No down­side

Langkawi’s new­est up­side-down tourist at­trac­tion is built by an Aus­trian who has set­tled into an idyl­lic life on the is­land.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By JACQUELINE PEREIRA star2@thes­tar.com.my

THE first time I met Alex Mark, he had just ar­rived in Kuala Lumpur, to spend a stop-gap year be­fore head­ing to Sin­ga­pore. He was a friend’s neigh­bour and she had in­sisted that I meet this amaz­ing chef who was cre­at­ing the most de­lec­ta­ble an­tipasti at Fla­menco restau­rant. This was long be­fore most Malaysians even knew how to or­der tapas.

When I asked him then what he ate af­ter a long day in the kitchen, he had laughed be­fore re­veal­ing his pen­chant for in­stant noo­dles. “I still eat crap,” chuck­led Mark, 47, at this in­ter­view 22 years later.

A cook’s tour

With a part­ner in 1995, Mark set up Mous­san­dra, first lo­cated next to Betel­nut in Jalan Pi­nang. The restau­rant, with its rus­tic Mediter­ranean decor and charm­ing chef/owner had a very suc­cess­ful run for al­most seven years. He cheer­fully presided over his do­main, en­ter­tain­ing his many reg­u­lar cus­tomers and cook­ing, of­ten shar­ing bot­tles of wine with his favourite cus­tomers.

It was in­evitable that the Aus­trian fol­lowed his fam­ily’s tra­di­tion. As young as five, he was al­ready fry­ing French fries in his fam­ily’s cof­fee houses. As a teenager, he also helped man­age the 2,000 daily lunch cov­ers at their large 400-seater restau­rant in a con­ven­tion cen­tre.

When Mark turned 19, he moved to Canada to work as an ap­pren­tice chef in a ho­tel, fol­lowed by stints in Germany and Ber­muda. He re­turned to Vi­enna to study ho­tel man­age­ment be­fore mov­ing to work in St. Lu­cia, an Eastern Caribbean Is­land.

These days, how­ever, it’s his younger daugh­ter Liz, 10, who likes ex­per­i­ment­ing in the kitchen. He thinks she’s the next chef in the fam­ily as she en­joys cook­ing, spend­ing her school hol­i­days in his Ta­paz restau­rant kitchen. Mark re­calls his chicken liver pate – a Mous­san­dra must-have – as his best-ever dish. “It was the most prof­itable, too. That got me through a few re­ces­sions.”

Set­tling down

This time when we met in May, he re­vealed another in­ter­est­ing nugget. It was at an event – Male Celebrity Auc­tion For Char­ity – that I hosted as Marie Claire editor that he met the woman who would in­tro­duce him to his now 46-yearold Thai wife, Kul­la­nun. Af­ter meet­ing her, and af­ter re­lo­cat­ing his restau­rant twice, Mark had spent 10 years in KL. He was ready to move on.

He spent two years trav­el­ling with Kookie (Kul­la­nun’s nick­name) while man­ning a small business sell­ing choco­late pra­lines. While Bangkok, Koh Lanta and Koh Sa­mui were all on their list of places to set­tle down, they de­cided on Langkawi. They were mar­ried and Kookie was preg­nant with their el­dest daugh­ter, Lynn. “I did not want to raise chil­dren in the city,” Mark was cer­tain. That was 13 years ago. Now they not only en­joy a qui­eter pace of life on the is­land, but run three busi­nesses to­gether.

Mark’s pas­sion for cook­ing is sat­is­fied by Ta­paz, cur­rently un­der ren­o­va­tion in Te­laga Har­bour. It’s a modern wa­ter­front restau­rant serv­ing Mediter­ranean-style food that he opened in 2004.

In 2012, he set up Tubo­tel, a high­end ver­sion of a back­packer hos­tel but of­fer­ing great beds, sheets and break­fasts. The rooms are in con­crete cul­verts, while dor­mi­to­ries and bath­rooms oc­cupy in­dus­trial con­tain­ers. He wanted to cre­ate ac­com­mo­da­tion with­out build­ing to com­ply with his land­lord’s re­stric­tions, “kind of a twist in the land­scap­ing”. The sun­set view out to sea while chill­ing on the large wooden deck is one of the is­land’s best.

His lat­est play­ground is Up­si­dow (pro­nounced “oops-ee-doe”), an up­side-down house lo­cated in an old aban­doned quarry off the main road in Pe­man­dan­gan In­dah (Look­out Point). In­spired by an up­side-down house in his Aus­trian home­town, Mark de­cided to build one in Langkawi.

Cham­pi­oning sus­tain­able up­cy­cling, this house – Langkawi’s lat­est at­trac­tion – is cus­tom-built in 11 re­cy­cled con­tain­ers. All the fur­nish­ings and house­hold items are sourced from ei­ther used or dis­carded ma­te­rial. An or­ganic farm on-site adds fresh in­gre­di­ents to the food court.

When Up­si­dow was launched in mid-May, Mark’s staff manned three of the food stalls, serv­ing de­li­cious burg­ers, tasty tacos and spe­cialty pas­tas and piz­zas. At the cre­ative eat­ing area, strik­ing light­ing and oil drum seats add to the charm of the sus­tain­able en­deav­our.

As well as clear­ing out his at­tic for re­cy­cled items, Mark scoured scrap­yards with a friend from Sun­gai Pe­tani to Alor Se­tar, sourc­ing for struc­turally sound oil drums. “This project is an up­cy­cled art in­stal­la­tion,” de­clared Mark, al­ways driven to cre­ate new so­lu­tions.

What’s next?

Kookie chipped in, “This morn­ing af­ter his shower he clasps his hands and an­nounces: ‘Up­si­dow is fin­ished! What’s next?’” She had to re­tort, she said, rather tartly, “It’s not fully opened yet and you ask what’s next?”

Their al­most two-decade re­la­tion­ship, she re­lated, has grown to in­clude not only two daugh­ters but also a fam­ily of local staff, vol­un­teers from around the world and their busi­nesses. She takes care of the fi­nances while he comes up with the ideas. “When we have fights, it’s be­cause of work. Be­cause he thinks a lit­tle dif­fer­ently and is stub­born,” she said, con­ced­ing, “He is a good man. Al­though it’s tir­ing, he keeps working.”

Mark’s el­derly par­ents visit them once a year. They them­selves do try to get off the is­land ev­ery cou­ple of months for a short break. They go back to Europe an­nu­ally for a month. Last year they spent two weeks trav­el­ling with a sin­gle piece of hand lug­gage each on Euro­rail tick­ets, travers­ing Inns­bruck, Milan, Malta, Si­cily, Rome, Naples and Florence.

But Langkawi is home for now. “It’s still very safe for chil­dren and, if you like the sea like me, there are plenty of ac­tiv­i­ties out­doors.” He owns a small boat and when­ever pos­si­ble heads out to sea, weav­ing in and out of waterways that lead to se­cluded beaches and is­lands.

For him, the most chal­leng­ing as­pect of is­land life is the slow pace of bu­reau­cracy. But he has seen the com­mu­nity grow. “Many lo­cals are mov­ing back, older peo­ple are com­ing back to re­tire and the ex­pa­tri­ate com­mu­nity is grow­ing ... all are look­ing for a slower pace of life.”

He es­pe­cially en­joys the small­town vil­lage life in his shorts and T-shirt. “I don’t need to dress up. If I’m seen in long trousers, peo­ple ask if I’m go­ing to a wed­ding.”

Af­ter more than a decade, he is well known on the is­land, and well re­garded.

— JUAN LEONEL

A vis­i­tor en­joy­ing Up­si­dow, an up­side-down house in Langkawi. It was opened in May by Alex Mark, who was in­spired by a sim­i­lar con­cept in his Aus­trian home­town.

— Photos: Juan Leonel

Mark and his wife Kookie. Their al­most two-decade re­la­tion­ship has grown to in­clude not only two daugh­ters but also their busi­nesses. She takes care of the fi­nances while he comes up with the ideas.

— Jacqueline Pereira

Tubo­tel is a high-end ver­sion of a back­packer hos­tel. Rooms are in con­crete cul­verts, while dor­mi­to­ries and bath­rooms oc­cupy in­dus­trial con­tain­ers.

The read­ing room of Up­si­dow, an up­side-down house lo­cated in an old aban­doned quarry.

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