Feature Story – Bee Fong Ang

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Photography by Riley Khoo

Restaurateur, wife and mother of four – we recently met with Bee Fong Ang the woman behind three of Brunei’s established and popular restaurants: Senja, Le Taj and Capers. The one thing that Bee Fong is absolutely adamant about is creating an unforgettable experience for every guest from the moment they step into any of her restaurants. She believes that food is much more than nourishment; it is the vehicle through which we communicate sentiments, express creativity and create memories. This is why both at home and at her three restaurants, she gets great enjoyment from seeing families and friends gathered around the table to share a meal – to talk, share and bond – she believes that this is one of life’s greatest joys.

Bee Fong has been in the Food and Beverage business for nearly 20 years and is also an excellent, self-taught cook whose culinary repertoire includes Chinese, Korean, Italian, Thai and French food. Her first restaurant, Senja Restaurant was launched 17 years ago and was born at a time when there weren’t any options for enjoying Western cuisine in a quality, yet casual setting. Initially located at the Riverview Hotel, Senja quickly became a hit with both expats and locals. Her second restaurant, Le Taj Indian Restaurant at Kiulap, was opened in 2004, and was unique because it was the first Indian restaurant serving Northern Indian cuisine, to be owned and managed by a non-Indian. Then in 2006 she opened her third restaurant, Capers Italian Restaurant, popular for its extensive menu of affordable Italian food. Bee Fong took time out of her very hectic schedule to talk to us about her experience in the restaurant trade; about what she’s learnt from managing three different types of restaurants; and about her future plans.

Tenderloin with Black Pepper Sauce, Senja Restaurant (Photo courtesy of Bee Fong Ang)
Blue Cheese Claypot, Senja Restaurant
Breakfast in a pan (Baked egg, mushroom, potatoes, vegetables and cheese), Senja Restaurant

Tell us about how you got started

Honestly speaking, when I went to Boarding School at the age of 16, I didn’t know how to cook. By the time I was 19 and at university I learnt how to cook Chinese cabbage with oyster sauce (laugh!). But my Dad loves food and as kids we travelled to different countries so I had the opportunity to try different types of food and eventually developed an appreciation for good food and also a love for cooking. I became extremely passionate about cooking! And this is what led to me deciding to open my first restaurant. When I opened Senja in 1999, I initially faced many challenges. I was the new kid on the block and I had a lot to learn. The most difficult issues were learning how to best manage staff; and how to deal with customers – their specific tastes for food and their likes and dislikes. As well as this, back then, sourcing some of the ingredients for the dishes was also difficult, sometimes I’d have to travel and bring back ingredients. I am a firm believer in sourcing quality meat and vegetables – this is something I will not compromise on – I will not lower the quality of ingredients in order to reduce the costs of the dishes. For example, over the years the price of imported tenderloin has doubled, however I’ve managed to keep it on the menu and have only increased the price minimally to cover our costs. I also remember that the kitchen at Riverview was quite small and being in such a hot, restricted space when we received a lot of orders it was sometimes very trying for my team, but we did our best to serve up good food consistently. Up until today, we do not use MSG in our food; we still cook everything from scratch; and we use fresh produce – there are no shortcuts – and I believe that these are a few of the factors which have helped us to build up and sustain a good reputation. Of course, as well as managing a business for the first time, I’d also become a Mum for the first time so I had a great deal to learn. In October 2013, Senja moved to a more spacious location in Kiulap. We can accommodate about 100 guests and we now have a bigger kitchen.

Kadai Vegetables, LeTaj Restaurant

You then went on the open two more restaurants Le Taj and Capers. All three of your restaurants have loyal customers and have retained their popularity. What lessons have you learnt along the way?

Even before I went into the restaurant business I’d learnt many valuable lessons from my father and maternal grandmother which would motivate and strengthen me on my journey. They both taught me how to be a ‘tough cookie’. My father’s life experiences taught me that I would have to work hard and persevere if I wanted to accomplish anything worthwhile; and he also taught me to never be ashamed of making mistakes, but to learn from them. My grandmother had eleven kids and was the nucleus of the family. She was a very strong woman who also loved to cook and her life inspired me. When I decided to expand my business in 2004, I knew that there would be opportunities and challenges but I was determined to deal with both head on. Le Taj was born out of my love for curries and North Indian food. As the first non-Indian owner of an Indian restaurant I made sure that the dishes were authentic by employing Indian chefs. I also focused on the decor and tried to include elements which would help to create an Eastern ambiance for diners. After setting up Le Taj I embarked on a Japanese restaurant but unfortunately this did not work out. From that experience I learnt that if I wanted to succeed in this business I couldn’t let anything deter me, I simply had to keep going. So two years later, I decided to open Capers which serves affordable Italian food and attracts families and young people. Having three different types of restaurants is a bit like having three children – each one is unique – and has its own operational processes. However, the basics remain the same: I still have to find reliable, trustworthy staff and source quality ingredients. In terms of staff, I believe that strong leadership is very important to get the best out of my teams. As the leader one of my main responsibilities is to unite my staff and to focus on developing their specific strengths. For instance, it makes no sense forcing someone who is interested in cooking to become a waiter, it just won’t work because you won’t get the best from that employee. As a business owner, I’m aware that my customers are the lifeblood of my business. And that’s why it’s important for me to engage with them. Even though we live in a high-tech era I still strongly believe in the power of the human connection. As far as possible my staff and I focus on building relationships with our customers by personally dealing with any complaints either face to face or over the phone. I want our customers to feel that they are dealing with an actual person and not just a nameless, faceless business. I value our customer’s comments on our meals and service and use this feedback to make improvements. As the owner of several restaurants, I have to be available 24-0-7 and I must take responsibility for everything. If there’s a problem, I have to find the solution. At the end of the day, I must do whatever it takes to provide consistency – in food and service.

Spaghetti Aglio Olio with Olives, Capers Restaurant

What do you want your restaurants to be known for in years to come?

I believe that dining is a time to be enjoyed and a time to relax. So whilst we focus on providing efficient service at our restaurants no one is ever rushed – diners are welcome to stay for as long as they wish because my main intention will always be to bring people together to create joyful, lasting memories.

Any plans for the future?

I’ve recently opened a new branch of Le Taj at Serusop which is serving Southern Indian food. And I may consider opening other restaurants in the future, but I’ll see how things go. It’s also on my bucket list to someday write a cook book. But for now, I’m contented with spending time with my family and close friends and doing what I love most – cooking!

“I would like to take this opportunity to thank my husband and family for all their support in my business endeavours.”

This article was published in the Jan-Feb 2017 issue of Inspire Magazine. Download it here!