On a rainy Saturday evening, a drive along Old Klang Road in Kuala Lumpur elicits an orchestral background soundtrack of loud, manic booms as thunderous, furious rain cascades down from the heavens. And then as though on cue, the crescendo pitch wavers and magically gives way to clear, unperturbed skies, just as I turn into a nondescript road edged by car workshops and factories.
Soon, a gentle sunset emerges and dusk bleeds its burnished orangey-red hues across the horizon. The walk into the cavernous industrial warehouse that houses KongsiKL is no less illustrious, as twinkling lights adorn the entrance and set the stage for a night of new possibilities.
KongsiKL is an experimental space (housed in what was formerly a stainless steel factory) used for cultivating and developing culture and arts – whether that’s through art, photography or in this case – food, via the platform of Nowhere Kitchen.
Despite the misnomer, Nowhere Kitchen is anything but directionless. Designed as an improvisational art platform to share ideas through food and conversation, the project – and the thought process behind it – was developed by Filipino artist Pepe Dayaw in Madrid in 2012.
In Malaysia, the concept was brought to life a few months ago by local architect Lian Kian Lek, who was part of the team behind Nowhere Kitchen in Berlin, Germany. The precept of this project hinges on a very interesting concept: leftovers.
Unlike many fancy restaurant dinners, leftovers form a starring role in Nowhere Kitchen, which sees paying guests bringing bits and bobs from their home kitchens, from coconut milk to carrots, which Lian and the team from KongsiKL then utilise and turn into a creative three-course meal.
How it started
Lian is an architecture graduate who spent 14 years working in Berlin. In 2014, he returned to Malaysia and started his own practice called Putti Coop in the Zhongshan Building in Kuala Lumpur. The practice focuses on collaborations with artists and artistic entities, which is how he ended up doing curations and installations for exhibitions and art events.
When KongsiKL approached Lian for a collaboration a few months ago, he proposed the idea of doing Nowhere Kitchen, something that he had helped his friend Dayaw with in Germany. The idea to do something tangible to help the arts industry had also been germinating since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I suppose it started during the Covid-19 lockdown when the government announced that art is not essential. There were a lot of discussions around this and I just thought ‘What does this mean?’ I was quite angry, because art is my job. And these are the times when we need to be creative, innovative and empower people. If not through art, what else?” he says.
“So I proposed this project because I was part of the team in Berlin. When we did it there, it was more like a squatter kitchen, because we squatted in different apartments and kitchens and sometimes we even did it in the park!
“So we would cook over wood-fire in a little pot in the park or someone’s garden and it was quite amazing! Everyone had to bring a leftover and the meal was totally improvised,” he says.
Lian says he also realised that a concept like Nowhere Kitchen – while performative in nature – was ideally suited for Malaysians because well what else do Malaysians bond over, if not food?
“I thought this was something where we could use cooking and a dinner to do a performance. So if you imagine a theatre or a dance, it is just about removing the dancing and music with dinner and conversation.
“And what is more suitable than food and eating for the Malaysian culture – it is what our culture is orientated around. And then KongsiKL got excited about the project and we thought ‘Let’s do it three or four times and see what the response is like and test the waters,’” explains Lian.
Since starting Nowhere Kitchen in March 2022, response has been very good. Each dinner is held once a month and has the capacity for 20 diners. Each Nowhere Kitchen involves different lightings and settings, so each edition is a singularly unique variation of performance art.
One of the highlights of these dinners is both the fact that diners bring leftovers from their own homes as well as that each dinner features two invited speakers (typically one man and one woman) who talk about a particular theme, oscillating around food.
Invited speakers have included Diane Ong, founder of Awesome Canteen and Justin Cheah from Kechara Soup Kitchen, which serves homeless and marginalised communities – who talked about food and wastage and their own struggles in their daily work.
Another installation of Nowhere Kitchen saw Chinese herbal medicine practitioner and registered pharmacist Shirley Chong as well as chef Ang Ling Chee, who was once the head chef at famed English chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s eatery – talking about the healing powers of food.
One of the most popular iteration of Nowhere Kitchen involved biodynamic farmer Ng Tien Khuan who spoke about farming and sustainability. At Nowhere Kitchen #5, which I attended, invited speakers included bubbly food personality and television host Ili Sulaiman and artist and photographer Jeffrey Lim, both of whom talked about the taste of memories, invoking engrossing stories from their childhoods and weaving through personal experiences as diners listened in rapt attention, soaking up everything they had to say.
The fact that speakers are invited adds an interesting element to Nowhere Kitchen as it isn’t just a straightforward dinner or even a theatrical magic show where leftovers get transformed into meals. There is a communal, conversational element to the entire experience which transforms what could be one-dimensional into an artistic showcase where food, people and storytelling converge.
Interestingly, the team at Kongsi KL – also called the artist team, which comprises Lian and four other individuals, including Kongsi KL’s manager Mah Jun Yi – do not interfere in the dinners at all, except to introduce the speakers and serve the food. According to Lian, this was done intentionally.
“So the artist team is not involved in the conversation, because very often an art performance has a lot of messaging from the artist or creators, but with this, we are able to take a step back.
“In this way, the participants at the dinner become performers and the dinner is the performance. So people can decide what they want to share and what they want to do when they go back to their everyday lives and how to make a change or impact in their own lives,” says Lian.
So how does a hodgepodge of uncooked leftovers get turned into a tangible meal? This is an interesting question and one that Nowhere Kitchen tackles nimbly and sure-footedly.
Diners who sign up for the event bring an assortment of leftovers, with vegetables leading the pack. At the Nowhere Kitchen iteration that I attended for instance, leftovers included dried shiitake mushrooms, chicken slices, bread and jackfruit.
“Everything goes because first of all it is quite hard to limit what people should bring, because we don’t know what they have and the amount also. Like sometimes one person brings in just one papaya, but then one another person brings in yoghurt, so it’s perfect because we can have that together. Surprisingly every time, it works,” explains Lian.
At Kongsi KL, a team of three do all the brainstorming and cooking for Nowhere Kitchen. The kitchen operations are headed by Leong Yew Weng, a former chef on a cruise ship who has also has an architectural background.
Leong says to put together the meals for Nowhere Kitchen, he and his teammates Erica Choong and Daryl Tan first separate all the leftovers that participants bring into three categories, depending on their potential usage: entrees, main course and desserts. From there, the trio decide what they are going to make for the night, with Lian and Mah providing input throughout.
“We have discussions with the team in the kitchen and we bounce ideas about what goes well with what, that’s basically how we do it. It’s a bit challenging because my biggest worry and concern is we don’t have enough food to feed people.
“It is such a different experience from cooking in a restaurant because you really cannot gauge what people will bring so it really triggers your creativity and it’s also about cooking under pressure, because we are only given an hour to come up with three or four courses,” explains Leong.
The team keeps a set of staples in the kitchen like rice, flour, noodles and vinegar and re-use some ingredients from previous editions of Nowhere Kitchen like pickled gherkins, kaya and dried chillies. If someone brings in a vegetable that is about to go off, Leong puts it into the compost bin, so in this way, nothing ever goes to waste and all the ingredients eventually get repurposed. Interestingly, even the cutlery and tableware has been found or donated for the project!
Previous editions of Nowhere Kitchen have yielded multi-course meals like bruschetta, banana and peanut butter spring rolls, pan fried ikan patin and grilled aubergine with local bak choy braised in butter. During Nowhere Kitchen #5, Leong says his goal was to make hearty, warm, soothing meals to mimic both the theme for the night – ‘Taste of Memories’ as well as to sate the coldness created by the rain that evening.
The result was a meal to remember – a nourishing tomato soup made using a combination of spaghetti sauce and tomato paste leftover from a previous installation of the dinner, served alongside crusty toasted sourdough bread (brought in as a leftover). The soup was served piping hot and was actually really yummy, with rich tomatoey notes undulating throughout.
Next up was a wholesome stew of plump shiitake mushrooms, chicken and carrots served alongside rice – a simple, pleasant meal that was as satisfying as it was nutritive.
The dessert – fashioned by Leong – was made up of keropok lekor with a coconut-milk based sauce and jackfruit and chocolate served on the side. It had a combination of sweet, savoury and everything in between and ended the meal on a fun, festive note.
All in all, the meal was thoughtful and well-paced, neither too much nor too little and gave people an insight into how leftovers can actually be turned into entirely new meals. This is exceedingly relevant in modern times, as food wastage is a perennial problem, with Malaysians dumping over 4,000 tonnes of food on a daily basis!
Perhaps part of the problem is that most people simply don’t know what to do when they have random bits of food clogging up their chillers. In the past, people only bought or grew what they needed and old-fashioned home cooks were particularly skilled at fashioning meals out of bits and bobs and leftovers.
Today, this practice doesn’t really exist and consumers are driven to prolific waste. So in many ways, aside from its artistic purpose, Nowhere Kitchen serves as both a model of what can be done and an educational platform, one that shows in a very real way how leftovers can be used to make practical meals.
“I was brought up this way, to be mindful and not to waste stuff – if I left one grain of rice, I got a smack on the head, so I believe Nowhere Kitchen is useful in teaching participants how to make use of leftovers.
“Even when everyone brings in small portions of something, we use it to make like rice bowls and layer the bowl with each ingredient. When we had a pumpkin, we made pumpkin soup and someone else brought bread, so we served it alongside the soup.
“So I think it is really great, because everyone chips in with what they have and from that, you have a dinner experience,” says Lian.
Despite the interest Lian has received for Nowhere Kitchen, he says he will only continue to run it if there is a demand for it.
“For me, I see this as an art project that can only be sustained if enough people think it is important or if there is a place for something like this. If people find it interesting, then yes, it can be run twice a month or even in different locations,” he says.
Find out more about Nowhere Kitchen via @putticooperation on Instagram.