Secret passions simmer in supper clubs

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Chyuan’s Tiffin Underground Supper Club dishes out delicacies with Chinese, Thai and Peranakan influences.

By Sean Yoong

Like many office-bound employees, Eddy Kwong looks forward to Fridays – in his case, because he can swap his corporate clothes for a chef’s apron every weekend. Despite having a full-time job as a marketing officer, Kwong also operates a home-based supper club, welcoming strangers into his Sri Petaling apartment to taste his family’s cooking on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.

Such supper clubs serve as an alternative to restaurants, specifically for food lovers who crave a more distinctive dining experience. But they’re also becoming a way for some corporate workers to satisfy their secret passion for hosting and cooking, without being forced to leave their day jobs or take the financial risk of launching a full-blown restaurant.

One possible challenge? How to juggle white-collar responsibilities with the rigours of a supper club, which extend beyond purchasing and preparing fresh food (plus the chore of cleaning up after the customers have left). Kwong started his supper club with his brother and sister-in-law in August 2013, and the three of them have been consistently busy creating new recipes, promoting their business and responding to enquiries and bookings.

“I try to sleep earlier everyday now, because I need more energy,” Kwong says with a laugh. His private kitchen, called Chyuan’s Tiffin Underground Supper Club, dishes out delicacies with Chinese, Thai and Peranakan influences; specialities include Mee Hoon Siam (painstakingly prepared with sauces made step-by-step in Kwong’s kitchen without commercial tom yam paste), raw prawn salads and steamed pumpkin puddings.

The economic benefits of spearheading a supper club remain uncertain. Kwong generally charges an average of RM95 per guest, with a minimum of four people per session. He acknowledges his family’s profits have totalled “thousands of ringgit” after nearly a year, bolstered by positive publicity in food blogs and Chinese-language newspapers, but that’s still far from wildly lucrative.

Nevertheless, Kwong insists there are other more fulfilling rewards, such as the pleasure of meeting hundreds of new people and seeing them enjoy his food. “I’d advise anyone who wants to do this to go ahead and try it,” he says. “Whatever happens, you wouldn’t lose much by exploring the opportunity. The cost of the investment is low – and if it doesn’t work out, you can quit anytime.”

“Providing the best food and experience”

K.K. Teoh, who works in the banking sector and runs a Saturday-evening private kitchen with his Vietnamese wife, notes that since the road to economic success might be long and winding, the initial focus should simply be on “providing the best food and experience.”

The couple’s supper club, called Cute Ball Kitchen, has operated at their Petaling Jaya home since February, serving a unique mix of Vietnamese cuisine and baked French treats (pic). So far, they’ve covered the cost of their ingredients but have not turned a significant profit.

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Learning to adapt to the target market is the cornerstone of helming a supper club, especially since such initiatives are still new to Malaysia. At first, Teoh charged RM55 per guest, but he later revised the price to RM88 because many patrons wanted a wider sampling of the couple’s offerings, which include slow-braised caramelised catfish in claypot, fried squid cakes and buttery madeleines.

Supper clubs must also work hard to convince customers who hesitate to pay prices that seem steep for home-cooked meals, even if the recipes are inventively crafted and remain unavailable at most restaurants.

“A lot of people are still not familiar with how it works,” Teoh points out. “They may not be aware that dishes are usually prepared with premium ingredients – bought at retail, not wholesale prices – and made carefully from scratch. It may take a few days just to prepare for one dinner for a small number of guests.”

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