Q&A With Kantan Owner Hisham Abdullah (Part One of Two)
From the corporate world to a world of aromatic Malaysian cuisine – with ‘Kantan’, Hisham Abdullah has carved out a culinary niche for himself in the heart of Melbourne. Despite his busy schedule, Hisham kindly took the time to answer some questions about his business and his passion for something I think we all share, Malaysian food.
By – The STEADYAKU47 Team
ST47 Team – How would you describe Kantan to someone who has yet to discover you? Are you a restaurant, a catering company, a cafe or all of the above?
Hisham Abdullah – Kantan could be described as a mix of a café and catering business. Cafés tend to have a homier feel than restaurants, where customers could enjoy a cup of coffee and something to eat during the day. The café came about as an extension of my catering business, where a cut down version of my catering menu is being offered, based on customer favourites over the years.
Going by the name of your restaurant, is it safe to say you’ve eaten more than your fair share of Assam laksa and Nasi Kerabu? Do you simply adore the aroma or is there a story behind the name Kantan?
I’ve definitely eaten a bit more than I’d like to admit of assam laksa and nasi kerabu – my favourite dishes. The kantan flower is an interesting aromatic ingredient, which seems to be used mainly within the Malay/Indo region. Growing up, my mum often used this flower in her Laksa Terengganu, so I became familiar to this ingredient at an early age. When thinking about a brand name, I wanted something that was rather unique to Malaysia and has a personal connection to my life, so Kantan came straight to mind.
Have you always had a passion for food and what drove you to start your own business?
Not always actually. I do like to cook, but never thought I would actually make a career out of it. It was only when I started getting constant requests to cook for friends’ get togethers that I thought there might be potential to offer my style of cooking. So at the end of 2015, I decided to quit my corporate marketing job and take the plunge into full time cooking.
What are you most popular dishes and what would you consider your signature dish?
My most popular dishes include the Mee siam, Nasi lemak, Nasi Kerabu and Kantan Fried Chicken. I would say that my signature dish is the Kantan Fried Chicken. It’s twice fried, gluten free and has a mix of aromatics that make is distinctly my own. This dish is always a big hit for my catering events. Children love is as well as adults.
Your background is in the corporate world. What career did you have in the corporate world and how did it prepare you for staring your catering business?
My background was in media and marketing. A couple of things that I took away from my corporate experiences were to have very clear communication with people and to think strategically rather than reactively.
How would you describe your management style? No great restaurant or business can function without a great team. Who makes up your team?
I don’t have a particular style of management, but I believe in being compassionate and communicating transparently but kindly to people, whether they are my suppliers/ staff etc. Most importantly, exercise patience. By applying these principles, I hope that a stress free environment can be created within Kantan. My team consists of Nadim – who takes care of front of house and a great barista; Joey – who is a superb multi-tasker in my kitchen. They both are kind have great patience. I plan to grow my team next year but any additions will have to get a long with Nadim and Joey.
In your view what are the key elements that make a business successful?
The ability to adapt to changing customer demands, great customer service and perseverance/ grit. Financial success won’t necessarily come immediately, but I believe in aiming for constant growth, even though the growth is small, year-by-year. If applied correctly, these elements combined would likely ensure business longevity. This is more important to me than short-term wins. One example of adapting to the customer demands – I slowly began to offer vegan versions of my recipes to suit the local palate, and I found that my non-vegan customers enjoy them as much as my vegan customers do. This gives me the opportunity to consider growing my vegan menu more in the future.
What motivates you the most?
The idea that people enjoy my home-style food, which mostly are my mum’s methods and recipes. I’ve always said to mum that her food can go places. Helping to realise that idea gives me great joy.
What book should every business owner read?
A book that comes to mind – ‘Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’ by Angela Duckworth
What is your favourite thing about owning and running a business?
My favourite thing is that I am able to apply my own creativity in various aspects of the business – menu, food presentation, organizational style, branding etc. I like to be creative and owning a business allows me to do that in great detail.
What makes a great dining experience to you?
A great dining experience for me is the heartiness of the food I eat. I often search for restaurants that offer home-style cooking (very hearty foods) because it excites me to eat something that has a personal story/connection with the chefs.
Outside of the food how do you keep Malaysian heritage alive in your restaurant?
My restaurant is decorated with photos and items from different parts of Malaysia. I am also looking into setting up a small retail section in my café to sell Malaysian artisanal products. It’s a work in progress for now.
You have partnered up with Sijori Malay Eatery another great Malaysian eating experience here in Victoria. Is this partnership just for catering? How did this partnership come about and how is it like working together?
Working with Sijori Malay Eatery is always a joy. Our partnership is mostly for catering. While Sijori takes care of the menu and food, I will take care of the logistics and presentation. To us, it’s more collaboration than competition, and we get more business this way. Our partnership started when Ariff from Sijori called me one day and asked if I wanted to pull off a wedding for his friend. I immediately said yes and that became the first of many collaborations.
How important is it to support the local food industry, from the restaurants and cafes to the local suppliers?
It’s quite crucial. Many local businesses are family owned and it’s important to keep the local economy going, rather than depending on large corporations. You can always count on getting fresh ingredients and care into the products that you buy when they are sourced and made locally.
Is being environmentally sustainable important to your business and if so, how do you implement a policy of sustainability?
Yes, it is an important, but a tricky one. One issue in mind – Many restaurants offer compostable takeaway containers to customers, which at first glance, is environmentally friendly. But in truth, these so called compostable containers can only be composted commercially, not at home. At the moment, there is no commercial composting facility provided by our local council so all these used containers end up either in the landfill anyway or contaminating our recycling facilities (because they can’t be recycled). My business currently uses both plastic (pp5) and landfill biodegradable products. What we try to educate our customers is for the responsible use of plastic, which recycles well and using products that actually disintegrate quickly in landfills. Almost all of our soft plastics get dropped off into RED-cycle bins so they can be recycled properly too.
If you could only eat one Malaysian food for the rest of your life what would it be?
Nasi lemak for sure.
In the second part of this two part interview we talk to Hisham about how the pandemic has impacted his business and the local restaurant industry as well as what it is like to work out of artistic Melbourne suburb, Fitzroy. While you wait for the next instalment check out Kantan’s website as well as their Instagram account, and if you’re in Melbourne stop by their cafe at 256 Johnston Street, Fitzroy, and tell them we sent you!