I get so sad when people say, ‘Oh, it’s just a food court’,” laments Huen Su San only half-jokingly. The serial entrepreneur and founder of local cloud kitchen pioneer Cookhouse has been exceptionally busy of late promoting her latest venture, Artisan’s Playground by Cookhouse, which is on track to becoming Kuala Lumpur’s hottest experimental, interactive and immersive dining space. Having soft-launched on March 31, Artisan’s Playground follows on Huen’s original Cookhouse concept — where food entrepreneurs rent kitchen space to support their businesses without the need for heavy capital investment — but with a seriously stylish and decidedly more premium twist.
Spanning 33,000 sq ft, the expansive set-up is a veritable haven for anyone with a remote interest in food and the process of its preparation. For those among us who spent much of the lockdown glued to food shows on telly or our devices, or even toiling physically in the kitchen, a quick walk-through of the 450-pax capacity Artisan’s Playground shows that its name was very aptly chosen indeed.
Dedicated solely to culinary artisans, one of the star “chef’s toys” here is undoubtedly the Josper Basque Grill. If you have ever eaten at Spanish maestro Martin Berasategui’s eponymous restaurant (he is one of the world’s most celebrated chefs, with a staggering total of 12 Michelin stars to his name, spread out over seven establishments) in Lasarte-Oria, you just might recognise the pricey state-of-the-art kitchen equipment designed for precision cooking using natural charcoal or even different woods and coals, each of which adds unique flavour profiles during cooking.
Coffee connoisseurs will rejoice in the provision of an espresso machine by Victoria Arduino, one of the finest names and beloved by the world’s best baristas, as well as a Giesen coffee roaster. There is also a Stefano Ferrara handmade pizza oven, painstakingly made brick by brick and endowed with the ability to reach and keep uniform temperatures of between 400°C and 500°C — ideal for making Neapolitan pizza, a dry ager and a host of other international-grade tools to take professional tinkering to the next level.
By incorporating her founding principles for Cookhouse but elevating things to a standard that even Gordon Ramsay would not thumb his nose at, Huen is setting the stage for chefs to play, experiment and push boundaries like never before. “You would have a hard time finding these [tools and equipment] in other shared kitchens,” she smiles. “We are very excited to reveal this unique shared set-up, which gives highly skilled chefs a safe and conducive space in which to refine, develop and even perfect their recipes and craft. More often than not, a chef’s skills and expertise may be limited by [lack of] access to high-grade equipment that comes with sky-high investment costs. Thus, we have equipped Artisan’s Playground with the best-in-class apparatus sourced from all over the world for our chefs to play and work with.”
Some of the city’s best and brightest names have heeded Huen’s clarion call and duly reported for duty with huge grins, including Raymond Tham of Beta KL and Skillet fame, Diego Reali of Natalina and World Pastry Cup 2019 champions Otto Tay and Loi Ming Ai. “I love this idea … of being able to come here to work and with all the different culinary concepts surrounding me,” says the affable Tham enthusiastically. “Just playing with the live fire Josper grill — which costs at least RM300,000, by the way — allows me to experiment with so many different techniques!”
Leases are on an annual basis and, right now, by-invitation-only to attract the best talents in the Klang Valley. But once the chef gets a foot in the door, Huen’s team takes care of everything else, from front and back of house staffing to maintenance, pest control, managing the online reservations system and assisting in the coordination of regular events and collaborations.
Abbi Kanthasamy, founder and managing director of the Cinnamon Group, which operates four concepts (Pie Guys, The Gully, Quench and Aliyaa) at Artisan’s Playground, notes, “We developed a partnership with Cookhouse early this year after accepting an invite to showcase our well-established restaurant brands in a unique dining venture with multiple culinary options all under one roof. Artisan’s Playground sets off a whole new vibe for our restaurants while maintaining a dining culture that we best see ourselves fit in.
“Also, we wanted to place our well-established brands in a new accessible environment, create adaptive dining concepts to complement the overall theme of Artisan’s Playground as well as grow our customer base. Artisan’s Playground is already populated by many great restaurants and bars in their own right, which brings a solid base of customers from all over KL. The cuisines are diverse enough to allow diners access to as many options as possible in one venue without overlap and in a trendy, casual fine-dining atmosphere that draws people in. As more tourists return to KL, we hope these attributes that draw the locals will create an attractive destination for diners from all over the world.”
MISSION + VISION
Set in Growers Market at Rivercity in Jalan Ipoh, a lifestyle development project spearheaded by the Low Yat Group, whose aim is to bring local growers, farmers, wholesalers and emerging artisan food entrepreneurs together, Artisan’s Playground is part of the bigger picture for Low Su Ming, its managing director. “This initiative, in which Artisan’s Playground plays a key role, is to accommodate the needs of an ever-growing and evolving market while catering for changing consumer trends,” she says. “All this is complementary to Low Yat Group’s residential and commercial projects. Our purpose is to empower — be it the farmers selling their produce or the culinary artisans who want to grow their business and expand their product networks.”
On how Huen and Low, both dynamic and driven women, decided to team up, the latter says, “We met in August 2020. Su San was just starting Cookhouse in Sunway and had come over to meet me. I was attracted to Su San’s passion and you just have to support this spirit of entrepreneurship. I showed her the Growers Market space and we got to talking. I thought her pioneering the concept of cloud kitchens here in Malaysia, without the need for exposure or frontages, was very interesting … especially with online food delivery and hybrid kitchen concepts here to stay. All of us need to support Malaysians who have great ideas driven by passion and who are willing to progress, with the courage to move things forward. It is a time of exciting ideas for the world of food — how we source, produce, retail and, ultimately, consume.”
“I was already planning another location with a dine-in concept but, deep down, I also wanted to do something special the next round,” says Huen, who already boasts Cookhouse locations in Petaling Jaya, Taman Tun Dr Ismail and Bukit Bintang, besides the original start-up lab in PJS3. “So, when Su Ming showed me this big, big space, my mind just opened up to so many possibilities. I was even more grateful when she genuinely and enthusiastically shared our vision after my team and I presented our concept.”
“The idea is to spoil you for choice, with value, ambience and service thrown into the equation,” says Low. “Good food is key to sustainability while the comfy seating invites discourse that will serve as fodder for a new generation of culinary ideas, in line with the vision for Growers Market.”
PROOF OF THE PUDDING
There is, however, nothing like venturing in to truly get an idea of what the Artisan’s Playground experience is like. Here, smartly dressed staff greet you warmly in their jaunty uniforms of V-neck tops and berets before helping you to get seated in a preferred spot: It could be the beautiful private dining room or special chef’s table, or perhaps by the digital baby grand piano near the coffee roastery.
First-timers need not be daunted. Ordering may be done at the table via QR code or at one of the designated self-service kiosks, if you wish to see more visuals of the food and drink or want more payment options. Items offered will vary, depending on the time of day you visit. All you need to do is browse, pick and pay, after which a robot will send your meal over.
And in case you thought you read wrongly, you did not: Artisan’s Playground currently has a team of seven (soon to be nine) BellaBots, premium delivery robots with cute cat faces developed by Pudu Robotics and managed by Toshiba Tec Malaysia. “The tech is just to make things more efficient but don’t worry — the human touch is always close at hand if customers prefer it,” assures Huen. Each BellaBot is charmingly named after culinary movers and shakers and currently include Heston (Blumenthal), Jamie (Oliver), Gordon (Ramsay) and Alain (Ducasse). But lest anyone thinks it is purely gimmicky, the recent plight of restaurateurs over staffing issues will illustrate just how nifty having an extra pair of hands, robotic or otherwise, can be. “The staffing challenge is very, very real, so we feel this is one viable solution,” Huen sighs.
“We must not forget Artisan’s Playground is still a business, with many facets to it,” Low chips in. “We at Low Yat have evolved, too, in terms of ideas for Growers Market. Everything, in the end, relates to where consumer trends are headed and also where tech is taking us.”
And in case other entrepreneurs are reading this, the BellaBots take five hours to reach full charge, can manage about 400 deliveries daily, cut down on running costs and, best of all, may be called to serve 24/7. As the world is still gingerly stepping out of its Covid cocoons, the contactless delivery robots add yet another layer of much-welcomed assurance for the wary diner.
THE ‘EAT’ LIST
Beyond the concentration of culinary expertise and delicious offerings, Huen has positioned Artisan’s Playground’s large and adaptable space to accommodate every variety of event or entertaining scenario. “Here, it’s all about celebrating food and the people who make them. From the dining area to the dedicated events room, there is space for everything, from live performances to workshops and other activities. What we really want is for Artisan’s Playground to bring together communities of food lovers and artisans alike! Whatever the industry or demographic, we have created so many different pockets of space that the possibilities are truly endless,” she says.
Already, several fun and interactive offerings have been lined up, including live music on Thursday nights (Clinton Jerome Chua performs the whole month of June and diners don’t need to purchase tickets) while Sarawak heirloom rice discovery and peppercorn workshops by Langit Collective were held recently. With Father’s Day around the corner, little ones can enjoy a face-painting session with Papa while those missing their holidays to Positano or Sorrento may be tempted to sign up for the Mediterranean Summer Affair happening on June 27. “We want live events to be part of the equation so people can not only enjoy the food, but also the space. It’s all about tasting and sharing,” says Huen. “Our show kitchen is perfect for demos and while our dine-in capacity is 450, our events space can easily fit another 250.”
Beyond perishables, Artisan’s Playground also boasts a Cutboy outlet. “It’s a Thai brand but specialises in curated Japanese knives and accessories,” says Low. “My son, in fact, absolutely loves sharpening knives. Also right now, if you buy a knife, they throw in a free service and sharpening session.”
For all the brouhaha over fancy kitchen playthings, big name chefs and whatnot, the key element that ultimately keeps Malaysians (or most people, for that matter) coming back is good food, pure and simple. Thankfully, Huen’s decision to invite only the best-in-class names is enough assurance that a dining experience here is guaranteed to be good. Although Chinese restaurant chain Extra Super Tanker was not quite ready for business at its resident studio when we visited, the foodie circuit is all abuzz over its new offering in keeping with Artisan Playground’s pork-free policy — wagyu beef char siew!
“I’ve been ordering lobster rolls and lobster mac ’n cheese almost every day,” laughs Low, clearly a fan of chef Muhammad Fhaizal of The Red Bean Bag and now also Mobster Lobster’s repertoire, while Huen diplomatically comments, “I am fair. I support all equally.”
“Food is something that interests us all and Malaysians really care a great deal about who makes their food,” notes Low. “Most of us also love travelling and experiencing different cuisines and cultures. And yet going overseas reminds us of how much we have here at home. We are spoilt for choice in our own backyard, with such great cuisine diversity. After visiting places like Seven Dials Market in London or the Mercado da Ribeira in Lisbon, I too wanted Malaysia to have something similar … but real and not touristy. Malaysia is rich with talent — we are a food-loving and food lover’s country. So, with Artisan’s Playground in place, we really want it to be a hub for chefs to play and be themselves and for guests to see what they can do. We are now focused on making Artisan’s Playground the destination for food.”
Huen adds, “The pandemic just reaffirmed why we started Cookhouse in the first place. All of us know that digital presence is necessary to remain afloat these days, but while online consumption is undoubtedly here to stay, it is plain to see that people are hungry, starved even, for live experiences and want to enjoy the simple thrill of eating out and feeling alive again.”
This article first appeared on June 13, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.