Name: Adu Amran Hassan
Hometown: Kluang, Johor
Education: Sekolah Sultan Abdul Jalil, Kluang, Malaysian Institute of Art, Stamford College
Occupation: Chef-Patron, Champor-Champor
Current base: London
Years abroad: 8
Sometimes the secret to success is simply to just do it. That’s what chef Adu Amran Hassan did eight years ago when he packed up and shifted to London. His goal was to move the already thriving Langkawi based Champor-Champor restaurant to Europe. Today the Malay-Asian restaurant is flourishing, making it to the list of every credible publication – Time Out, The London Restaurant Review, The Hardens Guide and The Zagat Survey, among others.
“Looking back, it was a big gamble,” says Amran who was in Kuala Lumpur recently. “I liked the idea of going somewhere where I was totally alone. That’s the biggest challenge one can take.”
Challenges, however, appear to be something that Amran enjoys. After completing his SPM, Amran initially wanted to be a dancer. He performed with the Petronas Performing Arts Group and explored a bit of television acting. But being a person who relishes change, Amran was also contemplating his future. He had been dancing since his school days and pondered what would happen if he couldn’t dance any more.
At the time he was living in KL, away from his hometown of Kluang, Johor.
“I was living with friends and started cooking for my flatmates,” he says. “I began inviting friends and the parties grew in size until someone suggested ‘why don’t you open a restaurant?’ That gave me the idea.”
Amran was studying Graphic Design at the Malaysian Institute of Art at the time but decided that this was not his future. He then took up culinary studies at Stamford College.
It was always his intention to open his own restaurant. In 1994, Amran sold his flat and used the money to open Champor-Champor in Langkawi with Charles Tyler.
“Part of the course involved practical training but I wanted to work in my own kitchen, so I didn’t do it,” he laughs. “I went back to college after three years and said ‘you have to give me my certificate now because I have proven myself.’”
Amran decided to move to Langkawi because he enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere there. But after two and a half years, the island was no longer peaceful as more development took place. He then decided to sell the restaurant.
London was the obvious choice for him since language would not be a barrier and he was more familiar with England compared to other parts of Europe. Amran also counts himself lucky because he managed to sell his restaurant just before the economic crisis hit Malaysia. It was a gamble, he says.
“Had I known there were so many restaurants in England, I don’t think I would have jumped into it,” he laughs. “Sometimes it’s good not to know and just do it.” (London has about 8,000 restaurants, excluding take-aways).
For the first couple of years, Amran worked in a restaurant to accustom himself to the restaurant culture in London. You can’t just jump into another restaurant, he says, you have to see how people work there. And in 2000, he opened Champor-Champor in London. The name, which means mix and match in Bahasa Malaysia, describes the concept of the restaurant. It is fusion but with a twist. Instead of the usual East-West mix like it was in Langkawi, Champor-Champor in London embarked on an East and East concept.
“Malaysian food in itself is already fusion,” he says. “So we combine Chinese and Japanese or Japanese and Indian.”
The restaurant, which is located a stone’s throw from the London Bridge station, has since become the favourite of numerous British celebrities. Singer Marc Almond and fashion designer Zandra Rhodes are frequent visitors. For three years running, Champor-Champor has been rated byHarden’s Guide to London Restaurants as the best overall restaurant in the £30 – £39 category. The restaurant scored highly on the Zagat London Restaurants 2005 guides for food, decor and service. The guides also gave it the top rating in the Asian food category.
Amran and his partner wanted a place that was cheap, which they could do up themselves. The initial investment for the restaurant in Langkawi was RM90,000. For the one in London, they invested £50,000 (about RM200,000 at the time).
“We didn’t have enough capital and we were lucky to find this place because we didn’t have to pay a premium.”
Anyone looking to open a restaurant today will have to invest at least £150,000 (RM1.09mil) he says, but Amran managed to keep to a budget as many of the things he had used at his restaurant in Langkawi were shipped over.
To those who are contemplating embarking on a similar venture, Amran cautions that it is hard work. “There are two types of businesses that don’t make money: airlines and restaurants. If you want to be successful, you can be but it is hard work. If you think of working just eight hours a day, forget it.”
In Champor-Champor, Amran and Tyler, who handles the front of the house, employ a hands-on approach. Good management, Amran says, is integral to a successful restaurant. “If a waiter makes a mistake, you can’t blame that person without the manager being there. I have to blame myself. It’s down to management.”
Even down to looking presentable. “In our restaurant, we don’t do uniforms so if the waiter comes to work with his shirt crumpled, I would ask him to go and iron his shirt. If you don’t look good, then you are not ready to work.”
Having made it to the top restaurant guides, the challenge for Amran now is to ensure that his restaurant stays there.
“You have to keep at it,” he says. “You have to see whether you can keep those ratings and the restaurant guides give ratings for everything from ambience to service.”
Food critics in London usually come to restaurants incognito, which means that consistency has to be there. Encouraged by the success of the restaurant, Amran is now in the midst of compiling a book of recipes. While the essence of the food is Malay, Amran has explored numerous combinations which set his restaurant apart from others.
“What we’re doing at Champor-Champor is pushing the boundaries of Malaysian food,” he says. The book will follow a similar formula. Although it has already generated some interest from publishers, Amran wants to complete the book first to ensure that he has control over it.
Amran was encouraged to write the book by the people he cooked for.
“I was encouraged by my guests,” he says. “People who loved certain dishes use to ask for recipes and I would give it to them. I don’t mind sharing and in a book, you can share with everyone.”
Things are certainly looking up but Amran’s secret to success is pretty straightforward.
“You have to want to do it,” he says. “You have to be truthful to yourself and work very hard. I believe the harder you work, the luckier you are. You cannot be lucky without working hard.”