From office worker to nasi lemak hawker: Phon’s doing it his way

Trading his business shirt for an apron, Phon Yung Hou now mans a hawker stall in Shangri-La Restaurant in Damansara Heights.

KUALA LUMPUR: It takes extraordinary courage to step away from the comforts of the corporate world and dedicate one’s self to the grime and heat of manning a hawker stall.

But as Phon Yung Hou figured, it’s always better trying your hand at something you are willing to commit to rather than spending a lifetime at a job you feel only so-so about.

Formerly an employee at a transportation company, Phon can now be found cooking up plate upon plate of roast pork nasi lemak at his Tokpork hawker stall in Shangri-La Restaurant, Plaza Batai in Damansara Heights.

At a time when established household names struggle to find someone to carry on their hawker businesses, this 24-year-old is quite the rare find.

Before he settled on a career in the highly competitive and somewhat unforgiving food industry, Phon’s path seemed pretty much the same as that of others of his generation.

After completing his A-levels and pre-university education, he decided to enter the working world rather than further his studies simply because of the financial constraints his family was facing.

Tokpork’s nasi lemak comes with pork slices, luncheon meat and curry potatoes along with the other standard ingredients.

It soon became clear however, that being trapped behind a desk was not the life he was hoping for.

Speaking to FMT Lifestyle, Phon said, “I realised my personality was not suited for office work.

“One thing I realised, when you don’t feel that passion in your soul, if you don’t believe wholeheartedly that this is what you want to do, and if you are not happy and you’re just doing it to please other people, that’s when you know you need to stop.”

However, it took some time to admit his disinterest in his work. But when he finally expressed his desire to start something of his own, his mentor, Leon Sing Foong (now the CEO of SoCar Malaysia), gave his wholehearted support.

Phon’s first business idea revolved around selling siew yuk (roast pork) to local bars. But after running into difficulties, he switched to Plan B.

Tok Bao Buns consist of a generous cut of Tokpork, cucumber, hoisin sauce and spring onions.

He still wanted to focus on roast pork, but this time, he came up with a different way to cook it; he steamed the meat first until tender, then fried it for a crisp finish.

This signalled the beginning of Phon’s signature pork which eventually gained the moniker Tokpork, which he explained comes from the sound made when chopping pork with a cleaver on a wooden board.

When he opened his nasi lemak stall last October, restaurant patrons were apprehensive about trying it at first.

“It’s only natural, but you have got to persist and stand your ground because people are always going to have opinions about things. They will tell you what can be done, what can’t be done.”

Phon lightly torches the meat to render a crispy layer of skin before placing thick slabs on his nasi lemak dish.

Interestingly enough, his biggest critics were his new colleagues, the other “older” hawkers in the restaurant who gave him constructive criticism whether he wanted it or not.

Given that he was a novice hawker, there were some predictable difficulties he was forced to face early on.

For starters, he found it tough staying committed to the gruelling work of manning a hawker stall in hot and humid conditions, but his amiable nature helped him to blend into the hawker scene eventually.

Working six days a week, Phon begins cooking his nasi lemak at 5am and making other preparations for the workday ahead.

Sundays too are very rarely “rest days” as he’s busy shopping for raw ingredients or making preparations for work the following week.

While currently unavailable, Tokpork Porridge will be making a comeback next season. Photo credit: Phon Yung Hou.

When asked why nasi lemak was his dish of choice, he replied, “Anywhere you go, mamak stalls, Petronas stations, 7-11 outlets, there is always nasi lemak being sold.

“Within a kilometre in any street, you will find one mak cik selling nasi lemak here, and another one at the other corner.”

“Everyone eats nasi lemak. Daytime, nighttime, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Anywhere you go, people will want nasi lemak.”

While some friends have remained befuddled by and lukewarm about his career change, his parents have been supportive of their younger son’s endeavours, and his mother continues to help him with some of the work, particularly the making of the sambal.

“I would recommend that young people stop thinking about what other people think about them,” Phon advises those considering striking out on their own.

“At the end of the day, you just have to not care. My advice to my peers is to focus on what you want and work towards it because life is a long game and you have got to take a long route there.”

Shangri-la Restaurant

Plaza Batai
6, Jalan Batai
Bukit Damansara
50490 Kuala Lumpur
Business hours: 7.30am – 2.00pm