Foundation Studies alumnus establishes Ipoh’s new culinary hotspot

Above Gastrobar offers an impressive selection of wine and scrumptious Asian dishes, cooked to perfection with Western twists. It also includes a rooftop area overlooking Ipoh Old Town in Malaysia. These are just a few reasons to visit the trendy restaurant and bar founded by Yu Cheng Chong (TCFS 2009).

Yu Cheng and Team

A love of food and wine

As an accounting and finance graduate, Yu Cheng realises some may find his decision to build a career in the food and beverage industry unusual, but it’s a field he’s been interested in since university.

Believing the food in his home country of Malaysia to be ‘substandard’ compared to Melbourne’s diverse gastronomy, Yu Cheng began researching the culinary world and practicing cooking in his spare time. 

His interest soon expanded into wine after watching a documentary about wine and sommeliers called Somm (2012). It was like love at first sight – Yu Cheng was immediately hooked on wine and his ambition to familiarise people in his home country with wine started to grow. 

‘I saw how challenging it is to learn how to smell wine, taste wine, guess grape varieties and their regions, and pick the age of a wine,’ says Yu Cheng. ‘I saw it as a huge challenge and I saw that Malaysia has a growing demand for wine – although it is still at a very, very young stage.’ 

Running a business has always been Yu Cheng’s dream and is one of the reasons he decided to leave Australia for his homeland.

After graduating from the University of Melbourne, Yu Cheng initially looked for job opportunities in Melbourne. However, none suited his liking and he soon became aware of the relatively high labour cost in Melbourne, which would complicate his goal to start a business.

‘I needed something to draw me back [to Malaysia] though, and that ended up being the 13th Malaysian general election,’ says Yu Cheng. ‘Coming back to Malaysia was sort of a destiny.’ 

An eventful journey to success

Yu Cheng began his career at the Parliament of Malaysia as an intern. He spent around 18 months helping with parliamentary research and put his accounting and finance knowledge into practice when it came to dissecting the country’s financial scandals. After the internship ended, he took on an editorial role at a mutual fund platform. The pace was too slow for him, however, and he craved more challenging work. It was then that Yu Cheng left the job after three months to fulfil his dream.

Above Gastrobar is not Yu Cheng’s first business. A couple of years before launching the modern rooftop bar and restaurant, he ran an escape room in a university town called Kampar, just outside Ipoh. The concept centred around an adventure game that locks players in a room and requires them to solve a series of puzzles to get out. It was an on-trend idea at the time, but Yu Cheng admits he didn’t plan the business thoroughly.

‘Don’t just take all the positives and ignore the negatives,’ he warns. ‘I think I made that mistake with my first business. After hearing some people say it was doable, I just went ahead without doing my homework.’ As a result, the business closed after six months. Undefeated, Yu Cheng took key learnings into his next (current) business by meticulously planning Above Gastrobar. 

Every detail counts

When planning Above Gastrobar, Yu Cheng noted that the city’s reputation was a huge factor. In 2016, Ipoh was listed as one of the top 10 best places to visit in Asia by internationally renowned travel publisher Lonely Planet. Additionally, the city was becoming an increasingly prominent destination for food tourism, rivalling Kuala Lumpur and Penang. Yu Cheng saw tourist numbers growing by the month and noted the city was packed on weekends, especially in the area around Above Gastrobar. 

Ipoh's population also supported Yu Cheng’s interest in wine, as he realised residents were fond of the beverage yet were unable to find good wine outlets in the city. Hence, wine became a key selling point of his business.

Ambience was also an important consideration. When out with friends, Yu Cheng had trouble finding the perfect location to hang out, given Ipoh tends to attract bars with loud background music. As a result, Above Gastrobar has a chilled rooftop bar where people can come to relax over drinks and good food while enjoying the views. 

Yu Cheng’s sister introduced him to the rooftop Above Gastrobar now sits on. Located in the heritage part of Ipoh, it’s surrounded by buildings from the colonial era, including old courthouses and train stations. The rooftop was abandoned, occupied only by wild plants, yet Yu Cheng immediately saw its potential. ‘It was designed by one of Malaysia’s most famous landscape architects. The structure and style were already there, so all I had to do was come in, clear it up, touch it up, and convert it into a restaurant,’ he says.

Initially, Yu Cheng wanted to establish a wine bar. Later, however, he met owner of the popular Ipoh café Artisan Handmade Bread, Sam Lau, who has worked with Michelin star chefs including Gordon Ramsay. After a conversation with Yu Cheng, Sam offered to become Above Gastrobar’s consultant chef. Once on board, Sam greatly influenced the gastrobar’s menu and helped Yu Cheng navigate the food and beverage industry as a first-timer.

‘After [Sam] came on board, I had a lot more confidence in focusing on food and using wine as a compliment. So instead of a wine bar, it became a gastrobar,’ says Yu Cheng.

Trinity friendships stand the test of time

Yu Cheng’s friends from Trinity College and Foundation Studies, namely Edwin Yap (TCFS 2009) and Jeremy Wong (TCFS 2009), also helped make his business dreams a reality.

‘When I wanted to start Above Gastrobar and told them about it, they were, of course, very supportive. They believed I had the knowledge and passion, and were quick to sign on to fund the project,’ says Yu Cheng.

As both business partners and friends, Edwin and Jeremy were always by Yu Cheng’s side during wine tastings and helped him select wines for the bar (which include tipples from locations such as Chile and South Africa). Moreover, Yu Cheng confidently states that working with them has been a ‘very civil process’. Edwin and Jeremy trust Yu Cheng’s instincts and decisions, and whenever there is something to discuss, they always sit down to talk through the matter.

‘I guess it has been great to have friendships like this to go through tough times together after university. Having one another to sort of fall back on is a really good thing, and I think the friendships built at Trinity stand the test of time more than others,’ says Yu Cheng.

All about food

In the food department, Above Gastrobar is all about Asian fusion, which, according to Yu Cheng, is quite rare in Ipoh. The restaurant serves locally inspired dishes cooked using international techniques borrowed from France and Britain, for example. 

‘We use techniques like sous-vide, which is cooking underwater, to cook eggs for 12 hours. At the end of it, we add truffle oil onto the egg, then add powder snow that is also truffle-flavoured. The truffle is a French-Italian thing, and we mix it with a very Chinese dish to give it a whole new dimension,’ says Yu Cheng. 

Every dish at Above Gastrobar is served on a one-of-a-kind plate by Malaysian potter Sook Peng, as Yu Cheng likes how handmade plates have unique imperfections. To him, the plates are canvases that present something cultural and sustainable, and he hopes Sook will gain more recognition and appreciation through his support. Yu Cheng also plans to source vegetables from local farmers as his business model progresses. 

The case for passion, patience and courage

Looking back, Yu Cheng has experienced some ups and downs; from making mistakes with his first business, to risking a venture in a whole new industry. But the process has been worth it so far, and Above Gastrobar had a successful grand opening earlier this month, which even attracted interest from The New York Times.

‘I have a very wise friend and his lesson to me was, “Whatever you are doing in this very second, focus on that and think about nothing else at the moment.” It’s about just putting your heart into every single detail and thinking about it wholeheartedly,’ says Yu Cheng. ‘I have been applying this to Above Gastrobar and everything else in life.’

Article written by Shamira Natanagara (TCFS 2015)

24/10/2018

Category: People