April 15, 2021
Many years ago we met up with the lady, Mdm Kwan Swee Lian, at her Madam Kwan’s restaurant at Pavillion, Kuala Lumpur. She was in her late 70s. Time passed by so quickly and Mdm Kwan is 86 now. She has her share of body aches and finds difficulty with walking so her customers do not get to see her much anymore at Madam Kwan’s Pavillion.
“I didn’t know how to cook,” she told us with a chuckle and that began the start of an interesting afternoon chat. “I was a beautician and I wouldn’t be found getting my hands dirty in the kitchen.” Many people of her time remember her from the Sakura Café days in Jalan Imbi, Kuala Lumpur. Sakura Café was a popular destination for delicious Malaysian cuisine like nasi lemak, assam laksa, fried kuehteow and many more comfort food dishes.
We asked her how a beautician managed to run such a successful restaurant business. She laughed and told us the story.
Birth of Sakura Café
“I certainly love to eat. And I got into this restaurant business after talking to the owner of Lam Mee shop in Petaling Jaya. I noticed the crowd in his nice-looking restaurant and was curious to find out how he could make enough money to cover his expenses by selling only Lam Mee. The Lam Mee was good no doubt but the restaurant looked expensive to maintain so I asked the owner, “Can you really make money selling Lam Mee only?’ He answered me a resounding “Yes!” As soon as I got back to my office in Jalan Imbi, I told my staff that I will be closing my beauty business and will convert the premises into a restaurant. I offered those who wished to stay to join me in the new venture. They were shocked at my sudden decision but I am like that. I am a very impetuous person. If I want something done and believe in it, I just go ahead.” she let off with a giggle which turned into laughter.
So what happened next?
“I sat down to design the layout of the restaurant. I had lovely glass tables which were modern in those days and I place potted plants at strategic corners to create a warm ambience. I did not have too many tables to start with. I designed the menu an every detail that went with the restaurant. I loved doing that. There is an artistic streak in me. The I got my chefs in the kitchen and that’s how the business started."
So how did you learn how to cook?
“10 days into the business, my head chef left me. That was why I had to go into the kitchen. I knew of a lady in Singapore who ran private cookery classes. I rang her and told her that I had only one day to learn. That I would fly down to Singapore in the morning and by evening I would have to return to Kuala Lumpur. I told her that all she had to do was to give me the recipes for the curries, laksa etc and tell me how to cook them and I will pay her well for it. She agreed so I left for Singapore. I took notes for several hours of everything she said. She was a good teacher. As soon as I got back, I got all the ingredients and began cooking from her instructions. I learn fast and the crowds certainly loved what I cooked at Sakura Café.” Reminiscing the early days made her happy.
“Just like that?” we were amazed
“Yes, just like that,” she said. “When my teacher flew here from Singapore to visit me to find out how the dishes turned out, she could not believe how well I had done and even she enjoyed my food.” A big grin flashed across her face.
Sakura Café sold
Sakura Café ran successfully for many years. Then it was sold. Mdm Kwan sighed and said, “we all have our baggages in life. The important thing is to have the courage to carry on despite setbacks in the past. I sold Sakura Café at a very good price. Much later, my children and grandchildren encouraged me to start the restaurant business again. (She was 65 then). They suggested to name it after my maiden surname, so Madam Kwan’s was born. They are the ones who designed the name cards and all the other details o fthe restaurant. I only cook.”
She showed us her name card and said, “Look at this name card. At first I did not quite like it because the lady in the card does not look like me. They said it was modern and it was a good caricature of what I am, bubbly and happy. So I looked at it again and true enough, I felt tha tit did look like me after all. I love my family especially my grandchildren,” she said with a warm smile.
(The interview continued.)
A lot of people like your Nasi Bojari, especially the crispy yet tender fried chicken drumstick that go with it. Was it part of what your Singaporean teacher taught you?
“She taught me the Nasi Bojari but the crispy fried chicken came from a Malay cook. The thing with me is that I am always on a look out for great local food. If I find something I like to eat, I will go there everyday and eat the same thing until I am friends with the chef. This Malay cook noticed me and said, “You really like my fried chicken!” Then I asked him to tell me how to cook it and he did.”
“It is the same with the assam laksa. I enjoyed eating assam laksa at a certain hawker stall. As usual I went everyday to eat assam laksa until the owner became a friend. The I will ask for the recipe and I will always get it. I think they don’t mind telling anyone because it does not mean you can produce the same result even if you are given the recipe for the dish. You have to have the innate talent to convert or transform the recipe into real food.”
What about your nasi lemak?
“It is very important not to stinge on fragrant rice. It must be rice of the best quality because the hallmark of a good nasi lemak dish is the rice. I am extremely particular about this because I know that people will come back again and again to my restaurant for nasi lemak because they like the fragrant and aromatic rice.”
Do you still cook? Because this interview took place several years ago, her replies below were when she was much younger then. (70s)
“I wake up every morning at 4 am to cook all the curries and sambal for the restaurants. I have 7 big woks, each like the size of this single table here. And I never take a day off, 365 days a year, every morning getting up to cook. Not bad eh? The only time I took a few days off was because I had a hip operation and had to take enforced rest in the hospital. As soon as I was okay, it was back to the kitchen again.”
What about the other dishes listed in the Madam Kwan’s menu? Like the popular fried kuehteow and the Cantonese style beef or seafood flat rice noodles?
“Many of the chefs in our kitchens have worked with me for at least 6-7 years. I only allow a cook to work beside me in the kitchen if he or she has been with me for several years. We are lucky to have them.”
But why do you want to work so hard?
“I love to cook. what else can I do at my age (70s)? As long as I can still stand and cook, I would continue to do it,” she said resolutely.
What an amazing lady!
CEO of Madam Kwan’s
Mdm Kwan’s son, Datuk Rudy Foo, a former Malaysian tennis champion and a professional accountant, was the brains behind the Madam Kwan’s restaurant chain. It was he who translated Mdm Kwan’s dream of starting again into reality. The day to day operations of the restaurant group is managed by Datin Maureen Ooi, CEO, who is the daughter-in-law (Rudy’s wife) of Mdm Kwan. There are currently 11 Madam Kwan’s restaurants. For location www.mymadamkwans.com
Mdm Kwan has also launched her own cookbook Madam Kwan: Her Untold Story and Beloved Recipes which was written by her granddaughter Catherine Foo.
- Tatler Malaysia. Datuk Rudy Foo. https://my.asiatatler.com/people/rudy-foo#:~:text=Datuk%20Rudy%20Foo-,Datuk%20Rudy%20Foo,the%20restaurant%20chain%2C%20Madam%20Kwan's.
- Astro Awani. 6 February 2018. Cynthia Ng. https://www.astroawani.com/berita-dunia/madam-kwans-ceo-consistency-and-quality-key-our-success-226783
- Malay Mail. 5 July 2015. Lee Khang Yi. https://www.malaymail.com/news/eat-drink/2015/07/05/the-story-behind-madam-kwans/927467
- The Sun Daily. 6 October 2017. The Story of Madam Kwan. https://www.thesundaily.my/archive/story-madam-kwan-NTARCH490161
- The Star. 2 May 2016. Maureen Ooi. https://www.thestar.com.my/metro/smebiz/columns/2016/05/02/continuing-the-madams-legacy
- Madam Kwan’s. Store Locator. www.mymadamkwans.com