KUALA LUMPUR: The right recipe in the kitchen can satisfy both a growling belly as well as a potential employer, believes food entrepreneur Ili Sulaiman.
Ili started the Agak-Agak Initiative, together with co-founder Basira Yeusuff, to give vulnerable youths hands-on training in the food and beverage industry to start them on a potential career path.
The apprentices are put through the paces: six months in operations, running the kitchen and service, followed by six more months on other equally important aspects such as branding, marketing and food photography.
During a recent interview at Agak-Agak’s restaurant in the trendy Art Printing Works (APW) Bangsar enclave, Ili said the apprentices were treated like staff, with full salaries and responsibilities. At the end of the year, the successful ones would get job placements at other restaurants.
“That’s the beauty of this small industry... we all know each other. If I write a strong recommendation for an accomplished apprentice, it will be something of value (to potential employers),” she said, adding that they were in talks with colleges and vocational schools to get accreditation.
There are currently four apprentices in the latest programme which started last month.
Ili, 32, and Basira, 31, have notched plenty of industry experience. Ili is the Asian Food Channel 2015 Food Hero Asia winner and has a food delivery service, Dishes by Ili, while Basira runs pop-up cafe Root Cellar KL.
“Some people think we are a charity... and when they think charity, they think cheap. They ask ‘Why the Bangsar prices?’. Well, we are in Bangsar and we are a legit restaurant with table service,” she says.
The industrial-chic restaurant specialises in local flavours with signature items like chilli pan mee and mangkuk tongkol (tuna rice bowl), plus Western dishes with distinct Asian flavours like the sambal tempe sandwich, kacang tumbuk (crushed peanuts) bundt cake and pulut hitam (black glutinous rice) cheese tarts.
The name Agak Agak – Malay for “more or less” – was chosen by their designer, though Ili and Basira both loved how kitchen chemistry, a pinch of this and that, applied both to cooking and to how they ran the business.
Ili said the open-kitchen concept was a nod to Malaysians’ love of being “kepoh” (nosy) about the magic inside the kitchen.
“How do we get people to respect the kitchen, and for the kitchen to respect people? We broke down the walls,” she explained.
Ili said they aimed to change mindsets about the F&B industry, starting with providing better pay for staff, training and more reasonable work schedules (Agak-Agak insists on a five-day work week), resulting in better service and a more enjoyable experience for patrons.
The restaurant now has loyal diners who return because they appreciate the food and service, with some even asking for updates about the apprentices.