Deemed a foodie haven, Penang is one of the most popular travel destinations in Malaysia. In fact, the state’s Tourism and Creative Economy Committee reported that a total of 1,682,094 tourist arrivals were recorded for the first six months of 2023.
But nestled amongst all these local gems is somewhat of an outlier.
Instead of the Malaysian food that’s made Penang popular, SmokePapa BBQ is a Texan barbecue house with a slogan of, “Low and slow is what we do right here”.
And the man behind it is Hong, a former chef at Marina Bay Sands’ Spago Dining Room, one of Wolfgang Puck’s Singaporean eateries.
Fun fact: Wolfgang Puck is a famed chef and restaurateur that was pivotal in the rise of California’s cuisine during the late 1970s.
Collecting experience points abroad
After graduating with a diploma in culinary arts at Taylor’s University, Hong first worked at Starhill Mall in Bukit Bintang, KL. But half a year later, he figured that it wasn’t a sustainable career.
The expenses in KL were high and he couldn’t keep up with them. Especially since he had to live here alone while his family was back in Bukit Jelutong, Penang.
That’s when the stars aligned for him. Hong was offered a job in Singapore as a chef at Marriott Tang Plaza Singapore. The timing couldn’t have been any better.
So he packed up and went on a new venture in the neighbouring country. Some time later, he got to further hone his culinary skills in French and American cuisine at Spago Dining Room.
Little did he know, this would change the course of his life.
Ushering in new opportunities
Aside from being his workplace, Spago Dining Room was also where Hong met his Vietnamese now-wife and partner-in-crime, Jen.
It was their relationship and subsequent pregnancy that led Hong back to his hometown in Penang. “Singapore’s expenses were hard for new families, and at the time, I was only holding a work permit,” Hong confided.
This meant that Jen wouldn’t get to enjoy many medical perks awarded only to Singaporean citizens and the cost of settling down there was too great.
Hence, in 2017, the both of them moved back to Penang.
But there was just one problem—the salary difference he earned as a chef in Singapore and Malaysia was vast. And with a new baby son on the way, Hong wanted the freedom and time that being an entrepreneur entailed.
So he decided to start his own F&B business.
Going back to his roots
Originally, Hong shared that he wanted to open a semi fine dining restaurant. But after a failed partnership, that plan fell through.
Not one to give up, he tried again and realised there was one rather consistent interest of his, and that was barbecuing.
“I like to play with the flames, like to see fire burning,” the co-founder shared. “Whenever there’s a barbecue party, I’d always be at the pit grilling meat all the time. I guess it’s something that attracted me a lot.”
At that point, though, he wasn’t aware about Texas barbecue yet. He only knew about it while researching on social media, and what he saw intrigued the barbecue enthusiast in him.
Having not tried it himself, though, Hong took a trip down to Beard Brothers’ BBQ in KL to see what it was all about. Specifically, he had some beef briskets and short ribs.
And what he found amazed him. “No one did it yet in Penang, so I had to be the first one to do it,” Hong declared.
Taking his time to hone his craft
It took about a year to set up the business and Hong had to work a few jobs in the meantime to keep income flowing in. Despite the hardships, he was committed to making it work without the help of investors.
By November 2018, Hong and Jen opened up SmokePapa BBQ as a stall at the Sri Weld Food Court.
Personally, I found this rather odd as food courts typically house more localised food such as char kuey teow, roti canai, and the like. Sure, some also serve westernised food like chicken chop but nothing like a Texan barbecue spot.
To this, Hong explained that it was a way for him to test the market demand while not splurging too much. Not to mention that Hong himself wasn’t very familiar with cooking Texan barbecue yet at the time.
“Before this, I did a lot of stir frying and grilling. But this was out of my field. It took me about three months to learn to control the temperature and add the wood,” he shared.
For context, Texan barbecue uses a smoker where wood is used to slow cook the food until it’s tender and juicy. According to Hong, this method intensifies the flavour of the meat and marinade.
Growing at his own pace
With Texan cuisine not being very common in Malaysia, the couple had a hard time convincing people to try their food. Most didn’t understand it while others were confused by its burnt skin and pink meat.
Still, with persistence and strong will, they managed to grow a loyal customer base. All of which contributed to the business’s success and even allowed them to move to their own space in four years’ time.
There, they still serve house favourites like pork ribs that Hong highly recommends. Besides that, customers can also find sets of smoked meat like US Angus Brisket (RM73), Australian Lamb Shoulder (RM70), and sharing platters.
Regarding their son, he likens him to the brand’s one-man PR crew. “50% of customers that come would ask after him.” Hong noted. On the other hand, Jen is the boss and his key support system. “She’s my partner and without her, I wouldn’t have come this far.”
For now, the brand’s only physical store is in Georgetown, though Hong and his family plan to expand in the next few years. Afterwards, Hong hopes to also open his own fine dining restaurant to put his past culinary skills and experience to good use.
But until then, you’ll find him marinating and smoking meat at SmokePapa BBQ with his family in the background.
- Learn more about SmokePapa BBQ here.
- Read other articles we’ve written about Malaysian startups here.
Featured Image Credit: SmokePapa BBQ