Chef Aaron Khor
In this interview, Aaron Khor, head chef of the Fifty Tales Group and co-founder of Chu by Fifty Tales, shares how he got into the industry, some behind-the-scenes stories and his opinions on the food scene in Kuala Lumpur today.
What do you do?
I am the head chef of Fifty Tales and the co-owner of Chu by Fifty Tales. I run two restaurants with the founders and my business partners, who are also in the field. Altogether, we work on curating menus and events and doing the back-end work. That also means hiring, marketing, photography, and web and menu design – all done by the three of us.
How did you get into the industry?
My father has been the most significant influence as he often cooked at home. Likewise, my cousins and relatives in Kuala Kangsar are influential as they own a Peranakan restaurant in the small town. I would always help them during Chinese New Year when I was younger when we visited our hometown. Soon after, I decided to take up culinary school at KDU College, currently called the University of Wollongong. While studying, I worked part-time in Dewakan Restaurant for a few months. Soon after I graduated, I worked in Bali for Restaurant Locavore. For two years, I was there. Soon after, I returned from Bali and worked in Dewakan for another two years. That’s where I built relationships with people in the industry and did events on my own to reach out to new connections.
Share with us a story from behind the scenes.
My typical days are juggling operations between two restaurants, Fifty Tales and Chu by Fifty Tales. Of course, with my other partners, we three run around like mad men, ensuring the ship stays afloat. A Saturday could be me cooking lunch at Chu by Fifty Tales. By 4 pm, I would drive to Fifty Tales, eat a quick staff meal, and be ready for dinner service, cooking a different menu.
What food memory from your childhood or travels stands out?
When I used to work in Bali as a cook, there was a place I would always go after work to get a quick supper before heading home. It was a little run-down warung, where cleanliness could be questionable, and the restaurant size could only fit four people per time. It served ginger flower sambal, deep-fried catfish, and deep-fried vegetables with rice. Something about those combinations and flavours has stuck with me ever since, and I would return to that place almost five times a week. I tried replicating the flavours. It doesn’t seem to stick.
What’s the best/ worst part of your job?
For me, the best part about my job is being able to cook the things I would love to eat. I can share that experience with customers. It keeps me going and pushes me to always do better for my customers and the food and beverage industry. The worst part about the job is dealing with unexpected situations that require you to always be on your toes. It could be a last-minute dietary restriction or bad weather, and customers don’t want to dine in. Things that are beyond our control, and we just have to ride the waves.
What’s one of your favourite food and beverage pairings?
One of my favourite food and beverage pairings is teh o limau ice with mee goreng. The drink helps with the oiliness of the dish, and the mee goreng is one of my comfort foods.
What’s one of the craziest things you’ve seen behind the scenes?
One of the craziest things actually happened to me. Where I used to work in Bali, the restaurant had stairs in the kitchen. One day, I had my knife in my hand while climbing the stairs. I slipped and fell while holding that knife. By sheer luck, I didn’t stab myself or anyone. But everyone in the kitchen noticed the knife and me falling, it was one of the craziest, yet luckiest moments. My colleagues didn’t know how to help me because the knife was still in my hand. If you look at it on the bright side, nobody got stabbed.
The perfect day off would be…
Spending time with my family and girlfriend trying out new restaurants or seeking new food experiences. My family and I love trying out new places, and we always are on the lookout for new things to try.
A day in the life of Aaron Khor is…
A day in the life of a chef is solving problems every day. It could be a shortage of ingredients or things in the kitchen that are not working and need to be fixed. While cooking food for customers and sometimes your own colleagues. Making sure customers are all satisfied with the service provided. It’s a handful, for sure.
What does Aaron Khor do for fun?
One of my hobbies which I always do a lot for fun and also sometimes for work, is photography. Somewhat, it is similar to cooking, as you have to think of a way to present something that has been overlooked and make it look attractive again. For example, finding the best angles and points of view in a camera to take a good photo of a plate of food could be compared with trying to find new and interesting ways to cook an onion. Both challenge me to constantly find new ways to think about things. Hence to me, that is fun and challenging at the same time.
What’s something you’d like guests to know about Fifty Tales and Chu by Fifty Tales?
As some of our customers would know, we have a huge slogan on our uniforms and a big red neon sign at our Chu by Fifty Tales restaurant saying Not Ramen. We get a lot of questions about it and ask why. The reason why we put Not Ramen is because we were always assumed to be a ramen bar, doing Japanese food.
We thought to ourselves, why was this happening? We observed and talked to many people. This is based on our assumption, and we could be wrong. But from what we’ve experienced, we feel that consumers overappreciatedJapanese cuisine over our own local cuisine. If a noodle bar were to open, it had to be Japanese because ramen is popular worldwide. But we all know this.
Our brand’s mission is to showcase local Chinese cooking, doing noodles, which many Malaysians grew up eating. Preserving the culture of Chinese food in Malaysia. At the same time, giving value to the cuisine. It gets frustrating when some customers feel our food is overpriced. But if customers were to ask us about that, we would always throw back the question to them. Then why are you okay with paying RM35-RM50+ on average for a bowl of ramen? Versus paying RM18-RM30 for a bowl of handmade noodles with Chinese cooking techniques and flavours. Many street hawker stores get bastardized for increasing their prices by just RM1-RM2 because there is pressure to always ‘BE CHEAP’. The reason would be, it’s local food. However, the same work goes into both cuisines. Broths are made in-house, and noodles are made in-house. But why? Perception of value.
Many of us perceive that the further away things come from, the more valuable it is. We aim to challenge that notion. To give awareness to how much value or how much we misplace our values in the food we pay for. Gone are the days when craftsmanship was undervalued. Fifty Tales group is all about that, giving value to our local cooking.
How has the pandemic changed your perspective or the way you operate?
I have learnt that plans can always be made, but plans can change anytime. No matter how far ahead you plan. It has taught me to be flexible and adaptive. That means also managing my own expectations. Believing in Murphy’s Law, ” Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”. We just have to be on our toes. However, being adaptive is one thing. Being present is another. I learned to not take things for granted. Whether it’s the time I spend with close ones or doing my hobbies. Celebrate when it is due, appreciate all the little things in life, have faith in God, and leave it to Him if you can’t control it.
What’s something you’d like people to know about being a chef as a profession?
Being a chef doesn’t take passion. It takes purpose. Passion burns out. But purpose keeps you going. Many will say that you just need a passion for cooking. I also believed that for a long time. However, I had my fair share of burnouts. Passion changes over time and it is normal. The feeling of not wanting to do it anymore comes very often. But what kept me going was my purpose. The “why” behind the “what”. The engine of my love for cooking. Taking up a chef as a professional career requires purpose.
What’s your view on the food and beverage scene in Kuala Lumpur?
The F&B scene in this city is booming slowly. Which is a good thing. Any progress is progress, and we are slowly becoming one of the most interesting cities to dine in. Many restaurants are coming up, and many seem to be interesting. We must be hopeful and need more culinary talents in the city to bring this place upwards. It may not be as developed as London or Bangkok; however, we have our own set of struggles. This country is already facing many other issues unrelated to F&B. The progress has been slowed down by many factors. However, we have to persevere and keep moving forward. I am certain that Kuala Lumpur will be one of the most exciting cities to dine in. We just need time.
What practices do you currently implement or hope to implement to work towards social responsibility and sustainability in the future?
In terms of our social responsibility as a restaurant, we have been working with local chefs only. Young chefs, to be exact. As we want to showcase the value of our cuisine, it is also essential for young local chefs to understand why we need to do what we do. I credit my chef mentors Darren Teoh from Dewakan and Eelke from Locavore. They showed me why preserving what we have on our land is vital. It’s our culture that we need to maintain, and we need to be hopeful that the next generation will see the value and continue the culture onwards.
What’s in store for you in the upcoming months?
We have a few small events lined up for the restaurant, keeping things exciting each month. Check us on our social media platforms to follow up with our events. Fifty Tales will also bring in some new experiences at the year-end. Do stay tuned.