Many new things have emerged out of the movement control order (MCO) in Malaysia – some of which were constructed as a direct response to the new normal. In the restaurant world, one of the most innovative concoctions to be brewed in the midst of the global pandemic is DIY cooking kits.
First fashioned as an additional means to survive during the MCO (most restaurants experienced up to 90% sales drops), restaurant-style DIY cooking kits have since become one of the most popular constructs of the MCO – so popular in fact, that they might be here to stay.
What are restaurant-style DIY cooking kits?
A typical DIY cooking kit will include all the ingredients required to cook a particular restaurant dish, all measured and weighed to precision. Consumers are required to do some light cooking – perhaps chop some vegetables, defrost some meat, simmer a sauce or bake an item or two, but nothing that requires too much exertion. Elaborate instructions or instructional videos are also provided, so the kit is pretty much fail-safe.
The beauty of these DIY kits is that home cooks are able to recreate restaurant style meals – basically replicas of what the eateries themselves are serving – with a virtual guarantee that it will turn out perfect.
Raymond Tham, chef-owner of contemporary European eatery Skillet and modern Malaysian restaurant Beta KL, was probably one of the first people in Malaysia to introduce DIY cooking kits in the early stages of the MCO, incorporating a collaboration between his restaurants called Skillet x Beta.
Tham says he wanted to remain true to his restaurant’s fine-dining ethos (many fine-dining eateries opted to completely close or revise their menus totally) but as these sorts of meals typically don’t travel well, he realised there was a gap in the market for cooking kits.
“We discovered that people wanted to have restaurant food at home but it was too much of a hassle to do it at home if they had to cook from scratch. So we introduced the DIY kit, so customers could spend more time with their families at the dining table, rather than spending all day cooking up these meals, ” says Tham.
Tham and his team took four days to come up with the kit, including creating homemade instructional videos designed to make the cooking process easier for customers. He faced some challenges in terms of packaging and labelling in the early days of the MCO when he couldn’t find any suppliers at all.
“During the MCO, we worked with very limited resources and packaging as all the printing places were closed. So we used leftover stickers from the restaurants – it was almost like mission impossible!” exclaims Tham.
Since the early days of his DIY cooking kits, Tham has expanded the range of items considerably. So you can expect to find cooking kits for exotic dishes like salmon marble gravlax, a delicate flower shaped ratatouille, coffee short ribs, aged duck breast, chicken roulade and sticky toffee pudding. The video instructions are superb and the packaging that Tham has come up means ingredients are carefully portioned, which in turn, translates to a cooking process that is so easy that even a two-year-old can be involved – indeed, my little toddler was enthusiastically immersed in the final plating of this high-end meal!
But Tham certainly isn’t the only one in the market with these cooking kits – others have quickly followed suit. Local restaurant Kampung Contemporary Dining, for instance, which specialises in Nyonya cuisine, came up with a series of Nyonya-inspired DIY cooking kits, featuring recipes like assam fish, sambal tumis sotong and pineapple prawn curry.
“We created these kits based on what we observed in terms of consumer behaviour. We realised people may not want to order takeaway cooked items because they want it freshly cooked at home, so that’s why we came up with meal kits so they can cook based on the kit that we provide and eat freshly cooked food, ” says Derson Tan, co-owner of Kampung.
Tan says he wanted to make the kits as simple as possible for home cooks, which is why he devised a three-step method, meaning people can cook everything in three simple steps.
“They basically have to defrost and clean the meat, cut the vegetables then put the sauce in the pan and cook it with the meat and vegetables and just serve. It’s like how we cook Maggi mee, ” he explains.
Even the perennially popular MyBurgerLab and MyPizzaLab brands were quick to capitalise on this growing market segment.
“We saw there was a demand for it and we felt it was an opportunity – since everyone is cooking at home – to get their hands on our products and actually let them discover how difficult or easy it is to create the products that we create at the store level, ” says Renyi Chin, co-founder of MyBurgerLab and MyPizzaLab.
Chin says transitioning the brand’s famed burgers and pizzas to cooking kits was relatively easy as they had all the tools they needed to repackage the products, although the pizzas proved slightly trickier than the burgers.
“So our first two products on the MyBurgerLab side, we gave people buns and a packet of meat to make into burger patties – we didn’t even shape our burger patties. We found that that also had an element of freshness to it, as people felt like it wasn’t processed and we wanted them to get their hands dirty. The sauces and pickles were packed individually and everything had labels to indicate if they should be chilled or frozen and we provided expiry dates too, ” says Chin.
The pizzas on the other hand, had to be thought out a little bit more as pizza dough has to rest in the chiller for at least two days after it is made in order to yield light, fluffy pizzas as opposed to frozen pizza dough which doesn’t elicit the same texture. In the end, Chin and his team realised they could just use their existing dough stock, wrap it in cling film and give to customers.
Putting the DIY pizzas together is extremely easy, as end users only have to fashion the dough into a pizza base, assemble the tomato spread and other ingredients, sprinkle cheese atop and bake it in the oven for the prescribed amount of time.
All the restaurant owners say response to the DIY cooking kits has surpassed their expectations.
“Actually the response is quite good for the DIY kits, because I think it’s something new to everybody, so this could be a new business model, ” says Tham, who plans to launch a DIY cooking kit version of his autumn/winter menu for home cooks to experiment with too.
“We’re also going to do Facebook live tutorials every Saturday to teach people how to use the DIY kits. I think how long the kits survive will depend on people’s eating patterns after the CMCO ends, but we are planning to keep it around until at least the end of the year, ” affirms Tham.
Tan meanwhile says he has noticed that people have been purchasing the kits for their family and friends who are all stuck at home during the MCO too.
“Response is quite good and we find that customers will order different meal kits and cook each dish on different days to expand the experience. And then there’s another thing that surprised us which is that customers are ordering meal kits as presents for their friends, seemingly to make their MCO cooking more fun for them, ” he says.
To find out if the kits had long-term survivability, Tan conducted an internal poll among his customers to find out what their preferences were. Based on the poll, he realised that 50% of his customers were looking for either takeaway options or the DIY kit.
“That’s why for us, these three kits will be on our long-term menu for awhile, ” he says.
Chin on his end, is totally sold on the long-term potential of DIY cooking kits. He has already embarked on rolling out more cooking kits, including a 90% version of the pizza kit where the entire pizza is already assembled but customers can bake it fresh in their own ovens, so that it comes out piping hot.
“Here’s the thing, for F&B, I think it will be awhile before things go back to normal. And you need other forms of revenue so developing these DIY cooking kits are a no-brainer for restaurants, because right now, everyone is fighting to survive every single week. And we need to do everything that we can to ensure that money keeps coming in.
“Also after doing a bit of research, I realise that the future is in the 90% DIY cooking kit market and you will see more and more people doing this, ” he says.
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