasmine Tea (Right) 

The ice-cucumber jasmine tea (RM 5.80) is just normal, probably because I was comparing with Padi House at Setia Walk’s cucumber juice and I expected cucumber juice. But I would rather blame my too flavor-demanding tongue and not the drink. Considerably, when all the ice has melted, I could finally taste the German Jasmine tea used. The boss, Gary explained that he used the finest jasmine tea, a brand called Naturalis. He dared not use too fragrant jasmine tea which he is not sure of the origin and which chemical was used to maintain the fragrance.

After succeeding in finding the best Char Koay Teow and Siamese Laksa in the whole Malaysia, I sat down and spoke to the friendly General Manager, Gary Teoh. 

Below is a snippet of our conversation/interview till 10.10 pm, 3 June 2014:

Me and Gary Teoh, General Manager of Penang One

Catherine : How did you start this concept and business?
Gary : I started with this concept in October 2011. At that time, I was like you, a Penangite coming to KL to work and then, after a few months, I started having cravings for Penang hawker fare. Naturally, whenever I spot hawker stalls or cafes touting “Penang Char Koay Teow” and etc, I was drawn to it, and when I tasted it, I was disappointed and felt cheated. Then, I sat down, and thought, “Why not I bring the original famous Penang food to KL-ites if we cannot have the best here? Hence, my tagline - Famous food come together.” I went around Penang begging famous hawkers of the respective food items to sell me their food and ingredients. It was very challenging convincing these famous hawkers to believe me as this is a very rare idea, even a crazy idea, that many people thought.

Catherine: So which is the food items you chose to start with?
Gary: I started with only five food items that are Koay Teow T’ng, Laksa, Ice-Kacang, Prawn Mee (called “Hokkien Mee” by Penangites) and Char Koay Teow. In fact, I used three months convincing of the laksa and Char Koay Teow hawkers in Penang to believe in me.

Catherine : What makes you face the rejection and challenges faced by entrepreneurs?
Gary: The magic word lies in perseverance. There was once I almost gave up because I was jobless and had no source of income, yet I believed so much in the idea. I quit my professional logistic job in DHL to fulfil my dream of bringing Penang food to KL-ites. Everyone around me was telling me to quit. When I opened this Bandar Puteri café with those five items in the menu, I spent time talking to my customers for seven months and finally, word-of-mouth spread when the customer told some food bloggers and then now, we have our second branch in Kota Damansara, near Sunway Giza.

Catherine : Now, the ubiquitous question which everyone especially those cooks out there is eager to know – what is your secret recipe?
Gary: I transport everything from the food, the way it is cooked to the ingredients, even to the extent of the soup, paste, water from the famous hawkers in Penang. The only ingredients bought from Selangor are eggs, fruits and vegetables which do not change much everywhere in Malaysia.

Many suppliers in Selangor has tried to sell me their supply, telling me that they can get the best ingredient for this and that, but I stayed firm to my philosophy where I do not side track from my path of sourcing ingredients only from the ones used by the famous hawkers in Penang itself, in order not to deceive my customers. After all, all food experts, reviewers and critiques can discern the genuine type of noodles used by the original hawkers. In this food business, we can never lie because once we substitute the ingredients, customers will know and walk off and then in the end, these news will spread like wildfire. After all, I always hold strongly to the a Chinese saying, “You do not bite the hand that feeds you.” Thus, I do not betray the famous Penang hawkers’ effort and contribution that make me successful.

Catherine : Isn’t it costly to transport the ingredients and food from Penang every day to maintain the freshness?
Gary: First rule of thumb in my business is that I do not profit much. The cost per bowl paid is quite expensive in the logistics business. I buy the food at the original price from the hawkers and also pay royalty and franchise fees to use their photos and video them for promotional and commercial purposes.

Catherine : What is another unique factor of your café?
Gary: There is no one USP, in fact there is more than one. Other than bringing you the food straight from the source of famous Penang hawkers, we also recently started bringing you the famous hawkers, for instance, Fried Oyster Omelette (O Chien), Ah Soon Sifu from Penang island to this café to cook for customers from 4th to 11th May 2014. The special privilege would last for about one week, where Ah Soon would be flown here to cook for Penang One customers and the fried oyster omelette would cost RM 16. Ah Soon’s stall in Penang would have a signboard saying, “Off for one week to Penang One.” 

Outside the Penang One café, there is a bright yellow LED signboard announcing the up and coming famous Penang hawker who would come and cook outside the café, inside a realistic hawker stall. As for those of us who do not pass-by that area often, we can always stay tuned to the Penang One facebook for updates on the next famous Penang hawker whom Gary will be inviting as a celebrity chef in Penang One for a week. When that time comes, we better use that the golden opportunity to visit Penang One because these items will only be sold and cooked by THE CHEF for a week, and then after that, it will be back to the normal menu.

Gary is not only contented with bringing us Penang food, but he is also a very enthusiastic citizen who helps the Penang State Tourism Development Office to provide content for their maps and information on the popular art murals in Penang etc. I ended the candid interview congratulating Gary for a job well done and also wishing him good luck in his endeavours.

Of course, the first thing I did when I went back, for such a long time, after stopping my blogging for a while since December 2013 due to my busy work schedule, was to write this food review cum interview, so we can learn entrepreneurial values from Gary Teoh. It seems that our conversation has inspired me to write again! Of course, I immediately liked his facebook page so I would not miss out the next Penang celebrity hawker chef session at Penang One. Aside from that, I am coming back to taste the Penang coffee, my favourite White Nutmeg, Pak Poh Leng The, Almond Tea.

If you ever miss Penang, or feel like having a feel of Penang without wasting petrol due to the hike in petrol price, do visit Penang One! 

I was told that on Sundays, the place is packed with people who hail from Penang and everyone speaks Hokkien. The customers would cry out, “Tauke, 1 Curry Mee!” with the old Hokkien song playing on the background, so much so that it would have been mistaken for being old Penang, if not for the higher price that is on par with KL café price tags.

Address : 

Penang One (HQ) : G2, Jalan Puteri 2/6, Bandar Puteri, 47100 Puchong Selangor  

Facebook : www.facebook.com/penang.one

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