Although growing up in a family of cooks in Penang had an influence on his decision to become a cook, Igor Ang didn’t plan on being “in the family business”.
However, three years ago, his (late) mother suggested that they pool their resources and start their own family restaurant. And that was how Madam Leow Restaurant, named after his late mother, Leow Long Choo, 71, came about.
Located in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, the restaurant specialises in Penang-style street food such as kway chap, char kuay teow and nasi lemak, as well as dishes like curry chicken, pork rendang, black vinegar pork trotters, angelica root (dong gui) pork trotters, chicken in chinese wine and garlic, ginger duck, and bittergourd chicken, which are served with rice.
Like many other restaurants, business has been impacted during the pandemic.
“Business dropped by 80% during the (first) MCO and we didn’t earn much for about three months,” says Ang.
“We were surviving on our savings – jimat jimat pakai duit, ikat perut kau kau (save money and tighten our belts). It was a tough time for all of us, but life has to go on,” he says stoically."Even though we still had our regular customers from around the vicinity but not as many as before because most people are afraid of going out during the pandemic. Also, those from further away can't get here because of the movement restrictions," he adds.
Ang reveals that the restaurant survives solely on takeaways because they don't do deliveries since the percentage taken by food delivery companies is very high.
“It would mean having to increase our prices and we weren’t willing to do that. Our profit margin is low and we want our food to be affordable for all,” says the 38-year-old former western food stall owner and private home chef who lives in Petaling Jaya with his wife.
A family affair
“My mum and dad have always been in the food industry. They operated a Chinese restaurant called Tang Dynasty for 18 years in Georgetown, Penang, many years ago,” shares Ang.
Likened by some to American actor and former wrestler Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, because of his buff physique and style (he sports the same hairdo and similar tastes in tattoos and accessories), the adventurous Ang who enjoys “dangerous sports such as hiking in the wild jungle, caving and (motor)bike racing”, was born in Paris, France, where his parents used to live and work, but the whole family returned to Malaysia when he was three.
“As I was growing up, I would often go into the kitchen to play, and observe and learn from them,” he says, adding that he later started helping his parents after school and during holidays. This was when he was about 10 years old.
Then, when he was in his 20s, he lived and worked in New York in the United States for six years, where he explored and discovered the world of western and other cuisines.
After returning to Malaysia, the family moved from Penang to Kuala Lumpur and Ang subsequently started his own western food stall in Damansara Utama and offered private home chef services, while his parents ran a food stall selling kway chap in Kota Damansara.
“My family and I had different channels in cooking – while they were doing Asian food, I was more focused on western food at that time,” he says.
Ang reveals that he loves cooking western food, especially pasta and grilled food.
“I love to cook western food because there’s a proper system, every single type of food has its own specific pots and pans – such as sauce pan, grill pan, and others – whereas for Chinese food, there’s just one wok and everything goes into the same wok,” he says.
While he was running his western food stall, he also offered private home chef services which involved cooking for clients at private events usually held at their own home.
But increasing costs – of ingredients for western food and also for stall rental – made it difficult for him to continue running his business, and he decided to move on and start his own char kuay teow stall in Damansara Perdana.
“It was then that my mum suggested we a start a family restaurant of our own because the rental of both our stalls already came up to the rental of a shop - and we would also have more freedom that way,” he recalls.
Ang says that a lot of their family secret recipes were created by his mother through “experimentation”.
“Some hawkers will buy pre-mixed char kuay teow sauce in a bottle but we make our own special sauce,” he reveals.
“My mum experimented, mixing all kinds of sauces – soya sauce, oyster sauce, fish sauce and others – until it tasted just right.
“Then she began to slowly improve on it, working out the measurements. Finally, she came up with her own special blend of char kuay teow sauce – it’s our family’s secret recipe,” he says, adding that they also blend their own chili for the char kuay teow.
To Ang, cooking Asian fare isn’t difficult to learn, even though there aren’t usually specific written-down recipes or measurement, as long as one has a desire to learn.
While most might say that such traditional Chinese cooking is all about “agak-agak” or “what feels right through experience” and “there’s no set measurements for the ingredients”, Ang has an interesting way of describing it.
“It’s like having a sixth sense or our ‘cooking ancestors’ whispering in our ears, telling us when it’s enough, when we’re adding the seasonings,” he says.
“But seriously, it isn’t difficult to learn to cook Asian food when you understand the principles behind it,” he adds.
Even though he has mostly been making western food previously, Ang has pivoted and trained himself to cook Asian food.
“When you have a passion and interest to learn, and you put an effort into it, then it becomes easy,” he says.
“Our tongue also has to be sensitive to taste in order to be able to make food that a customer will like,” he adds.
He reveals that his late mother was the mastermind behind the restaurant and all the recipes came from her.
“She passed the knowledge down to me so that we could continue making all these dishes,” he says.
In fact, his customers have often told him that he “cooks like (their) mother”, he says laughingly, adding that there are a lot of regulars, many of whom are originally from outstation and miss their hometown food after moving to the city, so they often come to get “a taste of home”.
Working as a team
“Running a family restaurant is all about teamwork, and while it’s fun and enjoyable, it can also be tiring,” he says.
The restaurant opens at 10am but Ang is already there early in the morning at 7.30am to prepare everything.
They operate from 10am to 2.30pm for breakfast and lunch, and from 5.30pm to 9pm for dinner, except on Mondays, and are closed on Thursdays.
“It’s my responsibility because I want to help my family, especially my father who is getting on in age,” says Ang.
He adds that the most important thing to remember in a family business is to be patient with each other and to work together as a team. But while working hard is good, he believes it’s also important to lead a balanced life.
“It’s not all just about working and running the family business,” he says, adding that, like his parents, he also enjoys fishing.
“In life, it’s important to be flexible and to do what it takes to survive, so we’re taking it one day at a time, and hopefully things will be better soon,” he concludes.