It began as a keen eye for design. Chai Chun Boon wanted to be a designer following in the footsteps of his father who was an interior designer known for renowned projects like the Sarawak Dun and the summer palace for the Princess of Brunei. They say all things happen for a reason and one day, Chai picked up a food magazine displaying the most intricately constructed dish, and that was when a passion was sparked for exquisite culinary delights.
Trained in Switzerland, Chai took it upon himself to gain the exposure he needed to find his footing in the industry. He’s worked in places like the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Singapore before deciding to return home to contribute to the F&B industry here. Copper is the result of that - an eatery where the fundamentals of food and service are prioritised and exemplified.
How did Copper begin?
After completing my training in Europe, I decided to head to Singapore. At that particular time, Singapore was the food hub of Southeast Asia, and in some way it still is. There was a concentration of Michelin star chefs and other celebrity chefs, so I thought to myself ‘why not?’. I was coming from a 18 hour work day to a 10 hour shift - felt more like a holiday! I quit my previous job and joined a tapas restaurant. That was the restaurant that pretty much started the tapas bar boom in Singapore. It showed me how a 3 to 4 metre long kitchen and bar could serve 100 pax over dinner service. When you open the fridge, things will start falling out because it’s such a small space. Our tips were SGD$700, that’s someone’s salary in Malaysia! From there, I was headhunted to work for another restaurant and eventually I was given the opportunity to start something on my own. However, I did tell the investors involved that if I don’t think I can grow the business then I’m not going to do it. My partner then encouraged me to look back home. Malaysia is currently experiencing a 50 % growth in the food and beverage industry - that’s huge! I do want to see this country flourish and want to contribute to its development. I came home, and that’s how Copper began.
How is it like pioneering one of the few fine dining restaurants in Malaysia and what sparked the idea to serve this kind of food?
I never intended to open a fine dining restaurant and I don’t consider Copper as one because of the fact that a lot of Malaysians misuse the word ‘fine dining’. With fine dining, you need to have a certain character and a distinct level of food and service. My intention for Copper is to be a chic casual restaurant serving you very good food in a good environment and being affordable at the same time. We want people to be so sure of coming back just from that one visit. We get the basics done right compared to a lot of food places out there, and we want our customers to know that. You can have an amazing interior, kitchen, and front of house, but when it comes to the finer details of serving food, it can be a complete let down because of the lack of seasoning - that’s what we want to fine tune.
Culinary is a very intense career. You’re standing and prepping for most of the day, so what is it that makes you want to persevere?
It’s the way food appeals to me and how people go to great lengths to create food. I lost 10 kgs working in a Michelin star restaurant, and all I did was stand all day and prepare the ingredients. After working in the kitchen all day and watching your customers enjoy their meals, that’s inspiring to me. A Michelin star chef who lost his hand in an accident only to come back to work 3 days later so that he can cook for his clientele, that’s even more inspiring. Watching a chef obtain his third Michelin star even after losing his sense of taste to cancer, that motivates me. Perseverance, self-motivation, and the constant search for something new are things that balance me.
Appreciation for food is something we tend to take for granted. What did you set out to do the moment you decided to return to Malaysia?
I can’t say that I can change the whole industry because I’m only one person with a restaurant. I came back wanting to be able to give our F&B industry a different way of viewing food that is not rigid to a look or taste, yet you can still understand the flavour and essence of the ingredients. I want to give you food that’s simple yet striking in flavour. I want to be able to present a plate of seasonal fruits and make people go, “Wow look at that dish! I don’t want to eat it, it’s too pretty” [laughs]. I want to conjure up a feeling that makes you wonder.
You started everything from scratch. Why was it important that you opened a restaurant here?
A lot of people are afraid of coming back and many have lost their faith in Malaysia. So had I, but I don’t want to be a ‘keyboard hero’ and be typing away behind my computer in a foreign country telling Malaysia to do better. You’ve got to walk the talk. We knew there were going to be lots of challenges coming back to an industry where it’s probably not ready for a lot of things, but then again when is it ever the right time to start? You need to have faith because there’s an expiration date to everything. Copper will end some day and when that comes, we’ll just have to pick up our bags and move on to the next project.
What advice would you give to someone coming out to the working world?
The media has portrayed the F&B industry in a way that makes it glamorous - it’s not. It’s only glamorous when you put in the hard work and get that recognition. Other than that, you’re confined to a four walled kitchen where you have to polish the plates and make sure the entire premise of your workplace is clean and organised; the food has to come out hot and the flavours need to be right; and more often than not, there needs to be teamwork. Because of how cooking shows are, people tend to think they can just come out of graduate school and become a sous chef or start their own restaurant. Yes you can considering your parents are loaded. Everyone is opening a cafe or an eatery, but every other day someone is closing down their business. We need to be grounded, master the basics, build our knowledge, and put our heart and passion into the things we do. It didn’t happen overnight for me; I spent all my money traveling and eating in the best restaurants so I can understand what people are serving, their service, and to determine the kind of restaurant I want to run.
It’s been 2 years since Chai set out on his pursuit to share his definition of well prepared food through the medium of Copper. For many of us we simply eat to live, but for Chai it’s more than just about putting dishes together and feeding his customers. Listening to him speak, it is clear that he has an insurmountable drive to push further and do more than to stay within his comfort zone.