From IT to the kitchen

Leong dives into the kitchen to make the perfect risotto. — Photo: SHAARI CHEMAT/The Star

IT-man-turned-remisier, and today, chef and owner of Marco Creative Cuisine, Daren Leong’s roundabout culinary journey has come a full circle.

Food, especially Western cuisine, figured prominently in his early life as his maternal grandfather was a cook at a bungalow in Fraser’s Hill while his grandmother assisted as housekeeper and maitre d’. As a child, he spent a lot of time there during Christmases and Chinese New Year; the emotional connection was undeniable.

“I remember the Christmas pudding which had brandy poured all over it and lit up, then cut open to reveal coins and notes inside!” says Leong, 43.

He recalled the smell of smoke from the cast iron kitchen stove, fired up with wood, and “having roti toasted over the fire to eat with kaya!”

Armed with an IT degree in 2004, Leong worked for a year as a remisier as he “wanted to make money”. After a year with the brokerage firm, he decided to join his uncle who owns a Nyonya kuih business which fueled his passion as he had hopes of becoming an entrepreneur since his college days. For three years, he went to work at 3am, helping out with production and learning the essentials of the business. He even assisted in the delivery of kuih to coffeeshops and five-star hotels.

“Though the working hours were hard, I trained my mindset and learnt persistence from my uncle to find what I wanted to be. I was fascinated by the big kitchens in hotel restaurants. Then, there was AFC (Asian Food Channel) and other food channels on TV. That awakened my interest in cooking and the restaurant business.”

He left the kuih business to work in a bank, but that lasted only a year. He put in time with a local coffeeshop chain and then left for Singapore in 2010 to join a Japanese F&B chain of cafes, starting as an intern, rising through the rank-and-file, and learnt how to cook.

The interior of Marco Creative Cuisine in 1 Utama. — Photo: PATSY KAMThe interior of Marco Creative Cuisine in 1 Utama. — Photo: PATSY KAM

“They had a systematic way of teaching: it was a compressed learning curve for me. I was lucky to be there.”

After three years, he was recruited by Singapore brand Miam Miam (MM French Café) group as assistant manager. He was in the first Miam Miam team that opened outlets in Penang, Singapore and Australia.

Leong then obtained the rights to open a restaurant in Malaysia and in 2012, he borrowed money from relatives to start an outlet in 1 Utama shopping centre, Petaling Jaya.

“After setting it up, I was left with RM10,000 in the bank.”

A French-Japanese cafe, Miam Miam, which means “yummy” in French, was one of the first few places to offer a souffle and made quite a sensation back then.

“During that time, only fine-dining French restaurants served souffles. We wanted everyone to know about this marvellous dessert by making it easily available,” says Leong.

A year later, there was a change in business direction and the restaurant was rebranded as Franco.

“I ended up with the short end of the stick and it was the biggest life lesson for me. My take-away point from this was perseverance. We make mistakes along the way, but we just have to pick ourselves up, reset our bearings and keep moving.”

After expanding to some 10 outlets, Franco caught the interest of a department store company who acquired the brand in 2016.

Making his mark

Still, Leong persevered and opened Marco Creative Cuisine at the same premises in 2017, offering modern European cuisine. The name was inspired by his son and Marco Polo the explorer.

Without culinary training, he worked hard and his earlier stint with the Japanese cafe chain proved invaluable.

“They taught me how to make souffle with precision and great success, unlike hotels with French chefs where they have to make two in case one failed! I followed the Japanese technique right down to the exact scoop measurements and it came out perfect every single time.”

Leong’s creativity and curiosity are what drives him to explore flavours and experiment with ingredients as he develops his menu at Marco. Every dish is made from scratch, and he takes great effort to source for quality ingredients and supplies, as well as employs different techniques picked up from his travels.

He is particularly drawn to Italian cuisine. He had just come back from a food fair in Parma, Italy, when I met up with him.

“Italians share their food, much like the Chinese, and the restaurant is a place to bring people together. The challenge is bringing in good ingredients from small producers, such as cold pressed extra virgin olive oil, cheeses and meats,” he says.

Last year, Leong went to Japan to learn how to make pasta from a famed Japanese chef.

“His name is mentioned in (Hong Kong actor) Stephen Fung’s book; I was there for a five-day course. It was all about flipping and rolling until you can see through the pasta sheet!

“We then used a box fan to dry the pasta. Fresh pasta has a short shelf life. Through this Japanese chef, I learnt the technique, the correct flour to use and discovered how to keep pasta fresh for at least four to five days, unlike just three days previously,” he adds.

It’s clear that Leong has a healthy obsession with pasta and in 2019, he opened the pork-free Rebel Pasta in Damansara Utama, Petaling Jaya.

“It was something we wanted to try out. But three months later came the Covid-19 lockdown. We kept the restaurant for two years, then gave it up.”

Rebel Pasta has since reopened at No.163, Mont Kiara in Kuala Lumpur, in 2022 and is doing well. A pasta producer he met in Italy has asked Leong to consider opening a restaurant in Malaysia. But for now, his job is to improve flavours. Next year, he is planning to bring a couple of his staff members to Italy to open up their palate.

“I learnt a lot through watching Youtube, but the actual experience is irreplaceable.”

As it is, Leong is living the best of both worlds, fleshing out his entrepreneurial dreams while indulging in his passion for food.

Related stories:

Exploring European cuisine

Follow us on our official WhatsApp channel for breaking news alerts and key updates!

Next In Food News

Artful substitution
Chinese-style steamed egg
Seafood galore
Staying true to his roots
Mexican fiesta with an Asian twist
Going on detox
Biryani and burritos
Classic dish with fresh fruity twist
YouTube star Uncle Roger said to open first restaurant in Malaysia
Warmth, richness of a New England icon

Others Also Read