Omakase which translates into “I will leave it to you” in Japanese is a fine dining experience where guests, quite simply, leave themselves in the hands of a chef to come up with exquisite dishes, often using the finest ingredients.
It is, in this sense, patrons are delighted to more than just a dinner; an Omakase showcases the creative flair of the chef in serving up a memorable dining experience.
It is that kind of artistic freedom Malaysian chef Eddie Ng yearns for. But to start a Japanese restaurant that serves only Omakase? He knew the stakes were high.
A lot of people were curious as to why there is only ten seats.
While the local fine dining scene has matured tremendously over the years, most Malaysians, he says, are still unfamiliar with the concept of a multi-course refined Japanese meal.
“A lot of people were curious as to why there is only ten seats,” says Eddie of his small restaurant Ed.Ju Omakase, located in a quiet corner at Damansara City mall.
“Many said to me ‘You’re never going to make it,” he adds with a wry smile.
Ng’s mission is to foster an appreciation towards the Japanese fine dining tradition. It was a painful first few months in business. “In the beginning it was challenging as customers would walk in, not understanding our concept.”
On a typical evening, you’d find Ng behind a polished black stone counter in the quaint Ed.Ju, as he and his team of ten delight patrons with delectable and sophisticated Japanese cuisines.
The extravagant experience, as one would expect, doesn’t come cheap. Ed.Ju’s basic menu starts at RM680; add-ons such as premium wagyu, caviar of sake pairing can set you back several thousand ringgit.
“We are challenging the market in a lot of ways. It’s a Japanese restaurant but none of us are Japanese.”
“Customers who dine here also tend to ask for the head chef,” says Ng “We all look very young,” he breaks into a smile.
The 31-year old admits his first foray into the kitchen was not born out of passion but rather the need to earn a living. “Being a chef was never a part of my plan.”
“Food never played a big part my household. My mom was a businesswoman and wasn’t big on cooking - she’d cook something simple like fried egg over steamed rice,” says the Perlis-born lad.
After completing his studies in Hospitality and Management in the United Kingdom, Ng says he was ‘desperate for a job’. He soon found himself frying dumplings and answering takeout calls in a Chinese restaurant in London.
“I didn’t receive any professional culinary training. I worked hard and learned from different chefs.”
Ng moved on from the dingy takeout joint to high-profile restaurants like ROKA and Yashin Sushi – experiences which sparked his interest in culinary. His newfound passion was further fuelled by London’s thriving and exciting dining scene, ranked amongst the world’s best.
Despite hoping to prolong his career abroad, he eventually settled back in Malaysia in 2014 as he was unable to extend his visa.
“Well, shamefully enough, the plan was to never settle back in Malaysia,” Ng says as a matter-of-fact. “I couldn’t think of any restaurants in Malaysia that I truly wanted to work in.”
“I love the energy in the kitchen, I love the energy in the F&B industry but I simply couldn’t feel it in Malaysia. I left home in 2009, was in the UK for six years and when I came back, it was still the same – it didn’t show improvements.”
“It was difficult for me to come back,” says Ng. “The closest (option) is to go to Singapore but I knew it would be super difficult because no matter how hard you train, you will never be seen as head chef of a Japanese restaurant there.”
Ng then left for Tokyo for a ‘short work experience’ but was coy when asked about the restaurant, only to say he knew that only through a complete immersion in the Japanese culture, and kitchen, would he acquire the necessary skills and knowledge to serve up top-notch Japanese cuisine.
“The discipline and skills Japanese chefs need to acquire is insane,” says Ng. “The kind of discipline (developed) from learning how to wash rice for three years, or leaning how to make tamago (sweetened egg) for ten years – it shapes how you carry yourself as a chef.”
After returning home, Ng worked at Nobu Kuala Lumpur for a year, before starting his own pop-up restaurant called REI that served contemporary sushi.
“It was tough for me at first, because I feel that chefs in Malaysia aren’t truly appreciated for their craft back, but surely, that’s changing for the better.”
If you are wondering what Ju – from Ed.Ju – stands for, it means ‘ten’ in Japanese – the number of tables in his restaurant, intentionally kept small to allow for quality and intimate dining experience.
“We could have a restaurant that seats up to 100 people but then we might compromise in terms of quality.”
“I’m happy because we’ve managed to cater to people who really appreciate what we do. They are customers who are well travelled and have experienced high quality and niche dining.”
“We’ve open for about a year and financially, we are actually doing well,” says Ng. “We are not loss-making but also not making huge profits either.”
“Most local customers choose to not spend their money eating at expensive places in Malaysia but when they travel abroad like Singapore, they don’t mind spending RM1000 to RM2000 per person, on a meal,” laments Ng.
“People tend to say that Singapore has so much to offer but there Malaysia has a lot of talent. However, we are not well taken care of, and are under appreciated.”
Once the restaurant doors open, Ng and his team will be on their feet on hours to assemble the perfect sushi courses.
“I always tell the team that if we are charging (a steep) price to dine at our restaurant, we need to be able to deliver flawlessly. You can’t afford to fail.”
Ng’s team of chefs are made up of talents from diverse backgrounds; a strength he uses to his advantage.
“I have a chef who was trained in France. I have chefs that come from traditional sushi making background. By understanding their strength, we can create things together and come up with unique concepts.”
“And obviously, to do that, you need mutual respect. To really get the best out of them, you need to be able to convince them,” says Ng.
For any food outlet these days, a glowing or bad review online could make or break a business. So far, Ng’s culinary experimentation and delivery through Omakase, seemed to be very well received.
“This restaurant has become a big part of my life,” says Ng. “My wife does complain,” he adds half-jokingly. “That’s because, even on my day off, I’m still thinking about the restaurant,” he says with a chuckle.