Meriam Alfonso on championing Keralan flavours through her latest restaurant Coast by Kayra

While the original Kayra showcases a mix of traditional recipes with contemporary flair, Coast spotlights the Keralan community’s nautical heritage.

Meriam: To me, the story of Keralan gastronomy in KL has only just begun (Photo: Patrick Goh/ The Edge Malaysia)

Options: Congratulations on your latest restaurant, Coast by Kayra, at The Starhill. Tell us all about it and your journey in F&B.
Meriam Alfonso:
Thank you. Coast by Kayra opened its doors to the public on Jan 1 this year. Our original restaurant, Kayra, began very much as a nostalgic reflection of growing up as the youngest in a big family. Our lives centred around Kerala Restaurant, the family business started by my grandfather in Johor Bahru.

While Kayra showcases a mix of traditional recipes with contemporary flair, Coast spotlights the Keralan community’s nautical heritage. We also have charcoal grills at Coast as they complement the Malaysian palate and affection for seafood as well as an innovative selection of vegetarian dishes.

I was attracted to The Starhill’s location as it has depth and gravitas, a space able to offer exceptional narratives for both a wider local and international audience. The opportunity to establish a presence here came organically, being in the right place at the right time.

When was Kayra originally established?
We will celebrate our eighth anniversary on March 18. And, to me, the story of Keralan gastronomy in KL has only just begun. Our vision is to keep pushing the envelope for Keralan cuisine and cementing Kayra’s rightful seat on the world stage. For me personally, it is not just about serving good food but to do so consistently while ensuring a memorable experience for guests each time.

Do you have any particular highlights to share from the past eight years?
It has been very full-on, challenging and dynamic. The overarching highs include tapping into our collective creativity and building up our Kayra family. Both our head chef Sal Sabeel and manager Anthony Augustine are still with us today, growing and building the brand together. This is what continues to motivate us.

I still remember having butterflies in my stomach when the shutters went up the first day we opened at the original lot in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, KL. I also feel gratified being able to create and curate menus. Imagining, interpreting and reinterpreting dish after dish with Sabeel until the final rollout that you see at both Kayra and Coast. It’s always an adventure!


Coast spotlights the Keralan community’s nautical heritage (Photo: Coast by Kayra)

Many young people dream of success in F&B. What advice would you give them?
It is one of the toughest industries to be in. It requires sacrificing weekends, public holidays and vacation time. It is certainly not glamorous! What is needed is not only passion, but also discipline, resilience to not veer off course and to never give up despite the challenges that come your way.

What did you originally want to be while growing up?
Being exposed to great Keralan cooks in the family undoubtedly influenced my life choices. But it is less about the F&B business that drives me per se and more about a love for all those formative memories: smelling, tasting and seeing everything that went on in the kitchen.

Life, for me, also revolved around the interaction between restaurant, family and church. Although I read and practised law for many years, life kept leading me back down this path, from culinary internships to pastry certification until I built up the courage and resources to open Kayra. So much of all that has manifested in my life relates to food and a passion for it that has never waned.

You are obviously the best person to ask for travel tips to what astute globetrotters call “God’s own country”. What are some of your recommendations to see and do in the state?
It’s hard to pick just a few but I would not miss exploring Fort Kochi, the site of a biennale and just so rich in terms of history, art, culture and architecture. You must also go to Alleppey and experience living on a houseboat and cooking (and eating) delicious feasts while sailing the backwaters. Not to mention Kerala’s hill stations for their spice estates, especially cardamom, pepper and tea, and a pleasant climate.

I would also spend at least one day on the beach, preferably at Varkala, Kovalam or Marari. Oh, and I would end the trip with a few holistic Ayurvedic spa sessions.

And what and where would you recommend we eat?
Karimeen Pollichathu at the Grand Hotel; thattukada by Sabeel’s family in Azhikode, Thrissur; fish curry meals in Chandran Chettan’s shop in Kollam, Thirumullavaram; the prawn fry at Vaidyar’s Kada — a small, nondescript restaurant in Muhamma, Alleppey; and the snacks sold on the beachfronts of Calicut.


Coast by Kayra opened its doors to the public on Jan 1 this year (Photo: Coast by Kayra)

What are you reading right now?
To be honest, running the restaurants take up so much of my time. Between that, family and the children, all my reading is about recipes, spices and ingredients online.

What are you listening to right now?
I am listening to this podcast on ‘Staying present while listening’ by Eckhart Tolle as I realise it is key to having clarity while functioning in the fast-paced world we live in today.

What’s on your 2024 travel list?
India — so I can stay connected to the ever-evolving culinary scene there.  A perfect trip would be to Kashmir to enjoy the food, culture and wide landscapes of the northernmost tip of India. And Dubai, for the global and modern influences on its food culture. But besides the glitz, I would also like to eat my way through the old markets and discover the spice souks. There’s nothing like a local market to get to know a city ... and besides, that’s where the hidden gems are always found.

It is hard for those working in F&B to get time off, but what is your idea of a perfect weekend?
Spending a whole day with family or going on a food trip with my girlfriends.


For the month of Ramadan, Coast by Kayra is offering a special set menu, starting from RM140++ per head for a table of four, with free-flow briyani rice and three choices of bread.

This article first appeared on Mar 4, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.


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