I have a friend. His name is Ryonn Leong. But before you write this off as a childish essay, let me clarify that childhood dreams — and not childishness — is what this article is about.
You see, Ryonn who hails from Kelantan has been playing masak-masak since he was a kid. And I don’t mean the plastic wok and Frisbee eggs sort. He spent most of his younger days facing the heat inside real kitchens right next to his mother and aunties while his sibling and peers were busy roughing it out on the football field. An odd boy he was. So odd he grew up pursuing a future that had nothing to do with his first love.
For the same reasons, Nicklaus Au, who went a step further and graduated from a three-year culinary arts course from Sunway School of Hospitality and Tourism about a decade ago only to find the local restaurant scene not lucrative enough for him keep a basic lifestyle. So Nick, as he is often referred to, did what most practical Asian boys would do and sold his soul to the corporate devils.
While they both hold desirable 9-5 jobs, their culinary lust has never waned. Apart from cooking, these two boys also share another passion — singing. As fate would have it, they both met while singing together with the Young Kuala Lumpur Singers and quickly bonded through their passion for food.
Sometime late last year, on a routine commute back to the city from Penang, Ryonn had an epiphany. “Long drives always gets me into serious thinking mode. And with a few thoughts about what I wanted to do with my life, I called Nick up and said, ‘Let’s do this‘,” Ryonn explained about how Transparent Apron first came to be.
Nick was also quick to add that, “Even before his invitation, I had always kept in mind to start up a supper club. Things never really took off because managing an entire dinner on my own meant putting in mega effort. And there weren’t any suitable properties in which I could house guests in and cook such elaborate meals. Therefore, when Ryonn called and offered his home with me taking the helm in the kitchen — it was a no brainer.”
And why the name, you ask? Believe it or not, it was the name of a fictitious restaurant that Ryonn conceptualised for a business project in university. He has no recollection how he came up with the name, perhaps a take-off on The Naked Chef, but he remembered how excited he was about the project. It’s amazing to think how the seed of our futures may have been planted even before we know it. And all it takes is the right time before it blossoms.
Given ten years ago, the concept of dining in a stranger’s home based on hearsay would have been unimaginable. But now, this global underground scene is finally making its way to our part of the world with secret supper clubs popping up in big cities like Hong Kong, Singapore and even in our very own backyard. Diners here are now more willing to indulge in new concepts and spend if you can deliver on the promise.
So, taking advantage of the current state of maturity in KL’s dining scene, now it seems is the right time for these two young cooks to move into the business. And with a supper club set-up, they can both still indulge in their creativity without having to lose a steady income.Of course most of these supper clubs will not stay a secret for long but nevertheless, they provide a nice alternative to the usual restaurant scene – bridging the gap between high-end eateries and casual dining. The major appeal, I think, of such a concept is how random things can be. From the venue, ingredients, concept and right down to who you end up sharing a table with, can all be very exciting.
“It’s a thin line. I suppose it’s the formality of the situation that makes a supper club fairly different from a dinner at home with friends,” explained Nick on the difference between a supper club and a dinner party. He continued, “For example, I wouldn’t really want a paying customer to peek his/her head into the kitchen or arrive earlier and see what I am doing in the kitchen and how I prepare the food. It’s all about the moment in which the dishes are presented to you. However, if it was just a dinner with friends, all these formalities go away and I’m far more relaxed.”
At a recent test dinner, I was among a privileged few invited to sample what Transparent Apron is about. Simple flower arrangements, a clean table setting and jazz numbers lent a cozy and warm tone to the evening. Our “waiter” for the evening was the ever smiley and attentive Joel Wong, a fellow choir singer who also happens to be the designer behind their origami-inspired llama logo. He did not need much pleading from us before showering us with the gift of songs, while the two chefs were busy putting our three-course dinner together behind drawn curtains which separates the kitchen from the dining table.
It was not long before our appetizers arrived, Apple Salad & Fish Tartare with ginger lime miso reduction — a masterful play of colours, flavours and textures and it photographed like a dream. The fish tartare came in the form of salmon sashimi slices, with the right amount of thickness, folded in a wave-like pattern in the middle of the deep white plate flanked by slivers of Granny Smith apples and endives and punctuated with a tiny burst of deep red cherry tomatoes on one side, while the remarkable dressing with a gingery zing lay sensually on the other side.
If anything, this dish served as a great introduction to the creative spirit of Transparent Apron. Both the chefs have very different philosophies when it comes to food. Nick’s interest lies mainly in molecular cooking and is hugely inspired by the work of Thomas Keller, while Ryonn’s cooking is very much shaped by local flavours and dishes from his childhood and counts Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall as one of his culinary heroes.
So how did they find a way to marry their interest and ideas?
“I don’t really indulge in just ‘molecular cooking.’ I suppose that term is really mis-used these days – let’s call it avant garde cooking instead. In either case, I strongly believe that to be creative means that both of us need to be able to come up with something original or new flavours that may not have been discovered yet or maybe old flavours with a new twist. I think our background and opinions give us an edge in making such differentiation in our food. I like the dimension that Asian spices and ingredients lend onto a dish but at the same time having the dish cooked in a typical French/European style. Whilst my food is considered Euro-American, my ingredients are whatever that is fresh, available and seasonal that I can take advantage of — even if it means throwing some Indian spices in the dish and making it work. We’re inspired in that way,” answered Nick.
Ryonn added, “I find it refreshing when we get into this thinking process. I like Nick’s angles and I’m secretly learning quite a fair bit from him. I look forward to more experimental and trial sessions to come out with ideas.”
Next came the Green-lipped Mussels in White Wine Sauce, a garlicky unassuming-looking dish that had us smacking our lips and soaking up every last drop of the sauce with a toasty slice of sourdough bread. The tiny chili bits also left a nice lingering heat in the mouth as we waited for the main course cooking in the kitchen, which smelled divine by the way from where we were seated. The mussel dish was originally not part of the menu but they decided to throw it in anyway.
The heavenly aroma turned out to be the Dark Ale Cinnamon Braised Pork with mushroom-apple sauce with a side of creamy mash potatoes. The pork shoulder has been slowly braising for over six hours, had the right texture – tender but still retaining a nice bite. While I secretly wished that the pork could have been more lard-di-da (read: fatter), the sauce itself — balanced by the austerity of some good ol’ stout — made up for any loss of indulgence.
Ending the evening’s apple-themed menu was an interesting Apple Terrine dessert. Slender layers of green apple held together with hunks of butter, baked with a spicy infusion of cinnamon, clove and star anise and finally drizzled with a lemony syrup and topped with freshly toasted candied nuts for some crunch. Once again, while I wanted to indulge in something more decadent, there was clearly nothing wrong with ending the night on a light, fresh and jazzy tone. A freshly brewed cup of coffee helped too.
These guys definitely deserve a standing ovation for having the guts to pursue their dreams and putting themselves out there. Ryonn, a man who wears many hats, is also a food blogger and when asked about how does he feels about having the table turned on him now instead, he simply replied, “Seriously, this is a bit awkward. Stressful too. But at the end of the day, we let our food do the talking for us.”
Well, not only will they be doing the talking, but soon enough, high praises will be sung.
***Transparent Apron For more information and updates on upcoming dinners, follow them on Facebook: @transparentapron For dinner enquiries and bookings, email them at email@example.com
This article was originally published on The Malaysian Insider‘s Food column on 24 April 2012.