When I was in Penang last year, I had the opportunity to visit Maple Palace, a Chinese restaurant tucked in George Town.
True to its name, the restaurant looked rather palatial on the outside. We were ushered into what looked like a banquet hall. On the tables were shockingly thick menus that essentially looked like novels.
I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of selections. Thankfully, our waiter seemed to be well-versed in all the dishes and made recommendations based on our preferences.
At the time, I wasn’t able to meet Maple Palace’s founder and CEO, Tan Loy Sin (nicknamed Loy Tan). But I recently got the opportunity to interview him, so of course, I had to ask about his intense menu. But first, here’s the story behind how Loy’s career as a chef began.
Starting with the basics as a waiter
At the age of 14, Loy started looking for part-time jobs to help support his family. He would find himself working as a waiter in hotels and even ended up pursuing a diploma in hotel management after completing secondary school.
“But I could not pursue it any further,” he revealed. “That was when one of my supervisors suggested to me to work full-time at Shangri-La.”
Loy took his supervisor up on the offer and started out as a butcher for three months before transferring to the coffee house to learn some Western and Asian cuisine.
But that wasn’t Loy’s first introduction to food. His Indonesian-Chinese grandmother who hailed from Medan excelled in Nyonya dishes. Loy’s mother, having learnt from the grandmother, was a good cook too.
Despite his mother’s expertise in the kitchen, though, the family didn’t have the financial means to eat “good food” on a daily basis.
“Our meal would usually be a sunny side up, dark soy sauce, or salted egg with plain rice,” he explained. “At times we bought tofu as a substitute for meat because we could not afford much then.”
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Maple Palace now has such an extensive offering. Before he ventured into entrepreneurship though, he would first himself aboard another opportunity.
Getting onboard a cruise ship as a commis chef
After a few years working at Shangri-La, Loy joined Star Cruises, working the main galley as a commis chef (a junior member of the kitchen staff).
Here, he was able to learn to cook a variety of cuisines, including Mexican, Italian, Japanese, and Thai food.
A few years later, Loy was promoted to chef de partie (a chef in charge of one section of a kitchen in a restaurant).
“But I was keener on being transferred to the Chinese kitchen,” he confessed. “One reason was that they paid a higher salary, and secondly, my passion and love for Chinese cuisine.”
“Personally, I think being Chinese, we should know our cuisine more than other cuisines,” he explained. “I don’t want this to be forgotten or need other nationalities to explain to our people what BBQ char siew or roasted pork is.”
He continued, “The history of Chinese cuisine goes way back over 5,000 years ago and since then, it has evolved and expanded all over the world.”
Unfortunately, there were no vacancies in the Chinese kitchen then. Nevertheless, Loy would go there after working for ten to twelve hours, just to help with what he could even without extra allowances.
Then there was finally a new vessel in the company, and one of the chefs had asked Loy if he would like to transfer to the Chinese kitchen.
“I just grabbed the opportunity,” he said.
And so, Loy worked in the Chinese kitchen for the next six or so years, bringing his time at Star Cruises to a total of ten years. After that, he found himself steering to creating something to call his own.
Finally starting his own F&B venture
Loy started his entrepreneurship journey when he was approached by an ex-classmate to start up a restaurant called Jade Blossoms.
At first, Loy wasn’t sure what to do. But recalling his father’s wise words that you cannot buy experience with money, Loy decided that it would be an opportunity to grow himself and learn the nature of business along the way.
“After being away from your family for ten years, there comes the point when you feel its time to return to your home country,” he added. “After a decade of hard work, I realised that I needed something more and to be near my family at the same time.”
And so, he opened the restaurant in 2004. Serving fine Cantonese cuisine in Penang, the restaurant was rather unique, standing out amongst other Chinese restaurants at the time. Through word of mouth, Jade Blossom quickly became a popular name.
Then, in 2009, an opportunity opened up in Georgetown. The ex-operators at the location were there for 22 years but wanted to retire.
So, Loy sent in his proposal. After trying his menu, the owners gave them the green light to open Maple Palace.
Balancing his F&B skills & business knowledge
With his culinary background, business and entrepreneurship haven’t come naturally for Loy. In fact, he described being a businessman as “challenging”.
As someone who once only oversaw the kitchen department, it’s a pretty big change having to deal with suppliers, hiring and training new staff, managing resources and cash flow, and ensuring the consistency of the food quality, among other things.
“When I started the business, I could not get suppliers to give me credit terms,” he opened up. “Everything had to be bought with cash. Every morning, I would run to the market to get groceries, collect money during lunch, and again go to another market to buy some seafood.”
Thankfully, over the years, Loy has gained the suppliers’ trust. As such, one of Loy’s proudest achievements is starting the business and brand from scratch without any business knowledge.
When asked about the extensiveness of the menu, Loy explained that he intentionally wanted customers to be able to experience something new every time they come in, which is why the restaurant boasts over 100 dishes on its menu.
He further shared that this is similar to what is done on Star Cruises, where they had 11 sets of buffets every month, with a monthly menu change too.
“With this working experience and environment, I learnt a lot of things,” Loy shared, “We want our customers to have a variety to choose from and not get bored of the same selection on the menu.”
As such, Loy now also updates his menu every two months or so. He believes that the changes are vital so as to avoid stagnancy.
But creativity and inspiration don’t always come easy even for seasoned pros like Loy. Sometimes, it takes months for him to finalise new dishes to achieve the taste, texture, and appearance he wants.
“No chefs are perfect,” he reminded. “Coming up with recipes also means going over tonnes of trial and error.”
One of the dishes that stands out at Maple Palace, surprisingly, is the Spanish Iberico pork. For those looking for a more traditional Chinese dish, Loy recommends his char siew.
Sticking to strengthening his branding
With Maple Palace being rather established in the F&B scene in Penang, it might be surprising to some that Loy doesn’t want to start another venture.
“Currently, I just want to focus on strengthening and building the Maple Palace brand,” he reasoned.
He added, “If there is an opportunity to expand outside of Penang, especially having the right investors for the business, of course, I want to share my love for food with more people not just locally but around the world.”
In our interview with Loy, he shared that before becoming a chef, he actually had dreams of the sky. He wanted to become a pilot, and even today, his desire to fly is still strong.
“I always admire [pilots] for being methodical and meticulous in knowing their way around the cockpit, their timeliness, and discipline,” he explained. “One wrong move in the cockpit could change your destination. Their dedication is no different from a chef’s.”
Although Loy Sin isn’t flying passengers from one place to another, he is able to transport his customers to different places in the world through his cuisine.
“Though I was not able to pursue my dream, my destination brought me the success of being a chef,” he shared.
Featured Image Credit: Maple Palace