KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 2 ― Chicken rice by any other name will taste as delicious, correct? Perhaps, but chicken rice served by the “chicken rice prince” of Taman Desa will delight you with more than taste alone.
Ares Kuan is a 25-year-old apprentice at the chicken rice stall at Restoran Tuck Tuck Tei, nestled in a tree-covered corner in Jalan Desa Bakti. Since starting at the stall three months ago, he's been attracting a crowd of loyal customers with his cheerful attitude and attention to details.
But there's more than meets the eye than a simple apprenticeship. He reveals, “Restoran Tuck Tuck Tei was actually started in 1982 by my late grandfather. In fact, the large trees that provide cooling shade for customers here were planted by my grandfather over 30 years ago. Many of our regular customers come back because they enjoy eating under the canopy of the trees.”
As the proprietors of the shop, the Kuan family have selected vendors that sell typical local foods such as char kway teow and chee cheong fun. One of these vendors, Mr Lee, runs the chicken rice stall (his brother runs the economy rice stall next to his). So in effect, Kuan is apprenticing with his family's tenant, a relationship that he appreciates as it brings their little community of vendors closer together.
Having previously been in sales before, Kuan decided to switch to F&B this year. He explains, “While there are ups and downs with a sales career, making it very unstable, everyone needs to eat, right? This makes it a safer line of work, even when the economy isn't great.”
Given his family is already involved in the food industry, learning from one of the vendors was an easy decision to make. “I had always wanted to open my own chicken rice shop one day so this is a great way to acquire first-hand experience,” he says. Judging by his knife work, his skills will soon be on par with those of his sifu, Mr Lee, if they aren't already.
Kuan and his sifu are at the shop by 6.30am to prepare roasting the meats, called siew mei in Cantonese. The siew mei meats are roasted on spits in large rotisserie ovens; each type of meat is brushed with a different sauce to impart specific flavours and textures, ranging from caramelising the char siew to produce a sweet, barbecue taste to creating an aromatic and crispy skin for the roast chicken.
What's in the sauces they use? Kuan grins and says it's a secret.
He is now in charge of roasting the chicken and the char siew while his sifu roasts the siew yoke. In total, it takes them over three hours to finish the roasting process, which means they are ready to serve customers by 10am.
It's not an easy job as Kuan will be on his feet for six to eight hours at a time, every single day. Part of the challenge is remembering each customer's order, which may vary greatly: the type of meat (roast chicken, char siew, siew yoke), the portions (half, regular, double), white rice or oil rice, skin removed or left on, and whether de-boning is required.
It's all in a day's work for Kuan who has been cooking at home since a tender age. He recalls, “I was 15 years old when I first stepped into the kitchen. I love cooking home-style dishes. There's nothing better than comfort food, really.”
His parents have always given him a free reign and not interfered in his career choices. Somehow one suspects they're happy to have him closer to home, or at least, at their place of business.
Since his arrival at the chicken rice stall, Kuan has been drawing more and more customers to the shop. Part of this young man's appeal is the trouble he takes to smile at customers and engage in conversation with them.
Kuan has got a sharp eye too. A customer comes in ordering a double portion of chicken breast and Kuan asks the customer if he'd like the skin removed too. He says, “I figure folks who order that much chicken breast probably go to gym. They are likely looking to eat healthy and cut down on their fat intake.”
He goes on to suggest a half portion of plain white rice instead of the regular portion of oil rice that typically accompanies the roast chicken. The result: a happier and possibly fitter (in the long run) customer.
“What matters is letting the customers know your heart is in the food you serve them. Eating the same thing over and over again can be boring. So can thinking about what to eat. But when a customer drops by and orders some siew yoke, and the next time he passes, I can ask, 'Uncle, you want some siew yoke today?' They will feel touched that we remember what they had before.”
He pauses, then adds, “It makes a difference.”
All hail the (chicken rice) prince of our hearts, taste buds and waistlines!
Restoran Tuck Tuck Tei
64A, Jalan Desa Bakti, Taman Desa, Kuala Lumpur
Open daily 7am-3pm (except alternate Thursday closed); chicken rice available 10am-3pm