James Wong – Jamboo KL
In this interview, James Wong, co-owner of Jamboo KL, tells the story of how the restaurant came to be and some challenges along the way.
What do you do?
I grind new greens in the heart of Kuala Lumpur in the world’s first customisable lei cha concept store, Jamboo. I’m on the mission to make lei cha easily found, and to be the world’s most responsible food and beverage brand in the market.
How did you get into the industry?
Since I was a child, I helped my dad in his food and beverage business. Later I worked in a restaurant part-time to see if I am really passionate about the service industry. After that, I went to Berjaya University to study a Diploma and Bachelor in Hospitality Management. After graduating, I had an opportunity to work in the USA for two years. I returned to KL in 2021 (MCO 3.0). During my time in the States, I worked seven days per week and more than 40 hours every day even up to 18 hours in a day. Life might have sounded easy when I told friends and family that I was working there but there were definitely hard times and fun times. My job scope was basically everything. I worked as a food coordinator, server, kitchen assistant and many more. (Feels like I’m jack of all trade but master of none). Our team had cracked more than 500 hundreds of Maine lobster for lobster night (it was so crazy we couldn’t even feel our hands because of blisters and scratches). In those 730 days, me and a few friends had worked our asses off and even slept on the carpet of the banquet hall for a few hours before starting work again at 7am. Do I love this industry? I would say yes and no. Yes, the adrenaline is awesome and the bonding that we have amongst each other is great too. No, because sometimes people don’t appreciate what you do for them. They don’t understand the sacrifice of time and much more to make an event successful. Is like 10 years of hard work and a few seconds of smile from the guests is just worth it.
Share with us a story from behind the scenes.
Jenny, our family and I first started from a home-based business selling lei cha and other dishes such as salad chicken rice, kimchi fried rice, sweet and sour rice. The business lasted for three months before we ventured into Jamboo KL. During these three months we found that there were more customers ordering lei cha compared to other dishes which was a surprise because we thought youngsters like us don’t fancy it other than festivals when our aunties would cook a feast for the family. We sparked our ideas where we wanted to make it customisable because we have crazy preference and we lei cha like a poke bowl where you could put proteins, toppings or base as you please. Besides, we wanted to make lei cha easily found and accepted by many. Of course, we also wanted to modernize the recipe and to share the value of lei cha. Lei cha for Jamboo is like a bowl of art. It takes hours to prepare a single compact yet comforting bowl of rice. We should learn to value this humble dish.
What’s a food memory from your childhood or travels that stands out?
The food that always brings me back to childhood is a simple dish, kolo mee. I still remember when I could have three bowls of kolo mee for breakfast and sometimes it can be a three-meal a day thing for me. It seems so easy to make. However, the technique to cook the noodle to the right texture is a skill. Also, choosing the right amount of every ingredient to harmonise the taste and fragrance is crucial to making a good bowl of it. During my time in the States, my favourite food was freshly steamed Maine lobster with drawn butter! In Malaysia it’s hard and expensive to get such a lobster and the taste of it just different.
What’s the best/ worst part of your job?
The best part is getting to know more people and the challenges in this industry is just great. You get to learn how to adapt towards the trend and how to increase your business or cash flow for the better of the company and our talents (staff). Not everything flows accordingly when we want to execute Plan A. It never ever goes smoothly (for me but some may be lucky) so it is constantly growing with exposure and experience. Some may think that I am too young for the journey but sometimes you have to see things in life how deep you want it to be yours or how much you are willing to sacrifice for a greater good deep inside. Don’t get limited by what others think of you because you only live once and none of us is perfect in any way. “Success is how high you bounce when you hit the bottom” (this is a quote that have been following for years).
The worst part of the job comes in many ways. Sometimes I take it positively and sometimes just don’t give a damn about it. One of the worst would be if someone in your closest circle doesn’t respect you. Sometimes these people could even backstab you. The hardest is when we engage too much and put our emotions into it; it could really hurt your motivation. Life will never be easy; we are the craftsman of our own statue.
James Wong’s favourite food and beverage pairing?
I would say a crusted lamb rack (medium-rare) with mint sauce on the side with port wine balsamic reduction and potato gratin paired with a good cabernet sauvignon such as Hall, Typesetter or Penfolds Bin 704.
What’s one of the wildest things you’ve seen behind the scenes?
When I worked in the USA, it was hurricane season. We needed to know how severe it would be for that particular season so the team could plan how to reduce the impact on the club’s facilities. We carried endless amount of lounge chairs from the beach area to the basement, a few hundred metres felt like a mile. Then we needed to block all the draft from the doors and windows. We carried sandbags and stacked them as if we were going into war.
In Jamboo the natural disaster we faced was flooding – three times in six months. I told my partner we needed to have faith in the authority because they built a new drainage system in front of Jamboo two years ago. I believed in the system because its 21st. Unfortunately, it didn’t go well at all. It’s my first-time experiencing flooding and all the cockroaches from the drain kept running upwards. We could see rats swimming around finding places to hide. The second time we saw a three-metre-long snake swimming around! Our neighbours and staff freaked out and kept shouting (snake here, snake there). One of our talents grabbed a clever and a blow torch to prevent it from biting one of us. Indeed, it was the most exciting journey so far. The extra hours needed to clean and sanitize the café was insane.
Despite these incidents, we connected closer to our talents and we better understood the importance of prevention. Relationships evolved.
The perfect day off would be…
There is no day off in the service industry unfortunately. When we have a rest day, we discuss and brainstorm new ideas. Because the brain never stops working, when we observe we learn and understand. This is what makes our industry challenging yet exciting every day.
A day in the life of James Wong is…
Improving the quality of your business and maintaining the standards of operation. The talents are our asset in business. We shape them so that they can be the best in the market for people to see and learn from. Entrepreneurship is easy to start but it’s hard to keep clear motivation and goals. One may influence you in the wrong direction and it is hard to get back on track. Every day you face new obstacles. You may overcome them easily or you may find them greater in the next moment. Sometimes we feel like giving up because the journey is crazy.
What’s something you’d like guests to know about Jamboo?
Jamboo is an elegant concept with a clear core value of being kind, is environment friendly and practices equality. It is clean open, healthy and comfortable person. We hope to work with local artists and to promote innovation and creative ideas. Lei cha is a bowl of art we should reevaluate the benefits it has been giving not only to our body but also the craftmanship in producing it. In Chinese we have a saying “台山一分钟，台下十年功” – one minute of work on stage equsls 10 years of hard work behind the scenes. We want to help people appreciate that.
How has the pandemic changed you, your perspective, or the way you operate?
I have grown my critical thinking skills. My brain has shifted by taking everything as an opportunity. I often wonder if I got the chance to turn back, would I?
What’s something you’d like people to know about being a restaurateur as a profession?
You need to be prepared for patience, passion, understanding and learning. It’s important to, “Do before you talk.” I find many who speak but without action. In the end, action speaks way louder than words.
What practices do you currently implement or hope to implement in the future to work towards social responsibility and sustainability?
Jamboo’s vision is to be the most responsible food and beverage company in the world. 80% of the produce we have in-store are from local farms. The takeaway packaging, we use in-store is made from cornstarch, which is the most sustainable we could find in the market.
What’s in store for you in the upcoming months?
Jamboo is planning to open its door to franchise and grow. We want Jamboo to be a recognized brand in the world and with the right opportunities we want to be in Nasdaq! Additionally, Jamboo will also be releasing our merchandize range including hand soap, dish soap, lei cha butter, lei cha pastes and more.
Read more interviews such as this one with James Wong here, and stay up to date with the latest food and beverage happenings in KL here.
Sweet looking couple. Imagine having their humble beginning selling lei cha! All the best to them in their future endeavours.
I like reading a story about businesses that are born out of passion. They are so inspiring.