Andrew Wong – his latest concept OpenHouse has taken the Kuala Lumpur dining scene by storm
Andrew Wong, one of Malaysia’s hottest restauranteurs, chats with Monica Tindall about his latest concept, OpenHouse. Taking 14 months to complete but being open for less than a month, OpenHouse has taken the Kuala Lumpur dining scene by storm. Already receiving multiple visits from royalty and the country’s prime minister and entourage, the restaurant has brought a whole new level of dining to the city.
Andrew Wong – OpenHouse
Andrew, it can’t be an easy task to make it successfully as a restauranteur. There must be a story behind making it this far. How did you get into the industry to begin?
My day job before opening restaurants was working for a design firm. We designed for a lot of restaurants and lifestyle businesses. My partner and I thought we should perhaps try designing a restaurant for ourselves, just for fun, and put our money where our mouth is – no pun intended – to create a restaurant concept that eventually became Acme Bar & Coffee. Quite accidentally it became my full-time job when it took off.
In your path to success, what was one of the biggest challenges?
People. Most prefer a cushy 9-5 job in an office with a desk. It is finding the right mix of people to create a team that I find the biggest challenge. In a way, it is like finding the right recipe and doing it over and over again until it is perfected.
What are your some of the greatest struggles/joys you find in working in restaurants in Malaysia?
It is the brickbats and bouquets that is also a mirror of our daily struggles and joys. Yes, we do make mistakes especially when a restaurant is opened for 14 hours a day for 365 days a year. It is inevitable.
I always tell the team we are here to create memorable dining experiences, and when a mistake is made we genuinely try to correct it. But some of the bricks that comes our way are boulder sized. We just plant it with flowers after they land and let it bloom.
Having travelled around the world, you must have some great restaurant stories to share. What has been one of your most memorable dining experiences?
It has got to be the series of Noma pop-ups that I was lucky enough to get to experience. From their original one in Copenhagen to the Sydney pop-up, and finally Tulum in Mexico. It showed me how our restaurant’s philosophy of The 3 Pillars – good food, ambience and service can deliver exceptional dining experiences. Noma embodied that, and their meticulous yet invisible craft of casual fine dining was just something to aspire to. Behind that effortlessness, you could sense every detail was planned and expertly executed.
Tell us about your latest concept, OpenHouse, and how is this different to what you have done up to this point?
We have always been a casual dining restaurant with a predominantly western inflected menu with bits of Asian thrown in. Every “season” we will change the menu and our strength was always being able to mix them both without being called a “fusion” restaurant.
OpenHouse is like a supercharged version of ABC but we took Malaysian cuisine as our starting point. Our dishes are both rooted in tradition yet inflected with a modernity that is not confusing or an attempt on food gymnastics. We didn’t want it to be gimmicky or “concept-y.” Good dishes or recipes that have survived generations are still here for a reason. Perhaps it wasn’t fashionable anymore to serve them but that’s where we came in. Our concept was to make these dishes modern yet still rooted in tradition.
With OpenHouse you are providing a fine experience with Malaysian food. Why do you think this has not yet been done in Malaysia to this level?
I am sure there may have been a few before us but perhaps it’s the zeitgeist of a new landscape where we are proudly rediscovering Malaysia, who we are and what our rich culture has given us that it is starting to make us appreciate it more. We have always looked to the west for finer dining experience, so perhaps it was refreshing to find how Malaysian finer cuisine can be experienced at OpenHouse.
If you could invite anyone in the world to dine at OpenHouse, who would it be and what would you make?
This is tough, as with Malaysian dining – it is best shared with a bigger table. I think I would love to have Jay Rayner of The Guardian here because he’s so unabashedly wicked with his observations. I’d probably be a nervous wreck before and after he comes, but, if OpenHouse is going to be measured, Jay would do it with a blunt knife in a thousand delicious cuts!
How do you merge your international mindset with your current home, Malaysia?
Travel. Just whisk me away once in a while and when I start to miss my Maggi mee and nasi lemak, I know it’s time to come home again.
If there was one piece of advice you could go back in time and give yourself as a young restauranteur what would it be?
Continue to be foolish and fearless. I was so naive with no knowledge how this industry works, but, perhaps because of that naivety I did things that most restauranteurs won’t do. That made things new and fresh for my first restaurant.
I have newfound respect for circus clowns. The art of juggling, and looking so fun doing it is a skillset that this industry requires. You’ll be spinning so many plates in the air, and juggling knives and choppers on a unicycle while keeping people entertained is no small feat. Respect!
Thank you very much for these insights, Andrew!
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