KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 6 — Huang Hsiu-Ying, better known as Guanzi (Mandarin for “Bottle”, her pet name), decided the problem was the eggs. The soufflés tasted okay but the texture was closer to that of a cake than the melting texture she wanted. “A proper soufflé should have a barely cooked centre,” she said. “It should be soft and creamy, not dense at all.”
It was a warm, sunny morning in Taman Desa. Wild Sheep Chase, a labour of love by café-hopping couple Sujian Khor and Chris Yap, was still weeks from opening. Partly named after the novel by Haruki Murakami and partly inspired by Chris’ term of endearment for Sujian (“Sayang”, Malay for “darling”, sounds like “Silly Sheep” in Mandarin), the café’s focus is serving warm desserts à la minute.
The soufflés weren’t quite right yet though.
Guanzi wasn’t going to be deterred so easily. As the deputy manager of Caldo Café in Taipei, she was in Kuala Lumpur for a couple of months to help Sujian and Chris set up their kitchen. Making sure the soufflés were perfect was only one of the many items on her check list.
The sweet-natured Taiwanese has been in the café business her entire career. She said, “I was studying media and communications in Taipei. During my third year, I started working part time at a café. It was my first time drinking coffee and I fell in love with it.”
After graduating, Guanzi has been working in cafés ever since. Talking to her, one realises this is a professional who loves her craft and is at the top of her game. The F&B industry requires lots of hard work and long hours but she was strangely drawn to it.
“I’ll be honest; I had an ideal fantasy of what a café career would be like. The reality involves a lot more hard work but I’m happy. Not only because I love the café ambience and good coffee, but because of working with my colleagues. I love people.”
Since she joined Caldo Café three years ago, it went from a single small café to opening a second, larger outlet. Guanzi, naturally, is a big part of the reason for the Caldo’s success though she’d modestly insist otherwise.
Lately though, she has felt something was missing. Doing the same thing over and over again can become uninspiring, and Guanzi wasn’t immune to ennui.
She said, “I had thought of opening my own café with my boyfriend. We’d love to start one in Yilan, which is a very scenic area just 40 minutes away from Taipei. But the café business isn’t easy and I was worried my boyfriend and I would fight. So I gave up that dream.”
Still, Guanzi couldn’t rid herself of the feeling that she needed a change. So when her boss asked if she’d like to go to Kuala Lumpur to help set up a friend’s café, she was terrified but leapt at the opportunity.
“I’ve never been to Malaysia,” she said. “Initially it was very confusing; there are so many different races here, and some of the Chinese people didn’t even speak Mandarin or any Chinese dialect. It’s a refreshing change from Taiwan where everyone is pretty much the same.”
The diversity of cultures in Malaysia has sparked Guanzi’s creativity once more. “Coming here has allowed me to see everything with new eyes. The food, for example, is amazing. I love spicy food, especially curry, so I’m already addicted to the curry laksa, banana leaf rice, roti canai and nasi lemak with extra sambal!”
It’s this embrace of local cuisine and culture that has helped Guanzi resolve the riddle of the soufflés. “I realised the problem was the eggs. The commercial eggs were making the soufflés too dense. Our solution was to use kampung eggs.”
Kampung isn’t the only Malay word Guanzi has learned. Her favourite Malaysian phrase is agak-agak (meaning “more or less”). She explained, “Everything in Taipei can be quite regimented or precise though it doesn’t seem that way at first. It’s much more relaxing to have this agak-agak attitude to life.”
You wouldn’t know this from observing her in the kitchen though: as a trainer, she’s typically Taiwanese in her insistence on order and quality control, whether in terms of ingredients used, following a recipe step by step, or in creating a standard operating procedure (SOP) from scratch for Wild Sheep Chase.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do this without Guanzi,” said Chris. “We are passionate about cafés and coffee but we’re not from the F&B line. There were a lot of things we had to learn.”
Sujian agreed, adding, “Guanzi has not only trained our crew and helped us set up the café, but motivated us with her attention to detail, to ensuring everything is made with care and love. She has a lot of heart.”
Since their soft launch on August 15 (their official opening is on September 16, Malaysia Day), Wild Sheep Chase has been drawing the crowds non-stop. Even on a rainy Tuesday evening when I return to the café, there are still customers waiting patiently for a table, and once they are seated, 20-30 minutes for their warm desserts, be it a molten chocolate lava cake, hot waffles or the signature soufflé.
Even Guanzi is surprised at the number of customers, especially the ones returning repeatedly. She said, “I had been warned that the café culture in Malaysia is very fickle; after the customers have visited once and taken their Instagram shots, you’ll never see them again. So I’m very heartened by the number of familiar faces coming back again and again.”
The rapidly growing café scene in Kuala Lumpur mirrors that of Taipei’s several years ago according to Guanzi. “Back home these days, most of the new and interesting cafés are independent, located in small alleys and hard to find. Some only permit takeaway coffee due to lack of space, while others insist you eat and drink on site to preserve the taste of the offerings.”
Her time at Wild Sheep Chase has allowed Guanzi to grow and adapt. “In a way, I get to do the same thing but in a different environment. I can’t feel bored because it’s a whole new setup and there are new challenges to resolve.”
More importantly the dreamer inside her has started dreaming again. “I used to fear that opening a café with my boyfriend would strain our relationship. After seeing how well Chris and Sujian work together, I realise it’s not only possible but the process can bring two persons closer together. All it takes is a leap of faith.”
A leap of faith was what Guanzi took when she came here, to help build Wild Sheep Chase. When the right opportunity comes along, my bet is on her taking another leap again. She’s brave enough, and like Sujian said before, she has a lot of heart. Who better to make a dream come true?
Wild Sheep Chase
6-1, Jalan 1/109E, Desa Business Park, Taman Desa, Kuala Lumpur
Open Tue-Sun 12pm-8pm