Chef Ili Sulaiman of Agak Agak Initiative shares her expertise in preparing the best talents for the F&B industry
parents were part of Malaysia Airlines’ cabin crew, her father being an In-flight Supervisor. Every year they travelled to a new destination where her parents would not only encourage her to learn about the world, but also point out all the little, often overlooked details of the service or the food.
Recalling memories of Honolulu, Rome and other locations, Ili credits this with helping to develop her palate. Meanwhile, at home, she was no slacker in the cooking department, either. Ili says she was always “training” to cook – cooking at home, cooking at kenduris (home feasts), helping her friends’ mothers when she went to visit. “Cooking is natural to me,” says Ili, who was one of two winners of Asian Food Channel’s Food Hero Challenge 2015.
However, for her tertiary studies, her father insisted that she study business, for which Ili is forever grateful, as it helped her set up her own businesses while utilising her cooking skills. She studied at the Queen Mary University of London and never considered a career in the culinary field. However, after graduating, Ili worked at Mosimann’s, a private dining club run by visionary chef Anton Mosimann. This was where Ili understood what her father meant when he said that he loves what he does at Malaysia Airlines.
As a student in London, Ili would host 40 to 50 people in her small quarters for the celebration of Eid. She later started Dish by Ili, a delivery and catering service that provides freshly cooked meals to homes and offices. Her latest endeavour, Agak Agak Initiative with like-minded chef Basira Yeusuff, is another extension of Ili’s tendency to be hospitable while adding another feather to her cap – that of a teacher and mentor.
Although Ili always had a 10-year plan for a sustainable business that includes youths in the running of the establishment, things came about for Agak Agak coincidentally. Dish by Ili had been growing rapidly when the owner of APW, a repurposed printing factory in the Kuala Lumpur neighbourhood of Bangsar, offered Ili a space for Agak Agak. This was her opportunity to make her plan become reality earlier than expected.
It was also perhaps not an accident that Ili met Basira, who seemed to have similar ideas. Both had already been hiring ‘non-conventional’ apprentices in their businesses before Agak Agak, enlisting college dropouts and those with borderline autism, giving these often-disenfranchised youths employment and a chance to build a career in food and service.
“I was dyslexic as a child, and that was one of the reasons my mom got me into the kitchen – to teach me science through food,” recounts Ili. “Mom started boiling vegetables and taught me about condensation by comparing the food and water to soil and rain.”
“I had also volunteered for Teach For Malaysia, where I noticed that while the organisation was doing great work in the academic field, there were students who were not academically inclined,” said Ili. This is one reason Ili founded Agak Agak – to help youths who might flourish better when taken out of a formal classroom environment.
At Agak Agak, the staff are trained in every aspect of running a restaurant. For the first six months, staff work in the kitchen and the service area, where they are taught how to prepare food, including cutting ingredients, butchery basics and getting the essentials right before moving on to other aspects in the business.
In the servicing area, staff are encouraged to speak to diners and explain the food. After that, the next six months will see staff doing administrative work, inventory, fielding telephone calls and doing basic finance. This is when Ili and Basira start assisting their staff in getting a job elsewhere, as Agak Agak had always been planned as a training facility.
“We want them to bring our values to their new jobs,” says Ili. Thus, Agak Agak trains staff as professionally as possible. “So it’s not just the cooking, service and administrative work that we train on, but also the details including human interaction, how to make small talk, even how to put on make-up, marketing yourself, marking up prices, leadership skills – the whole picture.”
Agak Agak has actual training modules that include proper breakdowns of the syllabus, as well as targets and desirable goals. These are important not just as a guideline but also to show measureable results to investors and other relevant parties. “We will groom our apprentices as long as they want to work hard,” says Ili.
Ili also has another mission via Agak Agak. “I want to change the perception of people towards the industry,” says Ili. This includes a change in policy that involves better pay, insurance plans and more security for jobs. “Speaking to colleagues in the industry, they were very excited for Agak Agak’s concept,” Ili says. “But when it comes to salaries, not many were willing to pay what we think is a fair salary. This mindset needs to change.”
Like with the food at Agak Agak, which includes Malaysian favourites with a European twist, like Chilli Pate Mee and Pulut Hitam Cheese Tart, Ili and Basira are looking to revolutionise the industry by creating more appreciation for food and service. It might be an uphill climb but Ili is confident that they will get there.