Makan Kakis: A Pandemic-Inspired Home-Based Food Business
It’s Chinese New Year. Instead of raking in ang baos, which I still do contemptuously (I’m in my 30s and unmarried) and fighting tooth and nail over who gets the last quail egg in the hot pot, here I am rolling pineapple tarts. It’s my 870th one. The cuts on my fingers that I have gotten from the combination of dry weather and washing dishes by hand are burning just from the pineapple juice. The results though, are glorious mounds of sticky pineapple housed within buttery pastry, then boxed and shipped to all corners of the European Union: Sweden, Copenhagen, Ireland, Milan, Paris, London, Cambridge. Destinations, one could only dream of visiting under these lockdown circumstances. Apparently, the news of my travelling pineapple tarts have spread like wildfire amongst the Singaporean/Malaysian community in the EU, and I suspect that my Instagram stories had a part to play in that.
Although this article isn’t about the perturbing year that we have experienced, Makan Kakis was inspired by how it unfolded. With restaurants closed since the second lockdown announcement in November 2019, people became a prisoner to their own cooking, raiding the deli section of the supermarkets in an attempt to add variety and break the monotony. I, on the other hand, wanted to open a Bed & Breakfast but was thwarted by the lack of funding. This doesn’t come as a surprise since investing in hospitality ventures may be perceived as black holes at the moment, so the next best thing was to be a home-based food operator.
Beyond concept or cuisine, Makan Kakis’ menu challenges the idea of what traditional Chinese food can be and is governed by a multifaceted culture with a certain slant towards Cantonese and Taiwanese comfort classics. Our first version is a not-so-grandiose take on food from my childhood: char siu, siew yoke, lu rou fan, fried rice, spicy Szechuan dumplings and a killer sweet & sour pork. Given the huge majority of Vietnamese in France, we are basically pitting ourselves against deep fried spring rolls and cheap stir-fries. I am more than happy to seize the opportunity to enlighten the locals on our red dot cuisine, especially after all the stellar cheese and butter I have been slapping on fresh baguette slices.
Within two weeks of launching this project, we’ve gone on air and been featured in two local newspapers. I never could have anticipated such a turn of events nor churning out hundreds of feisty Szechuan dumplings to feed the locals nor the rousing responses from the pineapple tart recipients who say it ‘tastes of home.’ For my partner Mathieu and I, it’s been a steep learning curve; we’re talking hands-on training, but we’ve never been closer to pursuing our dreams of running our very own small business.
Makan Kakis started as a way to preserve some semblance of normalcy, converting my kitchen rituals into a bit of income by feeding others, but in the process of ironing out the operational kinks, it has become so much more. Not only is it a platform that provides me with a unique sense of comfort and structure, but it has also been a huge privilege to share my passion for food with the community. I’ve been blown away by the support of fellow Singaporeans—many of whom I’ve never met before. They have given me their vote of confidence that there is a place for Singaporean cuisine in the middle of France.
One thing I’ve learnt about moving from a big city to a small town of less than 1,000 in population is never underestimate the power of word-of-mouth or grassroots marketing. It’s very much like in Belle’s song in Beauty and the Beast, “Little Town, full of little people, waking up to say, Bonjour Bonjour Bonjour…” Sharing food from my culture with my customers has been a unique way of fostering connection and hospitality, even if it’s through our greyish-blue side door.
Do we still want to operate a hotel? Run some rad cocktail parties? Host some local winemakers at a supper club? Yes. But there are no glossy pictures of that future in our trajectory yet—not with rumours circulating that restaurants aren’t set to reopen till April. For now, I’m glad that we pivoted our business model during the pandemic.
Makan Kakis is available for order and pick-up only in Preuilly-sur-Claise, Loire Valley, France via www.makankakis.fr.