Kuala Lumpur – We caught up with Jun Chan, chef-owner of Bowls of Steel, a modern Malaysian noodle bar in Kuala Lumpur. Bowls of Steel (BOS) prides itself on its “handcrafted ramen noodles, local flavours, and sustainability. We talked to Jun about the complexity of his dishes (12 elements for the simplest bowl of noodles!), labour shortage and why sustainable eating is the future.
How did you decide to open a noodle shop in such a competitive (and crowded) foodland aka Uptown?
I guess you could call it fate… Or rather, me tempting fate!
TTDI was my first love, location-wise, and I really just wanted to be closer to all my buddies. I waited patiently for almost two years but had no luck in securing a decent lot. So I widened my search area and Uptown naturally appeared on my radar. I had my initial reservations – exactly as you say, it’s such a saturated market offering all sorts of cuisines and price points.
This space also has an incredible amount of natural lighting. I love the way the setting sun streams through our windows every evening and bathes the restaurant in a warm glow. Practically speaking, I also really like that we face the SPRINT highway, making it great for our signage and quirky name.
I believe that this city is in-need of more late-night funky dining spots, besides the usual norm of mamak, Ramly & Texas Chicken. Think of the funky places that you see on Munchies! And I thought that Uptown had the right ingredients for a late-night dining spot – central location, a slight grunginess, and to add, Uptown parking becomes a lot more bearable after 6pm.
What drew us to your menu is the combination of cooking methods within a bowl. How would you describe your approach?
BOS is all about good food made sustainably.
My inspiration comes from so many different places. Things and people around me, what’s in our markets, suggestions from our customers, what we saw on Netflix… But most of all, inspiration comes from the flavours that I love, whether that’s a rich and savoury beef noodle soup from the local hawker or a layered mutton curry at my favourite banana leaf shop.
I truly believe that Malaysian food is one of the most exciting in the world. Our cultural heritage and local produce have given birth to such diverse and unique flavour combinations which are truly unrivalled.
My goal with BOS was to pair these flavours with my lifelong love of noodles, in order to create intricate, handcrafted noodle bowls, which you won’t find anywhere else.
What makes BOS different from the others?
Many noodle & ramen places rely heavily on MSG and artificial flavouring. At BOS we choose not to. There are so many wonderful textures and flavours when cooking with real food, most of the time all it needs is a little more time and love to coax those flavours out. Which is what we pride ourselves on doing at BOS!
We handmake 95% of our elements in-house, from our own noodles to flavoured oils, dashi to flounder powder, edible bone marrow to black garlic mayu.
Our simplest bowls have about 12 elements, and the more complex ones around 18!
In order to the get a kick-ass bowl, we layer our flavours. We use foods which are high in natural MSG, e.g. mushrooms, tomatoes, garlic, confit onions, smoked seafoods, and layer them in each bowl until we achieve an explosion of natural savouriness, colours and textures.
People eat with their eyes first (cameras for some :)), followed by nose, and only after does it hit the palate. We try to take all that into account in the hopes of creating that “perfect” bowl.
We also want to push the envelope with what a bowl of noodles could be, testing our own creativity and technique as well as the appetite of our customers for our unconventional noodles.
All while supporting local produce and trying to be sustainable as we can in our use of ingredients and how we manage waste. We try and ensure that as little as possible goes into our bins and that everything that is recyclable and compostable, is!
How did the name Bowls of Steel come about?
I think that a good name goes a long way, especially for an F&B brand these days. I also love puns and quirky names. After I knew I wanted to open a noodle bar, I came up with quite a few names but nothing seemed to stick.
It may be a cliche but I actually dreamt of the name Bowls of Steel. When I woke up the next morning, I jumped out of bed and googled it. Nothing came up and all I saw was a bunch of pictures of steel bowls, that’s when I knew I had found my name.
Quirky name + pun = WINNER!!
Eventually we started referring to ourselves as BOS and that sounds pretty awesome too.
Being a proudly Malaysian establishment, we use myBowlsofSteel as our IG handle and that, I thought, also had a nice ring to it.
Can you tell us about the restaurant space?
From the start I knew I wanted a space which allowed us to feel connected with our customers. Hence, we opted for an open kitchen. This really gives us the opportunity to interact with people and share the stories of our bowls as well as hear first-hand their thoughts on our food (both good and bad!).
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Then thinking beyond “cosy” and “connection”, what else did I want to achieve with the space? I’ll be honest we didn’t have a very structured design process. I wanted this to feel like home so I brought a lot of myself into the space (and hoped that others would appreciate it too!).
So, like my own personality, it’s a bit of everything – grungy, quirky, tongue-in-cheek; a mix of textures and influences whether that’s my Penang roots or my love of the outdoors.
The entire space is filled with my favourite trifecta of steel, cement and recycled wood.
I also love art in all its forms – from intricate to raw, funk to classic, old-school to minimalist. And I wanted to reflect that in our restaurant space. So, I forgo-ed a high-tech salamander grill and some fancy lighting to make budget for a graﬃti wall piece instead!
We were lucky to be able to engage the talent and services of Malaysian artist, DrewFunk, to perform his magic on 12 feet of our wall space. I love Drew’s drawing style which draws on elements of animals and nature tied-in to his proud Malaysian roots. We met, had coﬀee, I told him about my favourite things in life, and he designed this incredible piece which spoke to all the things that I love.
The entire mural took Drew about 12 days and it’s amazing to have been able to witness him transform a plain white wall into a stunning masterpiece. Nothing short of breathtaking talent.
But ultimately, I just wanted a cosy, inviting space which serves good noods, provides great service, great vibes and good music – after all that’s all you really need right?
Which dish needs the most tedious prep work? How long does it take, all hours combined? Can you break it down for us?
“Hand-rolled Flat Egg Noods, 36 hour beef brisket, beef tongue, confit mushrooms, gulai tulang rusuk, crispy tendon puffs, fresh sambal matah, ulam raja & leek salad”
- Flat Egg Noods – Prep, Make Dough, Portion + Rest, Roll out, Cut, Rest = 1hr+1day
- Roast Tulang Rusuk & make stock = 15hrs
- Gulai Tulang Rusuk – Prep fresh spice paste + make gulai reduction = 1.5hr
- Bone Tare – Prep + Oven time = 2hrs
- Smoked Mushroom Powder = 3hrs
- Confit Garlic Oil = 2-3hrs
- Fried Shallots = 1hr
- Confit mushrooms – Prep + confit = 3hrs
- SV Beef Brisket = 36hrs
- Beef Tongue – Brine + Cook = 3days
- Crispy Tendon Puffs – Pressure cook, rest, portion, de-hydrate, fry = 1day
- Sambal Matah – Prep & assemble = 1hr
- Fresh Garnish – Herbs, Fresh greens = 1hr
Once you break it down it seems a little nuts but when the work is spread out, it’s actually quite fun and not that bad!
What’s the biggest challenge for the industry right now?
The obvious one is I think trying to achieve a sense of normality coming out of the pandemic. It’s been such an unpredictable and long couple of years. The industry is reeling from staff shortages and hiking food prices.
I’m also mindful that people are suffering from mental stress and anxiety from the uncertainty that the past two years have created, and our teams are not immune to that.
On all fronts, it’s an extremely tough operating environment for F&B. The pandemic has heightened the highly stressful environment that our F&B teams already work in.
My hope for 2022 is that everyone can be a bit more forgiving of each other. At the end day, everyone is human, mistakes happen. A bit of empathy can go a long way for all of us.
In the longer term, I truly believe that sustainable eating is the future. On top of all the current struggles, as an industry, we do need to be more mindful of the impact of our food sources and practices on the environment.
It’s not an easy task and I don’t claim to be an expert, but we all have to start somewhere. And to me, step one is recognising that the way food is produced and consumed today has some pretty negative repercussions on the planet.
How do we start to change this? I don’t have the answers but the least I can do is to manage the footprint of my own restaurant as responsibly as I can, while also sharing my philosophy with the customers that walk through my door.
Restaurant work is known for its long hours. How do you maintain your health and work-life balance?
I think us old dogs think that there is none!
But really, this is not a sustainable approach. You just end up burnt out and people leave the industry because of it.
Striking a balance between work and life requires discipline, as well as a work environment which allows you to. Make sure you have interests and spaces which allow you to unplug from work completely.
I love trail running, fishing and paddle boarding and you can find me outdoors a lot when I don’t have to be in the kitchen. I run with my furkids and try as much as possible to shut work out. In the same way you focus at work, there’s also a need to focus at play. So I make sure to allocate and have ‘me & mountain’ time that is non- negotiable.
And lastly, are you bringing back the bone marrow?
YES we are! But with some changes…
You see, sawing through lamb bone marrow lengthwise is very dangerous work. So after much thought and consideration for people’s fingers, we decided to create our own bone+marrow, i.e. an edible bone marrow.
Now when you have our Lamb Noods, it’s topped with a hand-made bone marrow which you can eat entirely! To make the “bone”, we first shape out a potato tuile. We then pipe in our marrow paste which is a mixture of extracted roasted bone marrow, cartilage & fat. Lastly, we give it abit of oven-love till it looks like the real thing and viola!
While nothing beats the real thing (and this workaround is way more work!), I just love the novelty of an entirely edible bone marrow!
And at BOS, we never take the easy way out…
The menu at BOS is constantly evolving as Jun and his team are constantly pushing the boundaries of crafting a good bowl of noodles. Visit their Instagram for latest updates!
Image credit: Bowls of Steel