IN the food and hospitality industry, products and services have to make an impression if one wants to sustain in the competitive market. If they don’t impress, chances are they will not be around for long.
For food operators, a meal is expected to provide customers with a gastronomic experience.
Daren Leong is one who recognises the odds in the competitive food and beverage (F&B) industry.
The 36-year-old Kuala Lumpur native, who started having an affinity for cooking at an early age, has altered the perception of contemporary dining in the country.
Leong recalls the days his mother would take him to visit his grandparents. They owned a holiday premise and catered mostly to British tourists.
“I was fascinated by how memory and personal experiences influence the way we taste food. That was how a multicourse meal, with its prospects for variety, became the key concept behind our menu.
“A meal is an experience and a journey of discovering flavours, much like how our different experiences make up our life journeys,” he says.
Growing up observing his grandfather preparing dishes such as roast turkey made in an old school kitchen, complete with charcoal stoves sparked Leong’s interest in the culinary arts.
Although he went on to study IT, his passion for cooking did not falter. As soon as he graduated, he took up an offer to be a sous-chef at a restaurant in Singapore.
While there, he developed the skills to manage a restaurant and came up with many ideas to create a unique menu.
That was when he decided to aim for a bigger role, which is to contribute to the Malaysian F&B industry.
He returned to the country and co-founded Miam Miam in 2014. It’s a café that serves affordable French and Japanese food.
In just a year, Miam Miam saw tremendous growth and expanded to three countries.
In 2015, Leong established Franco, a restaurant with a similar concept to Miam Miam. Franco was subsequently acquired by a large corporation.
Birth of MARCO
Leong recently introduced his latest venture, MARCO Creative Cuisines, which is a multicourse meal-serving restaurant that’s skewed towards modern French fusion dishes.
The restaurant is parked under Leong’s company MM French Café Sdn Bhd.
MARCO was named in honour of legendary traveller Marco Polo and shares a namesake with Leong’s son.
The restaurant is armed with a team of 23, including kitchen personnel and attendants. Its concept, which carries a theme of an oasis in the midst of a busy mall, took almost six months to materialise.
An eclectic fine dining experience at a bargain, MARCO outsources its marketing and promotions to a team of professionals who are well-versed with a restaurant’s needs.
Sharing his aspiration on making MARCO a notable restaurant, Leong says: “When you have a meal at MARCO, you will be treated to a myriad of flavours and textures that will engage all your senses.”
Located at 1Utama Shopping Centre, in Petaling Jaya, the company invested some five figures to renovate the space and turn it into a 62-seater with an aquarium filled with colourful jellyfish as an interesting feature for patrons.
Leong says MARCO aims to provide an experiential journey through its interpretation of creative cuisine, using only the freshest produce and ideas.
At RM78 per person for a full course meal comprising seven dishes, customers have the choice of ordering different types of entrée, main course and dessert.
Speaking of the challenges prior to launching MARCO, Leong says: “It is a very common issue for F&B businesses to find the right talent.
“I feel very fortunate to have a network based on my experience, and I managed to scout for talents who were in town.”
Another hurdle he faced, in the beginning, was to balance his duties as chef and business owner.
“Getting funds from banks is usually difficult for an F&B outlet. So the restaurant was funded through my savings, and several investors,” he says.
Leong expressed a sense of fulfilment at being an entrepreneur. “The path to entrepreneurship helped me become a better person.
“That’s why I understand how certain people are successful. They remain focused despite the difficulties,” he says.
On his plans for MARCO, Leong says he hopes to serve 180 customers daily within the next three months.
“In the following six to nine months, we hope to serve around 240 customers daily. Once we have a strong foundation, we plan to open another outlet at the Kuala Lumpur City Centre,” he says.