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Interview with Chef Junda Khoo, Founder and Head Chef of Ho Jiak Haymarket from Sydney

His passion for Malaysian cuisine and his love for his grandmother inspired him. In 2017, he established Sydney’s first Malaysian Nyonya grill house, Ho Jiak Haymarket, with William Xie. I talked with Chef Junda Khoo about his career and Ho Jiak Haymarket.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Chef Junda Khoo - Photo by Ellyna Tjohnardi

Chef Junda Khoo - Photo by Ellyna Tjohnardi


by Meryem Aksoy

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With its authentic interior design that inspired from the house of Chef Junda Khoo's grandmother, and modern services of traditional Malaysian dishes, Ho Jiak Haymarket promises different tastes and experiences to its guest. Chef Junda Khoo loves to share his passion for Malaysian cuisine and therefore he always trying to add different tastes to the traditional dishes by changing their ingredients regularly to offers a wide range of Malaysian delicacies to guests. I talked with Chef Junda Khoo, Founder and Head Chef of Ho Jiak Haymarket, about his career and Ho Jiak Haymarket.

Ho Jiak Haymarket

Chef Junda Khoo - Photo by Ellyna Tjohnardi

Junda, before talking about Ho Jiak Haymarket, could you tell us about yourself? Who is Junda Khoo?

I came here when I was 15 for high school, did year 11 and 12, and went to UTS for a double degree in Commerce and IT, Majoring in Finance and Project Management. Coming here at such a young age without my parents forced me to cook for myself on a daily basis. That's where my passion for cooking really started. After graduation, I did a stint at CommSec and also ING Direct, but it did not last long as I only worked in the field related to my degree for about a year. I realised that food was still my passion so I decided to leave my job and pursue that. I started in the cafe industry and started making coffees and cafe food. I did that for about 2-3 years before finding a business partner to open the Malaysian food chain called Petaling Street in Sydney. During my time at Petaling Street, we opened and ran 2 branches, the one in George St and Kingsford but I was limited to what I could do as the other business partner preferred to hire chefs, rather than let me develop the menu. I decided to leave Petaling St, and open Ho Jiak in Strathfield 3 years ago. That was the first time I was given full control of the kitchen and an outlet for my creative output. (I am a self-taught cook, so it was not easy starting up as there were a lot of trial and errors) But after doing that for 2 years in Strathfield, and more people were enjoying our food, I finally decided that it was time to take our name into the city where the exposure is much greater. Ho Jiak Haymarket opened in Dec 2017, and we have been overwhelmed at the response and support from everyone since.

Ho Jiak Haymarket

Ho Jiak Haymarket Upstairs - Photo by Ellyna Tjohnardi

How did you meet with William Xie? What inspired you to carry traditional Malaysian flavours to the streets of Sydney? Could you tell us about Ho Jiak Haymarket and the overall concept?

I met William during my cafe days, where we worked together at the cafe in Kingsford. I found that the two of us clicked and worked really well together. We then went into Petaling St, together, left Petaling St together, and started Ho Jiak together. My love for Malaysian food, my love for my grandma who cooked for me a lot when I was younger made me want to share this beautiful cuisine with the people of Sydney. Ho Jiak started out with dishes my grandma used to cook for me. Those were the staples we put on our menu first. But for me as a person my favourite food in the world is street food, regardless of which country it came from, but at the same time, I also enjoy the fine dining scene. Therefore it has been my MO to take street food and elevate it to a dining level. Ho Jiak or I never claim to carry "traditional" or "authentic" Malaysian food because that is not what we do here at Ho Jiak. Rather we'd like to tell others that what we do here at Ho Jiak, is traditional Malaysian recipes, tweaked the way I want to or the way I see it, using Australia's finer produce to elevate street food to the next level.

Ho Jiak Haymarket

Ho Jiak Haymarket Downstairs - Photo by Ellyna Tjohnardi

And you have inspired from grandma’s home while decorating Ho Jiak Haymarket. Could you tell us about the design details of Ho Jiak Haymarket?

At Ho Jiak Haymarket, we have two levels. The ground floor is inspired by the street I grew up in with my grandma (fathers side) in Penang, Lebuh Ah Quee. So we pretty much tried to bring the exact street and incorporate that in our decors. What we hope to achieve is that you get the feeling of dining in the street of Lebuh Ah Quee.

On the upper level, that is paying homage to my grandparents on my mother's side. They came from a wealthier family back then, so their house was grander. But when I was 5, my grandad went bankrupt and ended up having to sell the house. So in a way, I wanted to bring that feeling back, from how I remembered the house used to look and I wanted people to dine in that atmosphere. The upstairs design was separated into the family courtyard, living room and kitchen.

Ho Jiak Haymarket

Ho Jiak Haymarket Upstairs - Photo by Ellyna Tjohnardi

Everything antique that you see, are actually antiques. We bought some, and mostly hand me downs from my grandparents, family heirlooms that probably does not worth much in the market like the old pots, pans, and plates we used back then. As for the tiles, wood, cupboards etc, everything came from Malaysia and it took us quite some time to locate the ones I wanted to replicate my memory of the street and home I grew up in.

Ho Jiak Haymarket

Ho Jiak Haymarket - Char Hor Fun King Prawn - Photo by Ellyna Tjohnardi

What are the most popular and traditional dishes or drinks in Malaysia cuisine?

Malaysian cuisine is so diverse that there are multiple popular dishes or drinks coming out from each region or state. The list is extremely long and it also has to be looked at in terms of street food, or restaurant food or family cooking. I think probably the best way to answer this is to list a few of my favourite traditional dishes. Char Kuey Teow, Curry Mee, Roti Canai, Satay, Chicken Rice, Banana Leaf rice, Bah Kut Teh, Hokkien Mee, Char Hor Fun.

What can your guests find at Ho Jiak Haymarket? Could you tell us about your menu?

Our menu consists of the following combinations - 1. Dishes cooked by my grandma which I want to share to the world 2. street food, old school style but elevated with premium Australian produce. All the items on the menu are my interpretation of the dish.

Ho Jiak Haymarket

Ho Jiak Haymarket - Nasi Goreng Wagyu - Photo by Ellyna Tjohnardi

How often do you change up your menu? What are you paying attention to while selecting new drinks and dishes for your new menu?

We usually change our menu at least twice a year, sometimes 4 times a year depending on how many new dishes we can come up with. We do that mainly because as mentioned before, there are so many different types of Malaysian food, and the list is long and we have customers messaging us to request dishes that aren't on the menu. Whenever we get those requests, we put them into our test kitchen and once we are ready, we change the menu. We definitely pay attention to seasonal produce to decide the time we change the menu. Things such as black truffle, razor clams, mud crabs, and even the different types of fish that aren't available all year round, will be included in the menu change when they are in season. Again, our MO is to showcase this awesome produce from Australia but in a Malaysian style of cooking and preparing them.

Ho Jiak Haymarket

Ho Jiak Haymarket - Char Koay Teow King Prawn - Photo by Ellyna Tjohnardi

Is there any drink or dish that never changed in your menu? Which dishes and drinks are your customer's favorite?

Not really. While the dish or drink name may be there for a long time, such as char kuey teow or nasi lemak or teh tarik, the dish constantly evolves everyday as we strive to make everything better. Take the Char Kuey Teow for example, that has been our signature for 3 years and has never left the menu, but in this 3 years and till today it is still evolving. We have changed the type of noodles numerous times, we have changed from blue swimmer crabs to spanner crabs, we've changed the cooking method everytime we find a better way to improve the dish, we've recently included a 3rd form on infused oil into the dish (prawn heads) and so on. I guess what I am saying is, we thrive to improve everyday, and so everytime we find a way to make a dish better, it gets changed. But to answer the questions, our top selling dish is char kuey teow and teh tarik for the drink.

If a customer asks you to make all the choices instead of him or her, which drinks and meals do you advise?

First, we will ask, spicy or not spicy, then we ask, rice or noodles, then we ask would you like it dry or soupy. And from there we can usually decide which dish to recommend a customer after finding out if they have any allergies or not.

Could you tell us about the privileges of your VIP membership?

We do a monthly special for our VIP customers. This is usually a drink or dish that is not in the current menu, and its free to our VIPs. We want them to try our R&D dishes and get feedback, we also want them to feel special because every month they get something from us. More importantly, only our VIPs get to book and attend our special events or collaboration with other restaurants. Recently we did a charity event for parents beyond breakup, where we did a 7-course dinner that night with dishes that were not on the menu. The event sold out in 4 hours and we only served 56 people. So those are probably the only 56 people who have tried our take on a Malaysian food degustation.

Ho Jiak Haymarket

Ho Jiak Haymarket - Sang Chai Hniau Kor - Photo by Ellyna Tjohnardi

Sydney has lots of restaurants. How does Ho Jiak Haymarket differentiate itself from other restaurants in Sydney?

Well, the cuisine itself has differentiated us. Malaysian food is currently on the rise in Sydney. Before this, it was Chinese food, Jap food than Thai food. But I believe Malaysian food is getting more and more popular these days and is evident in the amount of new Malaysian eateries opening up. How do we differentiate ourselves from them, I believe is the question. As mentioned, we are a new school Malaysian eatery. We invest heavily in the ambience we create while you dine, we invest in our service staff to give you a better experience when you dine, we use better and fresher produce in our dish and if you compare that to the old school Malaysian eateries, you probably would not find most of that. But I think the biggest x-factor for us is our creative output and take on a traditional or authentic dish. Changing it up and challenging the realists (yes we do have a lot of Malaysians who dislike our food), and just having a different perspective on how we want to serve the dish rather than following an old traditional recipe, I believe is what differentiates us to other Malaysian eateries.

If you have only one weekend in Sydney as a first-time visitor, in this limited time, what are the best things to do?

I usually travel for food, so it would be no different if I was a first-time visitor to Sydney. I'd want to soak up all of the diversity in types of food we have here in Sydney, because there really isn't a place like Sydney (apart from New York) where you can find so many different cultures of cooking. Chinese, Thai, Lebanese, Indian, Italian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Australian, French you name it, we have it here in Sydney. So the best thing for me to do, would fill up my itinerary with all the different restaurants and cuisines, and try as many of them as I can.

How do you describe Sydney in one sentence?

Beautiful, amazing and blessed. There's no place like Sydney.

How can our readers find Ho Jiak Haymarket when they visit Sydney?

Come to Chinatown, and look for the wall mural at the front of our shop. You can't miss it.

Ho Jiak Haymarket

Ho Jiak Haymarket - Ho Jiak Haymarket Upstairs - Photo by Ellyna Tjohnardi

What do you think about the importance of social media for restaurants?

I think it is important depending on your target market. For us, because of what we do here, I believe that social media is crucial. It is a much quicker way to let people know what new dishes we've come up with, or when our menu is changing but more importantly to educate others about what we are doing.

How can our readers follow Ho Jiak Haymarket?

To keep up to date of our new dishes or current specials, they can follow us on Instagram (@hojiak.haymarket) or Facebook (@hojiakhaymarketa) to follow our R&D or test kitchen dishes, they can follow me on my Instagram account (@jundakhoo_hojiak) where I post up the recipes we play with and new dishes requested by customers.

Anything you would like to add that I haven’t asked?

Another big feature of Ho Jiak's culture is that we do something for our community every 2-3 months. This is something that I do because I believe in it, and that I should always give back to the community that supports us. In October we raised $15000 for the breast cancer foundation and recently we raised $5000 for parents beyond breakup. I believe this is a win-win situation as I get to cook for charity and our customers get to eat for a good cause. We usually get our customers to recommend or suggest a charity organisation that they'd like to see us support, and then we will decide on one and then plan an event for it.

Thank you Junda for this delicious interview.

For more information, please visit the website of Ho Jiak Haymarket