Alumni profile - Yu Cheng Chong
Gastrobar, founded by Melbourne and Trinity College alumnus Yu Cheng Chong, has brought an impressive selection of wine and scrumptious Asian dishes to Ipoh Old Town in Malaysia.
As an accounting and finance graduate, Yu Cheng realises some may find his decision to build a career in the food and beverage industry unusual, but it’s a field he’s been interested in since university.
Believing the food in his home country of Malaysia to be ‘substandard’ compared to Melbourne’s diverse gastronomy, Yu Cheng began researching the culinary world and practising cooking in his spare time.
His interest expanded into wine after watching a documentary about wine and sommeliers called Somm (2012). Immediately his ambition to familiarise people in his home country with wine started to grow.
Running a business has always been Yu Cheng’s dream and is one of the reasons he decided to leave Australia for his homeland. While he took an internship at the Parliament of Malaysia, then worked at a mutual fund platform, it wasn’t long before he went into business for himself.
His first venture was an escape room in a university town called Kampar, just outside Ipoh. The concept centred around an adventure game that locks players in a room and requires them to solve a series of puzzles to get out. It was an on-trend idea at the time, but Yu Cheng admits he didn’t plan the business thoroughly and it closed after six months.
But what he learned laid the foundations for Above Gastrobar, designed to take advantage of Ipoh’s flourishing reputation as a travel and food tourism destination, as well as residents’ growing taste for wine.
Yu Cheng’s sister introduced him to the rooftop Above Gastrobar now sits on. Located in the heritage part of Ipoh, it’s surrounded by buildings from the colonial era, including old courthouses and train stations. The rooftop was abandoned, yet Yu Cheng immediately saw its potential.
“The structure and style were already there, so all I had to do was come in, clear it up, touch it up, and convert it,” he said.
Initially, Yu Cheng wanted to establish a wine bar. However, he met owner of the popular Ipoh café Artisan Handmade Bread, Sam Lau, who has worked with Michelin star chefs including Gordon Ramsay. After a conversation with Yu Cheng, Sam offered to become Above Gastrobar’s consultant chef. Once on board, Sam greatly influenced the gastrobar’s menu and helped Yu Cheng navigate the food and beverage industry as a first-timer.
“After [Sam] came on board, I had a lot more confidence in focusing on food and using wine as a compliment. So instead of a wine bar, it became a gastrobar,” Yu Cheng said.
Yu Cheng’s friends from Trinity College and Foundation Studies, Edwin Yap and Jeremy Wong, also joined as his business partners.
“Having one another to sort of fall back on is a really good thing, and I think the friendships built at Trinity stand the test of time more than others,” Yu Cheng said.
In food terms, Above Gastrobar is all about Asian fusion, which Yu Cheng says is quite rare in Ipoh. The restaurant serves locally inspired dishes cooked using international techniques.
Every dish is served on a one-of-a-kind plate by Malaysian potter Sook Peng, as Yu Cheng likes how handmade plates have unique imperfections. To him, the plates are canvases that present something cultural and sustainable, and he hopes Sook will gain more recognition and appreciation through his support. Yu Cheng also plans to source vegetables from local farmers as his business model progresses.
Above Gastrobar had a successful grand opening in October, which even attracted interest from The New York Times.
“I have a very wise friend and his lesson to me was, ‘Whatever you are doing in this very second, focus on that and think about nothing else at the moment.’ It’s about just putting your heart into every single detail and thinking about it wholeheartedly,” Yu Cheng said.
“I have been applying this to Above Gastrobar and everything else in life.”
By Shamira Natanagara
This is an edited version of a profile that originally appeared on the Trinity College website. Shamira Natanagara is a current Media and Communications student at the University of Melbourne.