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February 14, 2024

The Making of Junda Khoo

A new book explores the career and recipes of Australia’s most prolific Malaysian chef.

Words: Junda Khoo
Images: Alana Dimou

This is an edited extract from Ho Jiak: A Taste of Malaysia by Junda Khoo, published by Hardie Grant Books. Available in stores nationally, RRP $55.00. 

Ho Jiak was the first step in my career as a chef, but my career in hospitality started long before that.

My hospitality journey really began the day I was offered a promotion in finance. I told my boss I wanted a few weeks to think about it – I’d go to Malaysia, and when I came back I would respond to the offer. I was already feeling frustrated in finance and thinking about doing something on my own.

That’s when I stumbled across Papparoti, a chain of cafes in Malaysia that sell coffee-flavoured buns. I thought: this could do well in Australia. When I came back from Malaysia, instead of signing the promotion offer, I handed over my resignation letter. Two weeks later I walked out of the office, straight down the road and into a cafe to ask if they could teach me how to make coffee.

Eventually we said, screw it, we can do this on our own.

The plan was to learn to be a barista and get some idea of the cafe industry then bring the Papparoti franchise to Sydney. To do that I’d need about $100,000 but I didn’t have enough money to do it on my own, so that’s when I went to the boys - Simon, Shuli and Roden, three guys I met in high school who became my buddies in uni. When I asked if they wanted to chip in and start a business together, they said, “sure, let me know how much you need.” Simon and Shuli were going to be investors, but Roden and I would run it, just the two of us making drinks and buns, from seven in the morning until six in the evening.

We started work: getting approvals, renovating, doing the fit-out, everything. It was hard. By the eve of the grand opening, we were so tired. We knew it was going to be a big day, so we packed the shop up and left, excited for the opening. At around ten or eleven that night, I found out Roden had been in a bike accident. He was so tired that he fell asleep on the bike, hit the kerb and landed on his back. Me and all the boys were at the hospital that night until two or three in the morning. Roden was in hospital for six months.

None of that changed the fact that I needed to open a cafe that morning. At 4.30 a.m. I was back in there, and by the time we opened there was a queue. I looked at all those people and thought, Let’s freaking do it – let’s make some coffee! That was the first taste I had of the industry showing me that this life is tough – really, really tough – are you sure you want to do it?

In two years I went from one Papparoti in Kogarah to eighteen Australia-wide. After the first one, I licensed out the brand, so all I had to do was supply the buns and other operators would do the rest. One of the people who took on a licence and opened a new place was always asking for stuff: could he have a gelato machine, could he make pancakes, could he open late, serve milkshakes? Out of all the Papparotis, that one always did the best. His name was William Xie. Apart from my grandpa, William was the first person to ever believe in me as a chef. But we’ll get to that later.

William and I were doing so well from Papparoti that we decided to open some businesses together – more Papparotis, and bubble tea franchises like Gong Cha and Easy Way. Then finally we opened Petaling Street, a chain of Malaysian restaurants in Melbourne that we later expanded to Sydney. Every time we opened another place, we’d try something new. But every time we did, we’d come up against the parent company. They’d refuse to listen. Imagine opening a McDonald’s and asking them if you could do something different – they’d be like, hell no.

Eventually we said, screw it, we can do this on our own. I’d run the kitchen and William would handle the rest. At Petaling Street I’d worked in the kitchen – I was plucking chickens, washing plates, everything but cooking. The chefs didn’t let me cook, questioning my experience. But William believed in me. I remember he said something like, “You know Malaysian food better than any of these guys. You have tastebuds, you can cook. You can do it.”

The thing we disagreed on was what we’d serve. During my trips to Malaysia, I learned recipes from aunties and uncles who ran street stalls and kopitiams, coffee shops where different vendors sell cooked food around a central drinks stall. I went to my favourite roti, noodle soup and chicken rice stalls and asked them to teach me. They were extremely generous and welcoming, all of them inviting me into their kitchens. I thought we could use their recipes and be the most traditional, authentic Malaysian restaurant in Sydney and that’s how we’d be successful, but Will said, “That’s not going to make you the best.” He thought if we did nasi goreng and all the rest of the street food dishes we’d just be another Malaysian restaurant, so he encouraged me to cook Malaysian food the way I like to eat it, not trying to be traditional or authentic – just delicious. William’s belief in me was important, and it still is. If you go into a business, I highly advise you to have a partner, but choose your partner wisely.

This life is tough – really, really tough – are you sure you want to do it?

We agreed to start small and found a food court stall within a Strathfield mall. We sold all our businesses and put our money into that, the first Ho Jiak.

The first few months included a lot of learning. I could cook, but I didn’t know how to use a wok – I’d never used one at home, and I’d never managed a commercial kitchen. I was trying to learn how to flip an egg in a wok while at the same time working out everything you need to do to start a business. It was scary. We’d been making good money at Petaling Street, but now we were on our own, and it was quiet. Were we crazy? We focused on consistency. We thought that if we could maintain consistency, we could be successful. That’s how we came up with our own soy sauce blends, sambals and oils – small, simple steps that can give a big boost to flavour. We wanted every dish to be delicious and exactly the same, every time.

I think about it like the theatre. I love theatre, and I watch a lot of plays. Those artists practice, practice and practice. Some have a show at 11 a.m., a show at 3 p.m. and a show at 8 p.m., and they do that for months. They might do it a thousand times, the same thing over and over again. But for the audience, it’s their first time, every time. Over the years, how many char kway teows have I made? It must be in the hundreds of thousands, but for whoever is eating my char kway teow, it might be their very first time, so I am going to give them the best show I can.

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