PETALING JAYA, Feb 16 — There’s no business like show business. Or so they say. Food entrepreneurs might beg to differ.
The original line comes from a 1946 Irving Berlin song but it could easily be updated for the state of today’s food and beverage (F&B) industry.
Dynamic and creative in some parts, stagnant and derivative in others, possibly the worst insult you could throw to cooks or chefs is to say they are copycats or unimaginative.
Which might be why the giant neon sign above the bar at Chu by Fifty Tales announces definitively: NOT RAMEN.
An offshoot of Fifty Tales, a contemporary Malaysian Chinese restaurant in Bandar Sri Damansara that serves up dai chow fare with an artisanal twist, Chu’s concept shares more affinity with Hong Kong style cart noodles.
The menu at Chu, located at REXKL, is a simpler affair compared to the one at Fifty Tales. Here, the star is their pork lard dry noodles that are elevated with myriad toppings such as beer braised pork, 32-day dry-aged duck ham, tender namyu beef slices, pickled cucumbers and braised peanuts.
The trio behind Fifty Tales (left to right): Bimmy Soh, Aaron Phua and Aaron Khor.
This is what chef-owner Aaron Phua, 29, shared with me recently when we discussed his journey from being crowned the Malaysia Barista Champion in 2019 to opening his first restaurant at the end of that same year.
Today Fifty Tales is known for inventive dishes such as wonton rasam, mee ulam tossed in budu and lacto-fermented chilli, and steamed octopus with shio koji.
Weekend dim sum includes freshly-made har gao. Limited specials include last October’s lotus leaf glutinous rice with house-made cured meat.
It is easy to assume that the restaurant has always been an overnight success.
This wasn’t always the case as Fifty Tales was very much a lean startup when Phua first launched it by himself over three years ago. Phua says, “The team at Fifty Tales has grown slightly bigger; we have three partners now, including myself, who now run the whole business together.”
“Not Ramen” is the now iconic catchphrase at Chu by Fifty Tales.
Chu by Fifty Tales is similarly a team effort, led by the same trio of Phua and his two partners — college-mate Bimmy Soh, 31, and Dewakan alumnus Aaron Khor, 26.
Phua explains, “Khor, who is our head chef for both restaurants, became a business partner and that’s how Chu by Fifty Tales started. The restaurant has matured, and we have identified ourselves as a Malaysian Chinese Noodle Bar — doing food that is close to heart and home.”
One of Chu’s best sellers is called the A.P bowl, named after Phua, naturally. The noodles are topped with beer braised pork, the 32-day dry-aged duck ham, and namyu beef slices.
For those seeking to fill up their bellies fast, there is The Bimmy (again named after another co-founder) — a full-on bowl with grilled pig ears, duck ham, beer braised pork and some greens. Guaranteed to leave one well satisfied.
The AP (left) and The Bimmy (right), two popular bowls at Chu by Fifty Tales.
Phua adds, “We do all of the curing and ageing in-house. That’s what makes it special.”
The variety of toppings is necessary given that their noodles are meant to be simple and straightforward. Phua explains, “For our noodles, we do only one type of flavour — pork lard dry noodles. At no bigger than 400 square feet, Chu is meant to be a fast paced noodle bar.”
That speed in serving hungry patrons is also reflected in how swiftly conditions shift in our current economic climate. Phua says, “By now, it is common knowledge that staffing has always been an issue, and managing the costs with inflation. We have been forced to adapt very quickly within the span of one year, changing prices every quarter.”
F&B operators have learned that they have to accept that ingredients are getting more expensive, and to adjust accordingly. Or to pivot, if necessary.
This is the exact conundrum Phua and his partners have been facing of late. He shares, “We have decided to consolidate the two businesses. Chu will cease operations by the end of March, while Fifty Tales will continue to operate in Bandar Sri Damansara probably until August. We will strategise and relocate in the coming months.”
Making noodles from scratch and cooking them with love.
Throughout this transitional period, the trio will be running the noodle bar as usual as well as doing pop-up events with some of their F&B industry friends — likely with some cafés or restaurants in PJ. (Follow their Facebook and Instagram for updates.)
As professional restaurateurs, Phua and his partners have learned to roll with the punches. He shares, “Being adaptable is probably the most important skill set we must have. How quickly we react — and act — really impacts our business.”
Fifty Tales has certainly shown they are a team that neither rests on their laurels nor do they waste any time on lamentations.
One of their upcoming pop-ups is just over a week away: they will be in Penang on February 24 and 25, and taking over the kitchen at Communal Table by gēn 根, a restaurant in George Town that showcases modern Asian dining with seasonal ingredients.
Weekend dim sum at Fifty Tales: ‘har gao’ by Chef Bimmy (left) and lotus leaf glutinous rice with house-made cured meat (right).
Their 11-course menu on those two days will no doubt intrigue newbies to their repertoire. Regulars to their restaurants, however, will recognise patterns and influences, though every dish is a fresh take just for the lucky Penangite diners.
A no holds barred start with Everything About Soybean, where the humble legume is celebrated with fried tofu cubes, braised soy sauce beans and pickles, soybean with taucu crème, and tofu cheese.
The pace then picks up with pickled honeydew and coriander glass noodle salad, sar kok liew (a nod to Soh’s weekend dim sum offerings back in PJ) with smoked capsicum and red chilli vinaigrette, and crystal fried salted fish pork belly with spring onions.
As a nod to their smoked lychee sambal prawns, Fifty Tales is doing a rendition that is grilled with kaffir lime leaves. Key ingredients repeat in different variations: braised pepper tofu and Chinese wine aged pork belly; pork short ribs with goji jam
Grilled ‘kailan’ with ‘kelulut’ honey and 32-day dry-aged duck ham (left). Lychee sambal prawns (right).
Notes from their noodle bar make an appearance too: the 32-day dry-aged duck ham in their grilled kailan with kelulut honey; and of course, their signature noodles with pork lard and soy mix, this time accompanied with spring onion “hair”.
What catches my attention the most is the dessert course: Fried tongyun with creamy pumpkin sabayon? Herbal-flavoured Pei Pa Gou mochi? Count me in!
Exciting times. As one door closes, another opens. Phua is stoic and pragmatic about the change: “For me personally, what is delayed is not denied. We have to keep going and trying no matter the circumstances.”
There are no definite endings, not least where F&B is concerned. Remember: There’s no business like food business.
Fifty Tales 五十条
5-G, Jalan Margosa SD 10/4a, Bandar Sri Damansara, PJ
Open Tue-Thu 12pm-9pm; Fri-Sun 12pm-3pm & 5pm-9pm (Cincai Dinner); Mon closed
Tel: 012-249 2697
Chu 初 by Fifty Tales
REXKL @ 80, Jalan Sultan, KL
Open Tue-Thu & Sun 12pm-8:30pm; Fri-Sat 12pm-4pm & 6pm-10:30pm; Mon closed
Fifty Tales @ Communal Table by gēn 根
68, Lebuh Presgrave, Georgetown, Penang
Only on Feb 24 and 25, 2023 (Fri & Sat)
RM250/pax, available in two seatings — 6pm & 8:30pm
For reservations, visit gencommunaltable.com or call 012-578 3323.
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