THE AC­CI­DEN­TAL RESTAURANTEUR

Dato’ Ja­gan Saba­p­a­thy, CEO of Tribeca Cap­i­tal, talks about the nearly decade-long jour­ney he and his fam­ily have taken in Kuala Lumpur’s F&B scene.

The Peak (Malaysia) - - Contents - TEXT CHRISTY YOONG PHO­TOG­RA­PHY ROBIN LIEW

Dato’ Ja­gan Saba­p­a­thy, CEO of Tribeca Cap­i­tal, talks about the nearly decade­long jour­ney he and his fam­ily have taken in Kuala Lumpur’s F&B scene.

Dato’ Ja­gan Saba­p­a­thy looked slightly be­mused as he re­flected on how long his first F&B ven­ture, Mezze Bistro & Lounge, has been opened. “We have sur­vived for nine years now,” he said, sound­ing a lit­tle sur­prised. “That’s quite amaz­ing, all things con­sid­ered.” Dato’ Ja­gan is, how­ever, be­ing mod­est. Far from merely ‘sur­viv­ing’, Mezze is prac­ti­cally an in­sti­tu­tion, set­ting the stan­dards for whole­some fine din­ing and cu­rat­ing a wine list that is both the envy of any restau­rant and the de­light of all con­nois­seurs.

“I think we have cer­tainly helped put this area on the F&B scene,” he con­ceded, re­fer­ring to Mezze’s lo­ca­tion in Jalan Kasah, Kuala Lumpur. Dis­cern­ing food­ies would cer­tainly have Jalan Kasah on their to-dine lists, what with the nu­mer­ous op­tions on of­fer that cater to just about any­one look­ing for a good time. “The area has changed a lot,” Dato’ Ja­gan ob­served. “When we started, this place was dead; now, it’s be­come a des­ti­na­tion and I’m proud that Mezze played a part in mak­ing this hap­pen.”

Of course, at the be­gin­ning, there was no grand plan. “I was still work­ing at BRDB (Ban­dar Raya De­vel­op­ments Bhd, where Dato’ Ja­gan was CEO) and, one day, when my wife Shan­tini, her sis­ter and two friends de­cided they wanted to open a restau­rant – I thought they were mad!” They went ahead, though, and the first in­car­na­tion of Mezze, the bistro on the ground floor, was born. “At the start, there were four equal part­ners, all with their own lofty ideals, and there chal­lenges from the be­gin­ning, es­pe­cially in the kitchen, where they had prob­lems find­ing the right chef,” Dato’ Ja­gan said.

It took some time be­fore things started to get bet­ter – im­prove­ments to the bar, for ex­am­ple, helped the restau­rant side of the busi­ness do bet­ter. In fact, the bar side be­gan to do so well that, when the op­por­tu­nity of ex­pand­ing Mezze to the floor above came up, the part­ners sat down to re­struc­ture their ar­range­ment. “At the end of the dis­cus­sion, we de­cided to in­crease our stake and Shan­tini

Mezze is prac­ti­cally an in­sti­tu­tion, set­ting the stan­dards for whole­some fine din­ing and cu­rat­ing a wine list that is both the envy of any restau­rant and the de­light of all con­nois­seurs.

be­came the ma­jor­ity share­holder,” he said. More im­por­tantly, this meant that there was now one sin­gle per­son lead­ing the busi­ness, which al­lowed for clearer de­ci­sion-mak­ing and paving the way for the beloved Mezze Bistro & Lounge it is to­day.

This, Dato’ Ja­gan said, in­ad­ver­tently made them restau­ra­teurs. “It was purely by ac­ci­dent that we be­came what we are now – there was no great de­sign or wild plans to start an F&B empire. We are our own worse crit­ics, so we are com­mit­ted to do­ing the best that we can and do­ing it with pas­sion. Shan­tini loves food and com­ing with recipes, work­ing closely with the kitchen staff. As for the bar, I con­fess it’s an in­dul­gence on my part – it was an ex­cuse to buy the wines and whiskies that I like. It’s also al­lowed us to work with an im­porter to bring in our own wines, which is why we have such a good wine list.”

Th­ese as­pects, he be­lieved, partly ex­plained the ap­peal of Mezze. “Some­times I joke about it but it’s also a place where every­body sorts of knows every­body. Mezze is a com­mu­nity of peo­ple who come here to hang out, en­joy good food and drink, do busi­ness deals – some very big ones too – and even raise money for char­ity and causes.”

Things might have gone on as it was if it hadn’t been for an­other of Datin Shan­tini’s brain­waves, which sparked an al­most hec­tic pe­riod of ex­pan­sion of the cou­ple’s F&B in­ter­ests. “Our chil­dren stud­ied in Lon­don, where we also have a home. There’s a bak­ery nearby. Gail’s, a lovely place that Shan­tini went to reg­u­larly. She then de­cided that we should open a bak­ery. We found a cor­ner lot in Plaza Damansara in Damansara Heights, which is owned by a very old friend of mine, and Huck­le­berry was born,” Dato’ Ja­gan said.

Start­ing with an em­pha­sis on breads in 2015, Huck­le­berry has since broad­ened its scope to pas­tries, cakes and meals. “The busi­ness is do­ing well and we’ve even ex­panded by open small kiosks in Bangsar Shop­ping Com­plex, The In­ter­mark, Ise­tan The Ja­pan Store in Lot 10 and, soon, KLCC. Again, it’s the same pas­sion in Mezze that is be­hind Huck­le­berry – which has since be­come a brand,” Dato’ Ja­gan said. Within a year, a cock­tail bar, Skull­dug­gery, joined the fam­ily in a space above Huck­le­berry.

The fol­low­ing year saw the open­ing of Birch in DC Mall. “Birch came about be­cause Datuk Paul Poh tried to con­vince us to move Mezze to DC Mall, which I re­fused. We just didn’t see Mezze as a mall restau­rant. Af­ter much per­sua­sion, how­ever, we agreed to part­ner him on Birch, which has also be­come a suc­cess. And, again, it’s much the same in­gre­di­ents – good food, in­no­va­tive ideas and vi­brant bar – that’s driv­ing it.”

Af­ter Birch had opened, an­other op­por­tu­nity opened up. “The lot next to Mezze was in­her­ited by one of my for­mer part­ners at KPMG and he of­fered it to us. By then, we felt Mezze was look­ing tired and we felt it was time to make a change. We re­freshed the bistro down­stairs, re­vamp­ing the menu as well, and brought in new part­ners to redo and ex­pand the lounge up­stairs across both lots, and added a pri­vate room as well. We found other part­ners to open Fincch Sushi Room, one of whom is one of the big­gest im­porters of fish from Tsuk­iji Mar­ket in Tokyo.”

Re­flect­ing back, Dato’ Ja­gan’s great­est plea­sure is in how the en­tire fam­ily con­tributed to all the out­lets. “Skull­dug­gery, for ex­am­ple, was my son’s idea – al­though I think it was only be­cause he and his friends didn’t want to go into Kuala Lumpur for cock­tails!” he laughed. Yet, there’s a syn­ergy to how the fam­ily op­er­ates. “I’m the num­bers guy and I work with the mar­ket­ing team, while it’s Shan­tini who’s more hands on, work­ing ev­ery­day with the team. Even my daugh­ter, who’s in the UK, pitches in when­ever she can. That, I think, is what I’m most proud off.”

While F&B seems to be the most vis­i­ble as­pect of Dato’ Ja­gan’s com­pany, Tribeca Cap­i­tal, it is real es­tate busi­ness that’s the se­ri­ous part. “We’re work­ing with some part­ners on a water­front ho­tel and res­i­dences devel­op­ment in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. There’s also a 500ac devel­op­ment in Ku­lai, Jo­hor, as well as a con­do­minium project in Damansara Heights, which will be launched next year,” he said.

As he sees it, how­ever, there’s lit­tle to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween real es­tate and F&B. “When I look back at time at BRDB and see the de­vel­op­ments we ac­com­plished, I get a sense of ‘yes, we did some­thing good there’. It’s the same with Mezze, Huck­le­berry and Birch – I think we’ve done some good there: cre­at­ing dis­tinct spa­ces where peo­ple can come and have a mem­o­rable time. Both in­dus­tries need pas­sion and are chal­leng­ing in their own ways. You re­ally need to work to make them a suc­cess.”

A self-de­scribed ‘semi-re­tiree’, the only re­gret he seems to have is the lack of time to im­prove his golf. “I’m not the kind who can just do noth­ing – I think I’ll drive ev­ery­one mad. But I re­ally won’t mind spend­ing more time on golf – I’m get­ting slaugh­tered out there on the golf cour­ses and los­ing money!”

We are our own worse crit­ics, so we are com­mit­ted to do­ing the best that we can and do­ing it with pas­sion.

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