The star chef of Chinatown’s beloved Kopitiam discusses how the restaurant industry has been affected by the pandemic, how playing mahjong is keeping her entertained and her favourite hometown dishes
To call Kyo Pang an ambassador for Malaysian food would be an understatement. Since founding Kopitiam in 2015 – a casual eatery in New York’s Chinatown serving Malaysian small plates and desserts – the third-generation Baba Nyonya, whose family still lives in Penang, has won many accolades, as well as the hearts and palates of New Yorkers who may otherwise have been unacquainted with the joys of Malaysian cuisine.
Besides placing sixth on Bon Appétit’s The Hot 10: Best New Restaurants 2019 list, Kopitiam and its nasi lemak, kaya butter toast, pan mee and sago gula melaka have earned rave reviews from the likes of The New York Times and The New Yorker. Pang – who moved to the United States from Malaysia in 2008 – has also been a James Beard Award semi-finalist for Best Chef: New York State for the past two years in a row.
We catch up with her to find out how she’s been keeping herself occupied during lockdown, the challenges that Kopitiam and the wider restaurant industry are currently facing and where she dreams of travelling to next.
Where and how have you been “self-isolating” these days?
I haven’t been having any days off since the lockdown, as [Kopitiam] has remained open for takeout during the pandemic.
The global restaurant industry has obviously been hard-hit by lockdown measures. How has this affected Kopitiam?
We have seen an obvious drop [in customer traffic] in Chinatown and many restaurants that used to be busy are mostly empty. Some of them have mentioned that they are facing an 80% decrease in sales at least. During the first week of March, [Kopitiam] experienced probably around a 15% drop, which went down further to 60% in the second week. During the lockdown, when we can only offer delivery and takeout, we are at just 8–10% of our usual sales.
What’s keeping you occupied these days?
Well, I keep myself occupied with work – trying to brainstorm what else I can do to keep my business running and discussing things with my business partner. I’m getting the chance to be creative with marketing again, like how I did when I was in university. I’ve been reading here and there, and recently got the chance to play mahjong with some close friends because they live nearby and are not working. I’ve [also] been live-streaming and working together with influencers like @thespruceeats to share some home-cooking recipes.
What have you missed doing most during this period?
I miss eating out for sure, and I also miss shopping with my wife during our off days. The first thing that I want to do is to bring [her] to Disneyland and Universal Studios, because I haven’t had a vacation in the last three years.
If you had to choose, what would your top three Malaysian dishes be?
So many! Oh chien (fried oyster omelette), Padang’s poh piah (spring roll) and char koay teow (fried flat rice noodles) with a lot of blood clams.
Can you tell us more about the personal connection you have with Malaysian cuisine?
Kaya toast, nasi lemak and oh chien – these are the things that remind me of the taste of home. I even named my corgi Kaya! It reminds me that every morning [when I was a child] we would have brown bread and kaya for breakfast with a soft-boiled egg before heading to school.
As for nasi lemak, my dad would always bring home some very simple nasi lemak that he got from the market and I would always have at least two packs. Oh chien is always my first choice whenever we head out for supper or are eating out at the hawker stalls.
Are there any initiatives that Kopitiam has come up with during the pandemic?
My brother brought quite an amount of batik for me during his last visit, and we always wanted to do something so our customers could [have a taste of Kopitiam] at home. So we use the batik to wrap our Kaya Toast Kits (homemade kaya jam, half a loaf of milk bread and butter), and also our Nasi Lemak Kits (sambal ikan bilis, sambal belachan, a pack of raw jasmine rice, coconut milk and pandan leaves).
We also came out with gift cards, and have been selling our cups, saucers and coffee [for retail] so that we can pay all our staff who can’t work during the lockdown, as many are single parents or core providers for their families. We’ve also worked together with the restaurants around us on a punch card.
And we’ve partnered up with Rethink Food to provide 300 meals a day for frontline workers and are currently providing meals for 75 families with no or low income around the city.
Do you have a favourite place in Malaysia that comes to mind?
I was born and raised in Penang. I really miss the street food there and the pasar malam (night market) at Cheras in Kuala Lumpur because this is something the United States is lacking in.
What’s next on your travel bucket list?
I would travel home for a visit because I haven’t seen my parents in 11 years. And I definitely want to travel to Chengdu, because that’s my wife’s hometown. If I could, I would also want to travel to Europe.
Read more: 6 top chefs share their best lockdown meals