One started a tiffin food delivery service and went on to host cooking shows on AFC, the other pioneered an underground sandwich bar, a home-based breakfast club, and pop-up cake shops. It’s clear that Ili Sulaiman and Basira Yeusuff don’t do things the conventional way, a fact that has led to them being household names among Kuala Lumpur’s foodies.
Ili’s Dish By Ili delivers homecooked-style Malaysian dishes in tiffin carriers, and you can catch her on AFC sharing her recipes or taking viewers on culinary tours through short videos and shows like Home Cooked: Malaysia and By The Sea with Ili. Basira, on the other hand, has had her fingers in several pies. She started with Yay, Sammich!, selling gourmet sandwiches at market stalls and out of a house in Bangsar, and then co-founded the Fancy Breakfast Club that presented thematic spreads six mornings a week. She has since left that behind to focus on running a catering outfit called Root Cellar KL and the occasional cake pop-up (she’s best known for her lime and kacang tumbuk bundt cake).
Ili and Basira have now put their creative minds and culinary skills together to set up Agak Agak, a restaurant and social enterprise that serves as an apprenticeship platform. Open to Malaysian youth from marginalised communities, the programme will equip them with skills on running a food business, through hands-on training. Located at Bangsar’s APW, which is shaping up into one of the city’s most exciting food and lifestyle hubs, Agak Agak had its soft opening this past October before officially opening on 1 November. We sat down with the bubbly duo to find out more about their newest labour of love.
How did Agak Agak come about?
Ili (I): I used to hang out at Pulp by Papa Palheta, and met (Ee) Soon Wei, the CEO of APW. He told me how he’s transforming this place and when this space opened up, he offered it to me. I knew what I wanted to do, but I also knew I couldn’t do it alone. Basira came to mind; I had always loved what she did and looked up to her. She’s one of the few people in the local food industry who was always willing to lend a hand when I asked for help. I called her and told her about this idea, and she said she would think about it. That same evening, at a wedding dinner, I happened to sit next to someone from MaGIC (Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre) who told me about their accelerator programme and that there was an intake coming up.
Basira (B): I had never been keen on a brick-and-mortar; if you’d asked me up till seven months ago, that’s what I would have told you. But I found myself calling Ili back the next day and saying I’m in. We met up and spent hours completing our submission to MaGIC. We then went through their intensive, four-month acceleration programme, which not only gave us the chance to meet people from other industries but also further defined Agak Agak’s goals. Both Ili and I are well versed in the business side of things, having managed our respective outfits. With Agak Agak, we wanted to leave an impact and initially, we did not plan for the apprenticeship programme to be targeted at youth. MaGIC helped us sharpen our focus.
Tell us more about that, what made you shift your attention to Malaysian youth?
I: We found out that the unemployment rate among Malaysian youth is very high. We’re getting applicants who are Masters degree holders, but have difficulty finding a job. Through Agak Agak, we’re doing a very small part in a very big issue.
What are the criteria for the apprentice programme?
I: We’re looking for those aged between 17-30, SPM leavers, who come from a marginalised background. They don’t need to have an experience in F&B…
B: In fact, we prefer those who don’t have any prior experience, because they will be exposed to all kinds of training by different teachers so it’s better for them to come in with a blank slate.
I: Most importantly, they must have a passion for food and display positive characteristics, such as having a good work attitude and can work in a team. We will put them through a rigorous selection process that includes a written submission, a phone interview followed by a face-to-face interview for shortlisted candidates, and then we will assess them.
How many apprentices will you be taking in and how long will the training be?
I: We hope to take in two by January 2017 and another two by April, if we manage to raise enough funds. It’s not cheap to run such a programme; we’re talking about RM30,000-40,000 a year. We received some seed funding from MaGIC, which was used to set up our infrastructure and right now, we are crowdfunding for the programme itself. There is no specific duration, it depends on how quickly they learn. We do have a structure for the programme that covers various aspects of running a restaurant, from operations to finance and administrative needs. They will do practical training at other restaurants as well, and we’ll even teach them things like how to speak to customers and reply emails.
So the restaurant front is to support that apprenticeship programme.
I: Yes, 40 percent of our profits goes directly into the programme so when you dine here, you’re contributing to it. For the apprentices, it’s just like having a proper job or joining a management trainee programme. They will receive a salary, go through training, and get hands-on experience.
Will there be any other trainers besides yourselves?
I: We have collaborators and supporters, such as Marcus Low of Table & Apron (formerly The Kitchen Table), who is supplying bread to Agak Agak. He will also be training our apprentices in pastries and baking.
Agak Agak sounds like Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen. Was that part of your inspiration?
I: It is, although there is one key difference; Jamie Oliver hires his apprentices to work at his restaurants after they complete their training. Agak Agak provides training, then sends them out to work in the F&B industry, or they may want to start up their own food business. Basira and I are accustomed to European culinary practices, where it’s common for F&B outlets to have apprentices. In our respective businesses, we were already doing something similar – hire people with passion, train them, open our doors to give opportunity to others.
B: We want to blur the lines between social enterprises and businesses, we believe that social responsibility should be a part of all businesses.
Besides producing skilled chefs and food business owners, what do you hope to achieve through Agak Agak?
I: We don’t just want to teach, but also change lives and alter conceptions about the industry and Malaysian talents. It’s sad but true: Our talents do well overseas but cannot flourish at home. When I first came back from the UK, where I studied business management, people asked me why I went through all that and yet chose to be a chef. To me, it’s a noble job. I provide food to people, and the food becomes a part of them.
We want to put Malaysian food on the map, we want more people to appreciate our cuisine. Agak Agak’s décor was designed to facilitate that too. There are no walls, because we want to break down barriers and change mindsets, it’s like a subtle shock to the system.
B: Diners can see exactly what goes on in the kitchen, how their food is prepared, or sit at the counter and interact with us. It’s also good for our kitchen as this open plan lets them observe customers’ reactions. When they see people enjoying your food, they will feel a sense of ownership… that what they put out brings joy to others.
Tell us about the food you serve at Agak Agak.
I: Our menu represents all of Malaysia, and was designed to coincide with the modules of the training programme. It showcases both our respective specialties; mine is wholesome home cooking (my signature dish is the Lauk Harini, a platter of rice with side dishes) while Basira’s is artisanal sandwiches (her signature is the beef brisket) and cakes. Everything is made from scratch in-house, so our apprentices will learn to make everything from noodles to sauces and bake cakes.
What should a first-time diner try?
I: We have several dishes that are basically Ili and Basira on a plate: Ulam & Quinoa salad, Mangkuk Tongkol (tuna rice bowl), Ayam Salsa and Sambal Tempe sandwiches, and Chilli Pate Mee. The latter is our take on the popular chilli pan mee, but we’re using handmade toasted rye noodles with dry chilli oil, minced chicken, ikan bilis, kicap (soy sauce) egg and buttery chicken liver pate. The noodles, chilli oil, and pate are all made in-house. Someone described this dish as “Malaysian carbonara” as it’s very creamy!
Slices of turkey, herbed stuffing, roasted vegetables, cranberry sauce, gravy and fresh leaves in a toasted sandwich.
*Available everyday throughout December
Communal cheese platter, roasted turkey with herbed stuffing, steak & peas pot pie, roasted root vegetables, seasonal salad, wobbly Christmas trifle, apple & rhubarb crumble, candy cane brownies, and spiced apple cider tea.
*Available at 11am every Sunday until Christmas; bookings must be done one week prior. RM125 per pax.
Communal cheese platter, roasted turkey with herbed stuffing, slow-roasted Australian lamb shoulder, spiced honey baked pumpkin, roasted root vegetables, seasonal salad, wobbly Christmas trifle, poached pears in ginger & cinnamon, Silent Night Christmas pudding, and spiced apple cider tea.
*Available every Fri-Sat, 7.30pm until Christmas; bookings must be done one week prior. RM155 per pax.