PETALING JAYA, Oct 30 — When is butter not just butter? When it’s Mentega (Malay for “butter”), a handmade and hand-poured hair pomade.
The creation of Kevin Cottie Tan, a barber by day and musician by night, Mentega is thus named because cocoa butter is used and the end result both looks and spreads like — you guessed it — butter.
The slim, fresh-faced and friendly 26-year-old calls his pomade “your hair’s daily dairy,” which is everything you need to know about his wry and whimsical sense of humour. His taste in décor, on the other hand, is more subtle: Oven Cuttery, his barbershop and pomade-making factory, is all cool minimalism.
A prominent white neon sign announces that you have entered “The Oven” where white-speckled walls, blond wooden tiles in a zig-zag pattern, chic black cabinets and plenty of mirrors dominate.
Utensils such as clippers are arranged carefully. A solitary shave brush in a wooden bowl gives off a Zen-like aura. At the rear, a couple of big pots and an electric stove top are the only clues to the whereabouts of his pomade “kitchen.”
Dressed in a white shirt, skinny jeans and a denim apron neatly appended with rows of hair clips and combs, Tan looks pretty minimalist himself. Part of that look is a clean haircut and skilful application of hair pomade, something he admits to being obsessed about.
“I’ve always been into buying and using pomade. But I’d finish them so quickly — an entire jar would be gone in three weeks! — that I started wondering if there was a more affordable way to use them. That’s when I began exploring making my own pomade,” he says.
After scouring the Internet for more information, he got a pomade recipe from a forum user and started experimenting immediately. He recalls, “Many of the pomade home brewers are based in the US and Australia. Everyone was very open and willing to share their knowledge. I wanted to make a pomade that contains nothing detrimental to the hair and scalp, but also works well in our tropical climate.”
The result is the Mentega Classic Firm Hold, an oil and wax-based pomade made in small batches, with medium- to strong-hold and medium shine. Besides the standard six-ounce jar, Mentega is also available as a travel-sized one-ounce jar called Mentega Classic Jr.
“I use nourishing ingredients such as cocoa butter and essential oils so the pomade is easier to wash off than your traditional product. The standard six-ounce jar is about 50 per cent more than your regular pomade because I didn’t want my clients to feel the frustration of running out of pomade in three weeks the way I felt!”
Tan started making pomade two years ago, before he knew how to cut hair. Barbering wasn’t even something he considered doing until his friend Lex Low of Amplitude Barbershop encouraged him to try it.
“Lex was a great teacher, very casual and relaxed. Unfortunately I’m a slow learner — I took almost a year to pick it up! One day, I visited a kedai runcit to look for straight razors, the ones Indian barbers would use. Suddenly it clicked: I realised I was a professional barber now, too.”
A musician since his college days, Tan has always been into the music scene which, he feels, shares the same vibes with modern-day barbering. He say, “I was the bassist in a now defunct post-hardcore band called AZUREFORJANNE. My bandmates and I all had full-time jobs — I was a journalist before I became a barber — and so we had to play music at nights and on weekends. In fact, we were on tour in Borneo and checking into a hotel when one of my bandmates suggested I go commercial with my pomade.”
Initially, Tan was hesitant due to a self-professed lack of confidence. Thanks to popular demand (“One friend after another asked for the pomade,” he says), however, he took the plunge and started Mentega in June last year.
Incidentally, his nickname “Cottie” comes from him joining a band where there was already a member named Kevin. “As the newbie, I had to find a different way for the rest of the band to call me. Most of my friends in the music industry already knew me as ‘Cottie’, which comes from ‘cotton candy’, my favourite childhood sweet, and so that name stuck.”
Today the multi-talented young man still records music in his home studio whenever he’s free. He says, “It’s more of a solo endeavour. I’ve learned that the music we make doesn’t necessarily have the biggest market but I also realised that we don’t have to reach out to everyone. It’s enough that there are those who enjoy what we do.”
Tan has certainly transformed this sense of serenity to his barbering. Regulars often come back, not because they are in urgent need of a rescue haircut, but for a trim and to chat. He explains, “It’s like ‘talk therapy’ and it’s a two-way street, really. I enjoy asking questions that I wasn’t able to when I was a journalist because my editor told me those questions didn’t contribute directly to a story.”
These days Tan gets to be as curious as he likes. “I find that my questions help me communicate with my clients. That way I get a clearer idea of what sort of haircut they want, and they know what to expect. It’s customer satisfaction, basically.”
This is more than a service rendered robotically, after all, but a ritual for men to shoot the wind, relax and feel comfortable in their own skin. At Oven Cuttery, there are two barber chairs for Tan and a second barber (he is joined by a couple of freelancers).
The barbershop is located within Damansara Utama’s Battery Acid Club café so customers can ostensibly enjoy coffee and a slice of cake while they wait. However, there is no real waiting since most make use of Oven Cuttery’s online booking system to reserve a slot.
The Oven differs from other barbershops as a hot towel treatment is provided after haircuts. While a damp towel is being heated in an oven, Tan massages his client’s temples. Once the towel is ready, he flips it to cool it, then covers his client’s face and continues the massage. The experience is completed with a cold towel, infused with a few drops of peppermint oil to help one relax further.
Indeed, it’s so relaxing you’d be forgiven for falling asleep — not an uncommon occurrence! Tan’s finishing touch, after brushing off any stray hairs, is to apply his Mentega pomade to give his client that sleek, handsome look.
Due to feedback from his clients, Tan will soon release a matte pomade called Mentega Creamy Hand Clay and other products such as beard oil and a moustache wax. He observes, “Everything I do now has made me realise how we impact and connect with others. In the process, I guess, we discover more of ourselves.”
Some may wonder at the phenomenon of male millennials opting for so-called hipster barbers these days, perhaps due to old-school Indian barbers disappearing in our neighbourhoods or the impersonal services offered by quick-cut kiosks in shopping malls.
One thing’s for sure: barbers and pomade makers such as Tan are part of a new wave of young entrepreneurs carving their own way in uncertain times. Indeed, they ought to be lauded as much as the founders of a new tech start-up or a specialty coffee purveyor. In fact, the next time you spot a technopreneur or barista with a great haircut, chances are they got it at Oven Cuttery...