Everyone loves padang food, but it doesn’t get much respect. It’s seen as a cheap and cheerful meal, served up with a minimum of fuss. But
shouldn’t something as delicious as beef rendang, sate or gulai ayam be regarded with just a little more esteem?
Marco Lim certainly thinks so. This quiet and reserved 43-year-old native of West Sumatra, a father-of-three, decided when he was a young man that he would do all he could to elevate the Padang Peranakan cuisine he grew up with. He believed there was a place for Padang food in the world of fine dining. The result is a fast-growing chain of restaurants called Marco, the first of which opened in 2009.
These brightly painted, sparkling clean and inviting eateries are to be found in many of Jakarta’s upscale shopping malls, including Grand Indonesia, Plaza Indonesia, Pondok Indah Mall, Lotte Shopping Avenue and Pacific Place. The business now employs about 150 people – up from 20 seven years ago – and the near-term plan is to take the business regional, starting with a branch in Kuala Lumpur.
“Padang Peranakan is a combination of Sumatran and Chinese ingredients and cooking styles,” says Lim in an interview at his Grand Indonesia branch. “It’s a blend of cultures. This cuisine is different from other types of Padang food. It’s more colourful and the taste is softer, the spice is lighter. It’s comfort food at its best.
“My grandmother and my mother taught me to cook when I was 10 years old. They would let me come in the kitchen and help them with cutting onions and chilis, squeezing coconut milk. It became my hobby. I made my first meal for the family when I was 12. It was rendang, of course. My grandmother had the first taste and she liked it. But she noticed that it was a little different from her rendang. Even then I was improvising with ingredients to create new flavours!”
Lim did not go to chef school. “I’m an autodidact,” he grins. “I learned to cook by tasting dishes over and over again, and then trying to reproduce them. Once I had captured the taste, I would improvise and create my own version of the dish. I don’t know how many recipes I have collected, but there are about 80 main ones that I use in my restaurants.”
The restaurateur, whose brand is part of the Arya Noble group of businesses established by Ricardo Handoko in 1998, may not have attended chef school, but he has taught students the basics of Padang cuisine in Spain. This happened last year, when Lim accepted an invitation to attend a state banquet at the Indonesian Embassy in Madrid.
During his stay in the Spanish capital, Lim had the opportunity to be a guest lecturer to a group of young chefs. They enjoyed the session so much that three of them followed Lim back to Jakarta to take up one-month internships in his restaurants. Lim has become something of a food ambassador for Indonesia in recent years. The day after our interview, he was due to fly to Los Angeles to attend the Travel & Adventure Show at Los Angeles Convention Center, at the invitation of Minister of Tourism Arief Yahya.
The signature dishes at Marco include rendang, barramundi panggang pacak and gulai kambing muda. Lim’s rendang itam kayu bakar is cooked for eight hours in a wood-burning stove. The beef shank is stewed in coconut milk and cirik minyak (condensed burnt coconut oil), and mixed with herbs and ground curly red chili. His grilled barramundi is marinated in coconut milk with finely ground red chili, slices of turmeric leaf, lemongrass, tamarind, lime leaf and lime juice. His lamb ribs are special because they are cooked with his family’s curry sauce, one of his most prized recipes from home.
“There are 20 different spices in there,” he smiles. Why does Lim think his customers enjoy his food so much? “It’s all because I use authentic recipes from my family and from Padang,” he replies. “This food is halal and so it appeals to people from all backgrounds and of all ages. For those from West Sumatra, it’s nostalgic to come and eat at Marco.”