Room for contemplation


More than just a place to eat, there are restaurants out there that also offer food for thought.

It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon and a group of strangers are lounging in a cosy wine bar in the heart of Bangsar. Nibbling manchego cheese with crackers and sipping espresso, these folks are discussing a serious topic.

There’s a moderator, in fact, and the question being posed: “Is emotional poverty as crippling as financial poverty?”

You don’t have to be a philosopher or an academic to grapple with the more profound questions in life, do you? This is what Edward Soo, founder of Leonardo’s Dining Room and Wine Loft, envisions for his restaurant.

Soo has yet to set up said discussion group but his restaurant has hosted many events ranging from talks, poetry-reading and book launches, to art and photo exhibitions and a full-fledged celebration of Malaysia Day since opening in Dec 2008.

Food, creativity and causes

Restaurants that provide a platform for NGOs, artists, the literati, etc, to express themselves are rare finds but they are out there. Palate Palette in the Bukit Bintang area, for instance, holds film screenings, live art performances and indie music shows.

The Apartment, KLCC, hosts the monthly Green Drinks Kuala Lumpur, an informal get-together for like-minded folk to discuss green issues over drinks and hors d’ oeuvres.

Venues, sound system and sometimes food and drinks are thrown in free.

When it hosted an NGO’s fundraising dinner, for example, Leonardo’s covered the cost of food and drinks, and all the proceeds went to the NGO. Palate Palette (PP) collaborated with EcoKnights (www.ecoknights.com) to screen free movies during their EcoFilm Fest. Sometimes PP owners, Wong Su-Ann and husband Lim Si Siew, buy the DVDs and ask for permission to screen them to the public.

The Apartment offers free finger food and an all-night happy hour for Green Drinks participants.

Passion plays a part

Call it corporate social responsibility (CSR), goodwill or what-have-you, but these restaurants do it for a variety of reasons.

“I’ve always dreamt of starting a café like the salons of Paris during the Age of Enlightenment where philosophers, artists, intellectuals came together, talked, drank and learnt from each other,” explains Soo, 40, a corporate lawyer by day and restaurateur by night.

Soo named the restaurant after his hero, Leonardo Da Vinci, the quintessential Renaissance Man. Leonardo’s is loosely modelled after the increasingly popular Socrates Cafe in the United States where ordinary people get together regularly to think out loud. In recent years, “philosophy cafés’’ have again become popular in Paris and other major cities.

Leonardo’s decor — bare brick walls, a collection of books and cosy sofas — reflects its philosophical slant.

“Basically, we want Leonardo’s to be a place that promotes the culture of learning, exchange of ideas and appreciation of the arts,” says Soo, who owns the restaurant with seven others. He also co-owns Opus and Cava restaurants in Bangsar. Soo says they don’t set aside a fixed budget for CSR but at the end of each year, he sits down with his team to brainstorm.

“I’m quite realistic. It’s not possible to commit to a few events each month, though I do make sure something is happening monthly, like our book club meeting or wine or art appreciation,” says Soo.

For the hugely successful MalaysiaKu — Celebrating Malaysia Day street festival last September, Leonardo’s, Cava and Opus teamed up with 18 NGOs to organise talks and set up booths to create awareness on various issues. The restaurants sponsored food and drinks, sound system and canopies, with Soo personally paying for the performances — wayang kulit, lion dance, Indian dance and Borneo’s indigenous dances and music.

“I think my talent is in putting different groups of people together, encouraging and getting them to do their thing and providing the space for the magic to happen,” says Soo.        

A canvas for artists, musicians and greenies

When Wong, 33, set up Palate Palette in 2006, she was thinking of a small café with a selective menu featuring her mum’s scrumptious recipes.

“The restaurant has always had a creative feel to it. Over the years, whether it’s the ambience or the little things we do, we started attracting an eclectic crowd,” says Wong.

Perhaps it’s the funky decor of Technicolour artwork, pop art designs and recycled furniture that draws the artistic-activist types.

“We have people from design firms, creative institutions and NGOs approaching us, asking, ‘Can we do an event here’?” says Wong. “And things just started happening organically.”

PP has been the venue for many events, like a “live painting” session hosted by a group called Creative United Movement. Three artists took turns to paint on different canvasses as they took inspiration from the music playing that night. Artists have also churned out art installations involving mannequins before a live audience.

In 2009, when EcoKnights, the organisers of the annual Eco Film Fest, were strapped for funds, PP helped screen their movies every Sunday for a month. During this time, they also provided space for NGOs like Salaam Wanita (for single mothers and underprivileged women) and fair trade enterprise Gerai Orang Asli to sell their wares. In addition, the restaurant tweaked their usual Western menu to suit the occasion.

“Whenever people come to us, and it’s something to do with the environment, the art scene, performing arts or something for the youths, we’re very open to it,” says Wong. “We don’t talk about money or how much we’re going to make. Having a restaurant gives us that little power to host events that other people might not be supportive of. It’s the little part we do to support initiatives like these.”

The restaurant’s regular film screenings are sometimes standing-room-only affairs. When they screened The Cove, a documentary about the killing of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, there was not a single dry eye in the room.

“So many people came up to me after the film saying, ‘That really moved me. What can I do’?” says Wong.

“People were eager to donate to the cause, and we sent the proceeds to the Ocean Preservation Society, the organisation that funded the documentary.”

Making business sense

Leonardo’s Soo recalls how after the MalaysiaKu event, one participant went up to him and said, “It’s been a long time since I felt so proud to be a Malaysian!”

“The idea of MalaysiaKu was to get different groups to come together here and show we could happily co-exist and learn from each other. It made me feel very good that I’m actually doing something that make others feel good.”

Ultimately, however, these restaurants are a business and the bottomline, literally, is the ka-ching of cash registers. Does it make business sense?

“At each event we do, the NGOs we work with will send out notice through their database and reach out to more people, so I believe the events help to drill the restaurants’ names into people’s minds,” Soo says.

Last October, alternative online media, The Nut Graph (TNG), ran a series of discussions called Found in Conversation at Leonardo’s with personalities from business, politics, design, education, show business and the green movement engaging the public.

“It’s a win-win situation,” says Jacqueline Ann Surin, the editor of TNG.

“We needed a cosy space, food and drinks. TNG’s brand is making sense of politics and pop culture, and Leonardo’s was perfect for us because of its location and clientele — urban, middle-class and English-speaking.”

People who turned up for TNG’s event were likely to order food and drinks and stay back for dinner after the event, Surin adds.

“If you can find a balance between making money and providing a platform, it’s great,” says Soo. “But whether it’s CSR or ad hoc events, you must be passionate about what you do. If there’s no passion, there’s no life in the project and it will not be sustainable.”

As the father of existentialism Kierkegaard said, “Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it . . .”

It’s good that there are restaurants like Leonardo’s and Palate Palette which provide sustenance not only for the stomach but for the mind, too.

Should more restaurants follow in the footsteps of Leonardo’s and Palate Palette?

“Yes, I think more restaurants should offer spaces, and also throw in some good discounts, especially for struggling NGOs,” quips Yasmin Rasyid, director of EcoKnights. “If restaurant owners can see this as part of their CSR practice, then the NGOs can channel their money to a better cause.”

For organisations like Voice of the Children (VOC), a child advocacy group (www.voc.org.my), support from restaurants like Leonardo’s is crucial.

“Our relationship with Leonardo’s started in 2009 with the Peace March organised by them, where we were given a free booth to sell our merchandise,” says Quek Sue Yian, VOC’s co-founder and treasurer.

At the Malaysia Day celebration, Leonardo’s sponsored the venue and food for 200 guests, and also threw in bottles of alcohol and food coupons to be auctioned off. As a result, VOC managed to raise a huge amount of money.

“What is just as important as fundraising is awareness-building,” Quek adds. “The more people that talk about tough issues like child sex workers, street children and teenage pregnancies, the less fear and prejudice there will be, paving the way for the change of mindset.”

“If more restaurants did this, the chattering class would get louder and we might see a more holistic change,” she sums up.

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