Calvin Chong, co-owner and chef of KCH, on becoming a chef, cooking homestyle Malaysian and making it through a pandemic.
Opening his own place by the time he was 30 has been a dream come true, but Calvin Chong almost didn’t become a chef. “My mum loves reading cookbooks and cooking magazines, she has thousands of them. So when I was young, I was always going through her bookshelves, reading cookbooks and I think that’s where my passion for food came from,” says Chong. “My grandmother and mum used to sell traditional Malaysian Nyonya cakes for a living – I was brought up in an environment surrounded by food.”
That passion stuck with Chong. But it wasn’t a path his family was behind from the get-go. “Growing up I wanted to be an architect or photographer, and chef was always on the list, but with Asian parents, they wanted me to do engineering or be a doctor,” he says. When Chong moved to Perth from Kuching to live with his uncles, he finished school, then went and studied Mechanical Engineering. But graduating during the GFC meant jobs in the field were hard to come by. With the support of his girlfriend (now wife) Katie Tran, he made the call to enrol in culinary school – and found the courage to tell his parents.
Chong credits culinary school for giving him a solid foundation. Then after stints at Bread In Common, Co-Op Dining and Petite Mort he found his feet and thrived at Petition, starting as a commis and worked his way up to junior sous-chef. “What I enjoy about being in the kitchen is the people that you work with,” says Chong. “That’s why I stayed at Petition for 4 years, for the people – they become like family.”
In October 2019, with his uncle Gan as business partner, Chong opened KCH (Kuching, in short) in North Perth. With KCH, he wanted to share the food he grew up eating, like Kuching’s famed Sarawak laksa (a dish Anthony Bourdain once called the breakfast of gods) and family recipes such as his Grandma’s meat roll.
“What I enjoy about being in the kitchen is the people that you work with,” says Chong. “That’s why I stayed at Petition for 4 years, for the people – they become like family.”
Chong also came to KCH with a fresh approach to Malaysian cooking, fuelled by the skills he’d acquired at Petition and beyond. “I’m young and I wanted to do things differently,” he says.
“When you look at our dishes, they look simple but they have so many flavours. There’s always a sour element to balance the fattiness and a lot of texture. I like to add pickles and something crunchy to my dishes.”
And while that equates to more finessed touches across the menu, sometimes it’s as simple as having a bit of fun with something. Mumma’s Chong Curry Chicken for example, is a family recipe, given crunch with the addition of potato crisps.
Although the menu is limited by the size of the open kitchen, KCH makes a point of offering weekend specials. They might be a space to experiment with new ideas, reimagine childhood favourites, or serve proper Kuching food that you won’t really find around Perth. A spin on the popular instant Maggi kari mee that adds brisket curry and a deep-fried egg to the mix, say, or a more classic rendition of gu bak mee, a staple Kuching beef-noodle dish. “We sold so many of the gu bak mee the first time we made it,” says Chong. “We had people from Kuching who’ve been living here for 20 years and haven’t been back home, and they remember how the flavour was and it hit the spot.”
Along with the usual challenges first-time business owners face, a few months after opening KCH the pandemic hit. “The first week of lockdown where we could open for takeaway, it was dead, like horrible,” says Chong. But he kept KCH open for his staff, with he and his uncle sacrificing their salary for months to pay wages and bills.
While dine-in was initially the focus, takeaway gained momentum during lockdown. “I personally delivered within 5 kilometres to boost sales, and slowly things picked up,” says Chong, crediting word of mouth, and supporting chefs like Lulu La Delizia’s Joel Valvasori sharing their dishes on Instagram.
Owning his own restaurant has meant Chong has had to become an all rounder, managing front of house and working with his head chef Alan Lee on the menu and specials. Customer service is something he takes seriously, and Chong reflects on how being a chef makes him attuned to everything. “When you’re a chef, you have to pay attention to a lot of things. Like with the plating, you notice if there is something wrong or if the sides are dirty,” says Chong. “So I’ve used what I’ve learnt over the years as a chef to influence front of house. I notice things like if the customer has no water or cutlery, and I make sure my staff are alert and see what customers want.”
Just shy of KCH’s second birthday, there are plans to open a second venue. “We’re still deciding where the site will be,” says Chong, who sees a bigger space as an opportunity to grow and expand the creative, too. And while KCH is BYO, the prospect of a license and matching Malaysian food with alcohol himself, excites him. “There are a lot of combinations that would go really well together,” Chong says. “XPA is very hoppy, so from my experience, it goes well with spicy food. Since both have strong flavours, they somehow balance each other very well.”
It may not have been Chong’s first career choice, but looking back, he’s glad he took the plunge, even if it meant fronting up to his parents. “I have no regrets,” he says. “I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.”