FROM its exterior, DC Restaurant looks plain – painted in matte black and with no display windows except for a horizontal strip of single-sided mirror. You can look out, but you can’t look in.
The restaurant’s owner and namesake, Darren Chin, had been working most of his adult life to see its creation, and has a lot of say about the gruelling art of being a restaurateur.
According to him, before delving straight into the F&B business, young people need to make a clear decision between approaching the task as a chef and as a businessman. “Very rarely you find someone who can do both,” he said.
This may explain the 80 to 90 percent failure rate of F&B enterprises in their first year. That, and the high running costs and competition that come with the business.
And that’s exactly why his expertise will come in handy as one of the mentors of the R.AGE Food Fight, a search for Malaysia’s next young food celebrity. Chin will be mentoring the five Food Fight finalists on the restaurant business.
According to Chin, a lot of the F&B enterprises set up by young people in Malaysia are café-based – not many are venturing into the gastronomic side of things. And when he says “gastronomic” he doesn’t mean fine dining, but just “really, really good food”.
To pick an example, he brought up Sitka, a Malaysian-Scottish restaurant that offers innovative cooking, of which he is a fan.
He said he would like to see more restaurants like that popping up and run by young people.
But is it too ambitious to ask for that level of quality and standard from people barely touching their thirties? Chin said not necessarily.
“Everyone needs to understand something about the progression of our youth,” he said.
“F&B is a skill. It’s a repetitive thing, much like shoemaking, or dressmaking. The more you do it, and the longer you do it for, the better you get at it. So if you start from, say, 18, you’ve already got a very, very strong foundation. But let’s go younger.”
In France, where he studied for two years, citizens have the option of vocational schools, where students can choose to pursue non-academic subjects from the age of 15.
After that, the students can spend half their time studying, and the other half working in the field of their choosing.
For many who choose culinary arts, they get attached to work at high-end establishments, which provides a strong foundation of practical skills.
“There is a process,” Chin pointed out. “But here, most children are forced through an entire 17 years, from Standard One to Form Five, before they’re allowed to decide what they want to do.”
So does that mean only those who start out early have a shot at excellence?
Ultimately, Chin stressed, it has less to do with age, and more to do with the time and effort spent improving your craft. Of course, taking part in something like R.AGE Food Fight wouldn’t hurt either…
“With a publication as large as The Star, it’ll be a lot easier for the contestants to reach out,” Chin said. “It gives them an opportunity to shine, and a chance to showcase how good they can be.”
Apart from the chance to showcase their talents and ideas to the nation, the five finalists will also be awarded with the opportunity to learn from the best.
The other Food Fight mentors include celebrity chef Chef Wan, Le Cordon Bleu Malaysia master chef Rodolphe Onno, top food blogger KY Speaks and performing artiste/up-and-coming restaurateur Chef Liang.
Then of course, there’s the RM10,000 cash prize for the champion to kickstart his/her F&B dreams.
For the uninitiated, R.AGE Food Fight is a food hosting competition for young people (18-35), where all you have to do to join is submit a six-minute video of yourself showcasing a recipe which incorporates something truly Malaysian – palm oil – and write a blogpost togo with the video.
There’s nothing wrong with palm oil, Chin said, addressing the bad rep the oil has in some circles. To him, it is cost effective, cooks cleanly and is a good source of beta-carotene when extracted properly.
As one of the judges, Chin will be looking into the contestants’ eyes to weed out who he thinks is the one.
“It’s all about how genuine they are, how sincere they are about cooking,” he said, tapping his left chest.
“It has to come from in here.”
In his book, it doesn’t matter how good or bad a chef you are. In order to win his heart (and a one-in-five-chance of bagging the RM10,000), he needs to be convinced that you are in it for the long run.
“I worked very hard for 15 years of my life in order to realize this restaurant of my own,” he said. “This isn’t an overnight thing. People forget that. A lot of the younger generation would like to feed their ego by owning something of their own and not really looking at the bigger picture.
“In French, upon winning something they would say to each other ‘congratulations on your success’, and then, ‘et bonne continuation’, which means good luck with your continued work. That’s what the contestants and the winner need to do – continue on with their work.”