William Chew was missing his mother’s home cooking so he decided to recreate her Malaysian chilli paste here in Leeds. And, as Chris Bond reports, it’s proving rather popular.
Raymond Blanc was famously taught how to cook by his mother, Maman Blanc, and while William Chew might not have scaled the same gastronomic heights as the acclaimed Michelin-starred chef, he, too, can point to his mum as the inspiration behind his own culinary success.
Growing up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s colourful, sultry capital, was a feast for the senses and food was at the heart of family life. “In Kuala Lumpur there’s food everywhere,” says Will. “No matter which way you look there’s street food and it’s available 24/7, you don’t have to wait for a store to open in the morning.”
Some of his earliest memories revolve around food. “I would run to the kitchen whenever my mum was cooking early in the morning and I would try out her first batch of chilli paste and have it with some toast.”
Chilli paste is to Malaysians what marmalade is to us Brits. “It’s part of our breakfast and we would have this with coconut rice and peanuts, which is kind of our national dish, every morning when I was growing up.”
In 2014, Will came to England to study a Masters in music psychology at Sheffield University. Several family members had studied previously in the city and his brother worked in Leeds, so it was an obvious place to come and study.
I thought it was a bit of a culture shock initially. “It was so green,” he says. “I grew up in a concrete jungle so when I arrived in Sheffield for the first time I was like ‘wow’. I grew to love it because I’d never had that experience of living so close to nature before and having places like the Peak District right on your doorstep.”
With the rest of his family back in Malaysia, he perhaps not surprisingly missed his mother’s food so he started making his own chilli pastes. “I was missing my mum’s cooking when I was a student. It’s difficult to find authentic Malaysian flavours here in England so I thought why not try and make my own?”
He soon found his friends were beating a path to his door to sample his fiery sauces. It was his brother, Shang, who first suggested he should think about setting up a business. “I’ve always been really passionate about food and cooking and he was telling me how much people loved my chilli paste so why not turn it into a business. I thought about it and realised there was a gap in the market.”
However, cooking for friends is one thing, setting up a business in an industry brimming with competition is another matter entirely. Nevertheless, he took the plunge, creating Mak Tok, an artisan range of spicy Malaysian chilli pastes. “I started off cooking in my home kitchen and then I began doing deliveries and it started doing well.”
He then took his chilli paste to Leeds Kirkgate Market in May last year. “I took 50 jars with me hoping that I might sell some and within four hours I’d sold all of them.”
From here he started going to farmers’ markets and food festivals, slowly building up awareness and repeat customers. “To begin with it was just me and then my brother Shang helped in between his work and now we have a team of six,” he says.
As well as his signature paste, ‘Sambal Manis’ he’s since developed a further three flavours: ‘sweet’ (Sambal Nyonya), ‘satay’ (Kuah Satay) and ‘fire’ (Sambal Bajak)
Malaysian food draws from Indian, Chinese and Thai cuisine and it’s the latter that Will’s pastes share the greatest similarities to. “I’d describe it as warm and spicy,” he says.
Having only launched last year he’s now leasing commercial kitchen space in both Sheffield and Leeds and is selling around 500 jars a month.
He’s understandably proud of what he’s achieved. “All our pastes are handmade by me and my team and we only use natural ingredients, there’s no MSG or anything like that.”
And what does his mother make of it all? “I kept my chilli paste business a secret from her as I want Mak Tok to become a household name that she can be proud of. But then she found out and paid me a surprise visit in Sheffield to celebrate Mak Tok’s one-year anniversary,” he says.
The business has already scooped a number of accolades including an ‘Editor’s Choice’ award at Fine Food Digest magazine; an ‘Evolve Business Competition’ award and was a finalist at the Sheffield Business Awards.
A growing number of well known independents are also starting to stock his products including Skipton-based Keelham Farm Shop and Blacker Hall Farm Shop in Wakefield.
Victoria Robertshaw, who co-owns Keelham Farm Shop, was particularly impressed when she tried out his sauce. “I first met William last February at the Harrogate Fine Foods Show. I was a judge on the ‘Feed the Dragons’ panel where he presented his new product. I took some samples home to try and the pastes completely transformed my family’s favourite chicken ramen recipe. I was impressed with the incredible flavours and versatility of it, and also by his passion.”
And it’s not the 27-year-old entrepreneur’s only business, for Will also runs a music education company that helps train students who want to teach music in South East Asia. So when he’s not busy overseeing production of his chilli paste he’s travelling around the world training teachers.
Though Will has now moved to Leeds to be closer to his brother, he says he wouldn’t have been able to get his business off the ground without the support of people in Sheffield.
It may be known as the Steel City but it also has a burgeoning culinary reputation – it’s been named the vegan capital of the UK – and Will’s start-up is one of many flourishing independents.
“People say it’s not what you know, it’s who you know and as an entrepreneur I find that true. I had a lot of support from the university and Business Sheffield and if it wasn’t for their help I wouldn’t have been able to get started. I’ve had so much support from people who have shown belief in me and this little company, it makes me feel very humble.”
And he’s not resting on his laurels. He’s looking to expand his business and is hoping to open a street food cafe early next year. But for Will it’s not about creating a food empire, his Mak Tok business is about tapping into something far simpler. “It brings me back to my roots because by making chilli paste it reminds me of my family and growing up, and even though we’re so far apart it brings us closer together in a way,” he says. “Food is very important in our culture and I want to be able to bring people together through food – it’s about making people happy.”