The gregarious co-founder and executive director of the Soul Society Group, which owns the popular Souled Out and WIP F&B brands, on the opening of its latest gastrobar as well as international foodie destinations on the top of her travel list.
Options: Congrats on the opening of the new WIP on the Park at Marc Residence.
Michele Kwok: Thank you. We have never been the type to rest on our laurels. Complacency kills passion. So, every few years, we try to come up with something new, whether it’s a refreshment exercise of existing outlets, rebranding or opening a brand-new place. It keeps the entire team on its toes. WIP on the Park is the first outlet we opened online, literally. We had to bid farewell to Tujo at the Ascott Residences in March this year. Then, an opportunity came up right next door at the Marc and we just could not pass up on it. All the planning and meetings [for the project] were held online, right smack in the middle of the third lockdown. It was a surreal experience but it has all worked out.
Tell us a little about the new addition to your F&B family.
WIP on the Park persists with the concept of an urban tropic garden with verdant hints, giving it a very relaxing ambience — ideal for patrons to find solace in the midst of an urban jungle. This is also the second WIP outlet after the flagship at BSC, which is now 14 years old. We felt it was time to take the WIP brand to new heights. This has been a long time coming but, with a spanking-new location and a solid brand to spread the cheer, we are indeed excited to see how this venue pans out with city folks. I have always loved restaurants and bars in the heart of the city. KL has a very vibrant F&B scene and it would be a shame not to be in the thick of the action. There’s nothing like the buzz of a cosmopolitan centre to get the adrenaline pumping. And even though we are right in the heart of the Golden Triangle, I believe we have created an oasis for people to come enjoy an extensive food menu complemented by a wide array of drinks and, of course, the service standards you can expect from any of the Soul Society brand of outlets.
Is the menu similar to Bangsar’s?
Definitely. And more! The favourites will always feature but we have included some popular dishes from the now-closed Tujo and Goa, so this menu is a good meld of classic and new. Even the drinks menu has undergone a revamp. There used to be a cocktail selection called From WIP With Love, which features our take on famous cocktails. One example is the PiscolaSour, originally the Pisco Sour. Now, we have added peach and osmanthus to give it a more floral and fruity flavour. It’s truly divine.
How do you feel now that people are confident and able to enjoy eating out once again?
I am elated, yet filled with trepidation. Businesses need to survive. We can’t live on fresh air and sunshine. We need customers! I was ecstatic to be able to dress up and have dinner at nice restaurants once again but we all need to play our part in flattening the curve. We can’t take things for granted. Just because the country has opened up doesn’t mean we can do away with all the SOPs that have kept Malaysians safe. Too many have suffered and, while we need to live with the virus, we must be sensible about things as well.
How did you manage throughout the lockdowns, though?
I am very thankful to be surrounded by a tightknit family and supportive group of friends. I never felt alone or lost. At home, we also got creative at meals, be a bit silly at times and did a lot of Marie Kondo-ing. As a restaurateur, however, it was tough. The group has a staff force of about 400 and our strategy, from the start, has been to sustain each and every one despite greatly reduced income. We all took drastic pay cuts and supported those who were unable to work for various reasons. Our mantra is ohana, which means family [in Hawaiian]. And family means no one gets left behind or forgotten.
So, what have been the most important lessons the pandemic has taught you?
People say you learn more from your failures than your successes. If that’s the case, the last two years have made me a genius. Jokes aside, I am grateful many of us have pulled through and are emerging from the pandemic a little dazed, but adamant and hopeful for that silver lining. I also learnt to embrace change — either by adapting quickly or pivoting fast. It has forced me to look at how I want to spend my precious time and resources. While we cannot stop change, we can determine how we respond to it.
Did any books or pieces of music help keep you sane throughout the uncertainty?
I love biographies and enjoyed getting to know Michelle Obama in Becoming. I am now binge-reading Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. It is fun, hearty and hugely original.
Have you escaped to anywhere exciting, though, now that travel restrictions have been reduced greatly?
I am seizing every opportunity to travel interstate for now — to visit my parents and explore new resorts and F&B outlets within the country, particularly Penang, Johor and East Malaysia. I will wait until 2022 for overseas travel, once SOPs are further eased up.
And which overseas destinations look most exciting, particularly from an F&B point of view?
San Sebastian in Spain’s Basque Country. Synonymous with top-quality food, it is considered the world’s best city for foodies and boasts many Michelin-starred restaurants as well as a thriving pintxos bar scene and beautiful local markets filled with fresh seafood, local meats and seasonal vegetables. And that’s not including the excellent local wines and ciders. Mendoza in the heart of Argentine wine country is another. I read that they cook everything using fire. With some of the best beef in the world, it’s a carnivore’s paradise, with hearty, real and simple food, where the quality of the ingredients just shines through. Great food and wine set in the stunning Andean mountain range — I am already transported there while describing this to you.
Describe your perfect weekend.
It will be away from the city, indulging in healthy clean food and fresh juices, walks in the park or by the beach, and a yoga session or two. And my phone switched off. Blissful!
This article first appeared on Nov 15, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.