Growing up in a modest oil palm estate in Sandakan, brothers Charles Devan and Patrick Devendran had a culinary upbringing that urbanites today would envy. Freshly baked homemade bread was de rigueur where toast was concerned, the labour of their housewife mother, and fresh seafood ever abundant and affordable. Only upon moving to Peninsular Malaysia did they realise how fortunate they had been to take for granted what city folks would consider luxury.
Frustrated by the expensive and low-quality seafood pervasive in Kuala Lumpur, Patrick, an advertising graduate, began importing quality catch from Sabah. Charles retained his day job as a magazine writer and photographer but helped his brother in this newfound business until the sustainability of their efforts — driven by supply and financing issues — was called into question. Unfazed, they went back to the drawing board, rethought their plans and began importing smoked salmon under Ironwoods, a company named after a strong timber species native to Borneo and representative of their roots.
As expected, their plans were met by incredulity by their parents, who said, “We sent you to university and you want to sell fish?” But the bothers persevered. Part of their success is due to exceptional sourcing — they were the only Malaysian importers of Scotland’s best smoked seafood brands, Inverawe and John Ross Jr, both of which hold Royal Warrants bestowed by Her Majesty the Queen of England. Less than 1,000 brands hold this coveted royal seal, reserved for best-of-their-class names, such as Cartier and Bentley.
So fresh and preservative-free were the smoked salmon, however, that they were only granted a shelf life of a month, far shorter than those of most brands stocked at supermarkets. To offset the financial stress of moving them quickly, the brothers expanded their line of products to include premium teas, honey, olive oils, aged balsamic and truffles. Each was sourced with equal care, with only award-winning, royally-recognised or truly extraordinary names making the cut. Affordable pricing for each product established healthy sales flows, allowing the brothers to make good on their initial risky investment.
Now 30 and 28 respectively, Charles and Patrick, as well as their partner Andy Hiew, have just signed off on their most exciting year yet. In the span of eight months, their relentless entrepreneurial drive manifested in the opening of three bricks-and-mortar outlets, each with a distinct identity and focus. Cellar Eighteen at Tropicana Avenue is the purveyor of their gourmet imports, juxtaposing artisanal fine foods and wines with a café concept. The Flowerpecker in Lorong Kurau, Bangsar, is the city’s first vermouth bar, offering tasting flights of the fortified wine and creative cocktails. And finally, Poseidon Caviar and Seafood Bar in the affluent township of Desa ParkCity introduces customers to the finest selection possible of its eponymous products.
Options catches up with the ever-enterprising brothers at the last, a chic outfit dressed in soothing Scandinavian minimalism. In fact, the furniture is by contemporary Scandinavian furniture maker Normann Copenhagen. Poseidon doubles as the brand’s first studio in the country, though Ironwoods has yet to begin actively marketing it as such.
However, the sleek chairs and lighting fixtures are not the first to catch the eye, nor is the glass-fronted wine cellar, soundproofed for privacy during selection. Instead, it is a feature wall to the right of the first-floor outlet, tiled in blue with a motif reminiscent of fish scales. A chiller set against it holds the marine treasures that the bar is known for — the tiny bursts of exquisite flavour promised by Kaviari and Russian Caviar House. Oysters match these as bestsellers, while other popular items include blushing prawns, smoky mussels and plump, juicy scallops from the US. Presentation is always free of fuss and fanfare, allowing the ingredients to do the talking unadorned.
“Beluga retails for €250 or so, and a similar caviar experience anywhere else will set you back easily by RM1,000. But we price ours at RM888 per tin,” says Patrick. “In fact, our prices start at the RM100 mark. People are understandably reluctant to spend a fortune on something new to them that they might dislike, so we try to make the experience as accessible as possible.”
“We sometimes let customers try caviar by the spoon,” says Charles. “We show them the traditional way of enjoying it, by eating it off your hand. Body heat warms the wild sturgeon roe naturally and your skin has a neutral flavour and texture; the delicate roe absorbs the metallic taste of metal spoons while wooden spoons imprint their texture when tasting. You lick it off the spot just above the joint of your thumb.”
Regular masterclasses priced at RM350 introduce the curious to the blissful world of caviar variants and appreciation. Inclusive of drinks and all caviar varieties available, it is an experience easily valued at over RM1,000. However, affordability has always been a factor in the way the brothers approach business.
“We’re passionate about the products we bring in and want to share them with as many people as possible,” says Charles.
That said, Patrick jokes that he is the one pushing for accessible prices while Charles baulks at how low he goes. “Our differences in opinions is a constant point of consternation but we usually compromise and meet in the middle,” laughs the latter.
The attractive prices of the caviar and seafood bar draw in a wide demographic, including a worldly nine-year-old who was able to distinguish between the different caviar variants and articulate his preferences. “It assured us we were in the right neighbourhood,” says Patrick.
Cellar Eighteen is likewise as inclusive, proving popular with families. “The kids come in for hot chocolate and cake while the parents explore the wine selection,” says Patrick. “It’s a very relaxed atmosphere, primed for browsing through jars of gourmet sweets and savouries or Iberico hams. There was no one cohesive theme unifying the products offered — the name ‘cellar’ makes you think of wine but you enter and people are drinking coffee — so we have just termed this an artisanal experience.”
We’re passionate about the products we bring in and want to share them with as many people as possible
While the outlet was an organic development of their fine foods business, and Poseidon the result of an abundance of quality seafood that did not quite fit in with Cellar Eighteen and warranted its own dedicated space, The Flowerpecker happened accidentally.
“We were told about an available space above Barat and wanted to leverage the concept the owners had going on downstairs,” says Charles of the vegetarian fine-dining Mediterranean restaurant. “Gin and whisky bars were opening around Kuala Lumpur. Since Barat had an extensive wine list, we thought we would play off it with vermouth, wine fortified by herbs, spices and botanicals. It is an aperitif and easy to drink on its own or in cocktails. People were curious and reviews were positive about the idea.”
The extent and variety of ventures were far beyond their realm of experience and they credit their courage and perseverence to unadulterated passion. “You are going to think we are ridiculous,” laughs Charles sheepishly when I ask about his big-picture goals and ambitions. “We want to grow international F&B brands and there is a dining concept we might launch when the time is right, but what we really want to go into is property development. It’s an exciting industry.”
“When Poseidon and the other outlets can stand on their own, we will consider the next step,” interjects Patrick. “We have seen people make the mistake of trying to grow too fast so we are exercising caution, relatively. But we are fortunate to have good staff and work closely with them to realise their career goals to encourage them to stay with us. Hopefully, that means we will have these businesses stabilised and running on their own soon.”
Work and play seem to be blurred boundaries for the two of them, with ideas thrown around animatedly as we dig into a platter of glistening oysters. Their excitement is infectious but more admirable is the grit and creativity both display.
“Perfection is a moving target, so we are always chasing it,” says Charles. “It’s a great goal to run after.”
This article first appeared on June 4, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.