To award-winning photographer Heng Mok Zung (better known as Zung Ninjaphotographer), ‘crisis is opportunity’. So when the pandemic hit and he wasn’t able to travel overseas for his photography assignments, he decided to use the extra time he had to build his second business – a private dining experience.
“Creativity can be in many areas, not just in photography – although that is my main business – so I started a side business to help my community, including my parents and relatives in my hometown Sekinchan,” says the 42- year-old who has won many awards including the World’s Ten Outstanding Photography Professionals Award 2017.
Known as Ninja Private Kitchen, it offers a curated omakase private dining experience in an old fisherman house where his parents live.
In May 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, he launched his "picnic in a paddy field" private dining experience for people who might not want to dine in air-conditioned restaurants where they would be in contact with strangers.
“I wanted to encourage people to stay away from the crowds in the city and to enjoy the beauty of our countryside, ” says Heng.
“My objective was to share the heritage of Malaysia and promote Malaysia to the rest of the world so that when borders reopen, people would come, ” he says.
“More than just a business to make money, I wanted to do this as a tribute to my hometown Sekinchan, and I hope that it will help the community by providing jobs to the people here, ” he says.
Heng says that he was inspired to do something for his community by Italian opera tenor Andrea Bocelli who holds a concert in his hometown Tuscany every summer, and American philanthropist, author and coach Anthony Robbins who hosts an international event annually in his second home Fiji, as their contribution to their community.
He has photographed both personalities in his illustrious career, along with three US presidents – Donald Trump, George Bush and Bill Clinton.
Heng says that he also wanted to change people’s mindset not to be negative about the pandemic, but rather he hoped to inspire people to do something with whatever resources, capabilities and experience that they have.
During the recovery MCO, Heng saw a demand for his picnic in the paddy field experience among families, especially for special occasions such as Fathers Day and birthdays.
Through his omakase private dining experience in the old fisherman house, Heng has revived two traditional dishes: Teowchew salted prawns and stuffed squid.
He also included a dish he conceptualised with celebrity chef David Rocco who interviewed him for a segment on the National Geographic Channel: the Ninja Rocco spaghetti which is an amalgamation of both their grandmothers’ most famous dishes – chili prawn and spaghetti, with a half-boiled egg on top.
Heng admits that the pandemic did impact business somewhat, especially during the MCOs, but he took the opportunity to once again evolve and find a solution.
“During the MCO, we were closed because people couldn’t cross districts so we provided seafood delivery, fresh from the fishermen to the customer, ” he says.
“The Teowchew salted prawn is a cold dish – something like the South American Ceviche - that can be kept in the freezer for up to three months, so it’s very suitable for those who want something special during the pandemic,” he says.
“We also have a pre-cooked dish too – chili prawns – which the customer just needs to heat up,” he adds.
Heng has three chefs: his sister, aunt and a retired chef friend who is still passionate about cooking. He also hires other staff from the community.
Heng admits that with the international borders closed, he was one of the most badly impacted photographers in the industry because he mainly shoots overseas.
But he was more concerned about his photography staff, who now had no income.
Hence, Heng offers family portraiture as an optional service during his private dining experiences so that his photography staff can earn a living.
“I didn’t want to let my staff go because to terminate good staff is the most painful thing, so I got my photography team to work on this private dining project too,” he says.
“Most of the clients who come for the private dining experience find the setting beautiful and unique, and they always want to take their family portraits here, so it has provided some earnings for my photography staff, ” he adds.
“A business that can make money is a small success, but a business than can help the society and country, contribute to the community and change people’s mindset from seeing only the impossible to seeing all that’s possible, is a big success, and that is my goal,” he concludes.