The first thing that strikes you about Pitaya Phanphensophon is his exceedingly friendly, confident and humble nature that belies his outstanding achievements as CEO of the renowned and much-loved Coca Restaurants.
With glass in hand, he warmly welcomed guests to the Coca Restaurant in Bangsar Shopping Centre mid last week, gently correcting those who greeted him as Chef, saying he was a “good cook, not a chef”.
The event was the re-launch of the Coca brand that made a place in our hearts over 25 years ago with their lip-smacking suki (hotpot), or steamboat as Malaysians were more accustomed to call it.
With a smile that never left his face and good humour to boot, Pitaya attended to the crowd, cracking jokes and graciously answering every menial question about his career and his craft, filling the evening with heartwarming tales of his childhood where his passion for cooking began.
Speaking about his kitchen skills, Pitaya says he learnt to cook from his parents, not at culinary school as many naturally assume.
He attributes his love for cooking to his mother in particular, who he says was his biggest inspiration.
“She always had a passion for cooking and because she was the eldest daughter in a Chinese family, it was her responsibility to make sure everyone in the family was well-fed.
“That to me is my greatest pleasure when cooking for my family too – when everybody enjoys the food,” he told FMT.
His dad Khun Srichai Phanphensophon and his mother Patama, were Chinese immigrants who opened their first restaurant in 1957 in Surawong, Thailand, launching the ‘suki’ trend there.
As a second generation business owner, Pitaya related how he was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but first stumbled onto cooking as a somewhat desperate 15-year-old, homesick and craving for rice while at a boarding school in Canada.
When his parents sent him a rice cooker, he cooked in secret, sharing the rice and Chinese sausages he prepared with friends.
Emboldened by how good it tasted, he experimented with other ingredients and flavours, slowly expanding his repertoire of culinary skills and relishing every moment of it.
Pitaya believes sitting down to a meal is more about just the food on the table or feeding your body with nutrients, but a social event. An opportunity to bring family or friends together over good food and great conversation.
“You should ‘prepare’ your food – you must know where your food is coming from, you have to know how to put it (the ingredients) together. But obviously, you have to have ‘heart’. You have got to have a heart for what you do.”
Pitaya recalls that one of the fondest memories of his career as a cook and business owner, was when a four-year-old girl, ran up to him excitedly saying, “I love your food so much!”
“I got goosebumps, hearing this from a little girl,” he said, adding that he was equally touched when years earlier during a food exhibition in Japan, a 19-year-old student, who read his Coca business card, exclaimed, “Wow, can I take a picture with you? I’ve been there and it’s lovely.”
Pitaya says running a chain of restaurants was tiring work but truly rewarding all the same.
“It’s a 24/7 job – you have to deal with staff, suppliers, complaints, customers, food, maintaining standards, but despite all that, I say, ‘Okay, this is my happiest moment’.”
Remaining grounded is important to him, he said, remembering his father words, “You don’t forget your roots.”
“As Chinese immigrants… 50-60 years ago, we were ‘aliens’ – you needed to prove yourself. Everybody needs to prove themselves.
“That’s when we learned to be humble, work hard and enjoy life,” he said, explaining that although his great, great grandfather was rich, the family lost all their wealth, but rebuilt themselves only to lose everything again during the Cultural Revolution in China.
Despite the rather high-profile life he now leads, Pitaya says he’s a “family man” at heart and has officially retired, spending his days instead training and inspiring his staff on how to excel at their jobs.
His daughter Natalia, who studied food science in the UK, is COO and Robin, another daughter is a lawyer turned farmer.
Growing some of the produce that Coca Restaurants use in their kitchens, even Robin has taken heed of her grandfather’s words of remembering her roots and has taken up “traditional farming” as opposed to modern methods that use pesticides and fertilisers.
“No chemicals, own compost, recycle as much as possible, back to nature, no cutting corners, no shortening time of harvest and such,” Pitaya said of his daughter’s farm.
“Like champagne – there are no short cuts.”
Venturing into another aspect of the hospitality business – Airbnb – Pitaya says nothing makes him happier than when guests have a satisfying stay at one of his properties.
He related how he let one guest stay as long as she wanted after her husband suffered a heart attack while on holiday. “That’s the right thing to do – it’s not always about the money.”
When asked if the kitchen could be one of the hardest places to earn a living considering that chefs often earn a pittance when they first start out, Pitaya said, “Not really. No.”
“Live the minimalist life. If you work and enjoy your work, there’s little that you need to buy or spend unwisely on.
“I would say, there’s no such thing as ‘too little pay’ – work honestly, work hard, pay attention to what you do, pay attention to your pay check.
“You don’t need a lot… if you can afford it, that’s different. Education is also important.”
Jannio Shun and Elizabeth Thea Lee are the new owners of the Coca franchise in Malaysia, after the brand’s absence of seven years.
Self-confessed foodies, both Shun and Lee have fond memories of Coca, having eaten there when growing up even dating there once before tying the knot.
“We’re both super excited about the opening and delighted the brand owners had the faith in us to do a great job and grow the brand in Malaysia,” Shun said.
Coca Restaurant is located on the 3rd Floor of Bangsar Shopping Centre. For reservations, call 03-2011 3575.