Sunday, September 29, 2013

Lovemamak: Mamak food on the go in NY

MADE WITH LOVE: Two Malaysians are cooking from the heart and serving the food on carts

 KUALA LUMPUR: A HUNGRY Malaysian walking  in the New York fashion district of 5th Avenue might do a double take when he passes a bright yellow little food cart.

The Love Mamak food cart is stocked with roti canai, rendang, curry and all things spicy and wonderful a Malaysian loves. "Spice is our vice," is its motto.

It was started in April by two Kuala Lumpur-born cousins, Erik and Jordan Cheah, to tap into New Yorkers' appetite for gourmet eating on the go. Since then, Love Mamak has parked itself in the New York foodie scene and it's feeling the love.

"Business has been picking up. We've got a lot of press from the New York media. They think we are doing something interesting in a food cart. It's very cultural and not something you'd usually find here, like burgers or chicken over rice," Jordan, 27, told the New Sunday Times.

Love Mamak serves nasi lemak, pasembor and teh tarik. It operates two lunch carts: the corner between 5th Avenue and 21st Street (towards the end of the fashion district) and at 7 Hanover Square (a financial district). For dinner, it ventures into the trendy Williamsburg area at N6th Street. It makes use of social media to let customers know where the carts are.

Malaysian food and restaurants are nothing new to the Big Apple but they are unknown compared with Thai or Vietnamese food.

"Being Malaysian, we like amazing food. And we feel that Malaysian cuisine in New York is underrated. Not many people know of Malaysian food. So, we wanted to popularise the cuisine, one dish at a time."
But the cost of starting a restaurant in one of the food capitals of the world was a daunting proposition.
"Start-up costs in New York are expensive. It can go up to US$400,000 (RM1.3 million) to US$500,000.
"Therefore, we looked for alternatives and the opportunity to start a food cart business came about and we thought, 'Why not?'

"Each of our carts costs about US$70,000. We funded our business through our savings and we were lucky enough to receive angel funds from family members."

The cousins grew up in a family of restaurateurs, who moved to New York in 1997. But they are shy about discussing the family business because they are determined to make it on their own.

"We prefer not to link up with the family restaurants because this is our generation."

Erik said: "Our family members are our harshest critics. They always try to push us.

"We are a family of cooks. My mother will get them to try my cooking to find out what they think and we'll compare our dishes with each other."

The cousins complement each other in the running of the business.

Jordan is a New York University graduate in finance. After working in the corporate world for three years, he decided a desk job was not for him.

"I wanted to work with my cousin and do something else. So, this idea came about last year and we opened in April.

"We always wanted to start our own food business because it gives us more freedom to break away from what our bosses would want and create something exciting for our customers."

Erik, 32, is a trained chef and is the man behind the stove at Love Mamak. He trained at the Art Institute of New York City and had worked in top restaurants in New York. He had worked under chef Jonathan Benno at Per Se restaurant and had earned a Michelin star when he was the executive chef at Thai eatery Rhong-Tiam.

Though the dishes of Love Mamak are prepared from recipes handed down by their grandmother, Erik uses his culinary training and experience to add his own twist to the food and to make allowances for American dietary quirks.

"I'm not saying the traditional way of doing things is wrong, but we can improve on them," he says.
"I also read a lot of recipes, pick out what makes sense and create my own recipes. And then I try these recipes out many, many times to perfect them."

In meat-loving America, beef rendang is a top seller, but pasembor has proven to be sleeper hit.
"We tell our customers it's a warm salad, which they find surprising. They are used to salads being chilled, so, they'll ask us, 'How's that even good?' We tell them, 'Try it and you'll love it'."

But in a concession to New Yorkers' quirky eating habits, they make theirs gluten-free.

A food cart has its challenges.

"We move every day. From the kitchen to the cart to customer, you won't know what will happen.
"Traffic could be bad and you could miss the lunch crowd. So, we'll run at a loss that day. Or there could be construction at our usual spot so we can't park there and have to move around," says Jordan.

"But it's worth it because we get to interact with our customers. If we were in a kitchen, we wouldn't get to do that."

Though they are enjoying peddling Malaysian food to an appreciative New York clientele, the dream is still to open a real restaurant on their own.

"Hopefully, when the profits trickle in, we'll have enough savings to open an actual restaurant," says Jordan.
Despite spending their formative years in New York, the cousins remain Malaysians at heart and they try to show this in the food they serve.

"Memories of the food that we had in our childhood never left us, so, we know the true flavours. In fact, we still cook Malaysian food at home," says Jordan.

*Taken from NST Online
**Picture courtesy of
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